BURLINGTON — Kesha Ram, a candidate for lieutenant governor, will be stepping down permanently from her job with the City of Burlington either at the end of this year or early next.
Rep. Ram, D-Burlington, has worked as a community engagement specialist for the city for the past three years, in addition to her duties as a state legislator. Ram was first elected to the Legislature in 2008.
The move has triggered a series of logistical issues for the city in trying to fill her role despite the uncertain resignation timeline. Ram plans to set that date with her employer soon.
Ram is formally kicking off her campaign this week. As her role as a city worker starts to fade away, leaders of the community-led governmental bodies — the nonpartisan Neighborhood Planning Assemblies — are left wondering if the formal access the neighborhood groups have to the city will dissolve as well.
When Ram spoke to steering committee members at the All-Wards NPA quarterly meeting last week, members were surprised by her intention to leave. Several city officials interviewed by VTDigger, including Mayor Miro Weinberger, also said Ram hadn’t yet formalized any intention to leave her job.
But the NPA members soon after had a request for Ram after she told them the news.
“Kesha, please, advocate for more time for the NPAs,” said Lea Terhune, a Ward 4 steering committee member, at a meeting Wednesday night of NPA leadership across the city’s eight defined wards. Members at the All-Wards NPA meeting, which was held at the CCTV offices in the North End, seemed caught off guard by Ram’s announcement, with several saying they had assumed her departure, which she’d announced in a closed listserv, to be a temporary leave.
Terhune said Ram was not available enough for community groups because the city cut back her hours.
“[Tell them] that you did not have enough time to give us,” Terhune said. And you were running yourself ragged because you were coming to our meetings – I know you were working more than 40 hours a week, so you’ve got to advocate that it was undoable for them to give you so little time for NPAs.”
Ram said she had less time in recent years than anyone in the job had before her.
“The NPAs are not the only community groups that I serve,” she said. “If you talk to a lot of the constituent groups in the city, they would also like more time with me.”
While Ram noted that the NPAs “have a somewhat unique role to play, in that they are a legislative body in the city,” it’s because of that special role that “this position has always had a tension in the city since I got here, as to how much time is devoted to the other groups.”
The work she does for NPAs includes assuring compliance with the Vermont Open Meeting Law, supporting and managing the agendas, helping with publicity, staffing boards and committees and organizing special events for the NPAs.
Ram has also been responsible for helping people with disabilities, youth, new Americans and communities of color. In addition to staffing the NPAs, she works with the mayor’s Youth Advisory Council, and the mayor’s Disability Advisory Committee, she said.
Only 25 percent of Ram’s time is devoted to helping NPAs. The previous specialist worked with NPAs 100 percent of the time.
Ward 6 steering committee member Charles Simpson, who felt Ram had been accessible and “did as good a job as she could,” said the NPAs nonetheless were struggling. “We certainly need some more resources,” he said.
NPAs hold monthly public meetings, with an additional steering committee meeting each month and various committees meeting, too. Members are unpaid. Yet topic-specific committees deal with pressing issues, while the NPAs, which are open to all community members, weigh in on citywide issues, maintain small budgets, draft laws, keep records and report to the City Council occasionally in an advisory capacity.
Laura Hale, executive director of Vermont Coalition of Clinics for the Uninsured, served in the role under Weinberger for five months, and that’s when it first went from a 100 percent to a 50 percent time commitment to NPAs.
“It was the mayor’s office and director of CEDO who went in and looked at the needs of the position, and it was changed,” said Marcy Esbjerg, assistant director of community development for CEDO, at the meeting. She oversees Ram’s division.
“I think it’s important to this administration and to the city to continue to engage many different populations,” Esbjerg said.
Two Jobs, Two Lives
Last year, Ram’s work as a politician in the Democratic Party collided with her role in city operations, as some complained that it conflicted with the part of the job that required her to help staff the nonpartisan NPAs.
While she was formally tasked with recruiting residents to participate in, and show up at, meetings for the newly formed Neighborhood Planning Assembly for Ward 8, many of them were likely to be college students, she also appeared to be conducting political work, trying to find possible Democratic candidates in the ward to run for City Council, the UVM student newspaper, the Vermont Cynic, first reported.
With the mayor’s guidance, she was hoping to find a challenger to the yet-unopposed Progressive City Council candidate in the district, Selena Colburn, the report said. At the time, Weinberger stated that the newness of the ward required a “need to organize it” and thus, a “special sort of situation … emerged.”
That special situation has reared its head again, but Weinberger said that Ram leaving her job wasn’t something the city had pushed for. He noted a city policy that specifically allows employees to stay in their job while running for office.
“But running for statewide office is a major commitment, it takes a lot of energy and time, and eventually running for statewide office will come into conflict with her duties that the city has hired her to perform,” he said.
Weinberger said he had not yet heard that she planned to leave, but understood why she would make that choice.
“I think we’re all seeing it significantly at that time when the Legislature restarts in Montpelier,” Weinberger said. “It’s sometime around that date when it’s going to become incompatible. It’s hard to see how she could reconcile all those things.”
He said he did not think the previous complaints about her drumming up support for the Democratic Party while also serving a role to support nonpartisan NPAs had any relevance on her current career move.
Working Diversity into Government
New Americans have benefited from Ram’s work, according to Yacouba Jacob Bogre, executive director for the Association of Africans Living in Vermont, a group that assists immigrant families in the Burlington area.
“I would say that this was the first time I got close to know what city government does, because she has taken a lot of time to reach out to our organization,” Bogre said. He said Ram helped recruit new Americans to join NPAs, to sit on committees in the community boards or for City Council and has educated the population about how to engage by attending city events.
Weinberger said Ram leads the call for doing city business differently, he said.
Ram has helped to strip away “institutional bias” from application forms and helped to educate departments about being more inclusive.
“We work hard to make sure there are people of color among the pool that’s considered; that is an explicit goal in the way it wasn’t before. We have to do protocols,” Weinberger said, and named three city agencies testing out a pilot of a “new framework that Kesha has created with the core team, a new framework for being disciplined and consistent about how we do public engagement.”
Weinberger gave Ram the title of public engagement specialist in November 2012 and she was charged with working on the mayor’s civic engagement priorities.
The mayor said her duties expanded largely to include on-site outreach in various places. “We have tried to better engage the public with Kesha’s role, instead of solely supporting the NPAs. And I think that’s very important and been a success,” he said.
Esbjerg said the NPAs have a long way to go on diversifying.
“Our city has become very diverse, and not every population will follow the structure of the Neighborhood Planning Assembly citizen engagement,” Esbjerg said. Do I think that we should do everything that we can to strengthen the NPAs and strengthen a broad community involvement through the NPAs? Absolutely, and I believe this position can do that and should do that. But I think the mayor’s focus is some of the unrecognized or lesser served, the disengaged populations.”
Terhune says the NPAs are in a different category. “I mean the NPAs are created by City Council to serve a specific function in each ward,” Terhune said. “They have an official role in the city that the other neighborhood groups don’t have.”
Bogre said Ram’s outreach work is pivotal to getting community members, like the ones his group serves, to even be involved.
“That is something we truly commend her for, taking time to explain what city government does,” he said. “If someone doesn’t take the time to explain how it works, or what would be the benefits, it’s very difficult to get them to participate.”
He added that one issue that remains is a lack of interpreters or translators at meetings to work with non-English language speakers on any kind of periodic basis.