The Burlington City Council has voted to authorize a separation agreement with Burlington Police Officer Jason Bellavance.
Bellavance is one of three BPD officers accused of excessive force that protesters occupying Battery Park have been calling to be removed from the department for almost a month. The city cannot legally fire any of the officers — despite passionate calls from residents to do so — because the use of force incidents they were involved in were previously investigated and punishments doled out.
The council also passed a resolution to add a ranked choice voting question to the March Town Meeting Day ballot, an idea that Mayor Miro Weinberger vetoed when the council previously proposed to add it to the November ballot.
And, following a complaint filed by Seven Days that the council violated open meeting law at a Sept. 8 session, the council passed a resolution promising to fulfill requests made by the news organization to rectify the illegal action.
Separation agreement with Bellavance
The resolution authorizing Weinberger to enter into the agreement with Bellavance passed in a 11-1 vote. Councilor Ali Dieng, I-Ward 7, was the lone no vote.
Bellavance was previously suspended for pushing Jeremie Meli outside of a bar in September 2018. Meli hit his head and was knocked unconscious. A federal lawsuit in the incident is still pending against Bellavance.
The agreement would require Bellavance to resign Oct. 5. The agreement also awards Bellavance $300,000 — which the document states is approximate to three years of salary — three years of service credit toward retirement, and 18 months of health insurance coverage. It also covers Bellavance’s legal fees for the severance.
While the agreement with Bellavance references Cory Campbell and Joseph Corrow, the other two police officers who protesters are calling on the city to remove, Weinberger said he will not sign separation agreements with them. Weinberger said the actions of Campbell and Corrow did not violate use of force and training policies at the time of the incidents, which is why he does not support separation agreements for those officers.
During a September 2018 incident, Corrow tackled Mabior Jok to the ground, knocking him unconscious. In a March 2019 incident, Campbell punched Douglas Kilburn in the head, after Kilburn had allegedly punched Campbell. Kilburn later died from the injury.
Weinberger pointed to the findings of the BPD’s investigation that found that while Bellavance’s actions were not unlawful and did not violate use of force standards, they were unnecessary and inconsistent with de-escalation training he had received. He also said that Bellavance should be held to a higher standard as a leader in the department. Bellavance was a sergeant at the time.
“To pursue separation agreements under these circumstances would set an unmanageable precedent that would challenge the department for years to come by suggesting that future employment decisions will be decided not by fair deliberative processes that are clear to employees,” Weinberger said, “rather that those decisions will be subject to retroactive reopening by the passion of public opinion.”
No council member publicly contested Weinberger’s decision to enter into a separation agreement only with Bellavance. Prior to the discussion around the resolution, scores of Burlington residents called into the two-hour public comment period to continue their demands for the removal of all three officers.
Multiple council members pointed to this agreement as a positive step forward, but still not a win for Burlington residents who feel hurt by the city’s actions.
“I want to acknowledge that a buyout is not a firing,” said Councilor Jane Stromberg, P-Ward 8.
“This resolution is not resolution per se, but it’s a very, very important move at this time,” she said. “I will be supporting this resolution, but not because this is putting this issue to bed by any means. We have so much work to do.”
Dieng said he planned to vote against the resolution because it puts Burlington taxpayers at a disadvantage. He also criticized members of the council for not acting sooner to remove these officers.
“I do believe the resolution in front of us is putting the taxpayers of Burlington in jeopardy,” Dieng said. “This is not a call for justice. This is not solving the issue. And this issue could have been prevented a long time ago.”
Ranked voting resolution
In an effort to rectify concerns that the previously proposed ranked voting ballot initiative would be too costly and distracting to voters during a consequential November election, resolution co-sponsor Councilor Jack Hanson, P-East District, proposed some adjustments to a new proposal.
In the ranked choice voting system, voters rank candidates in order of preference, and if no candidate receives a majority of votes, the least-popular candidate is eliminated. Votes for that candidate are redistributed to the voter’s second choice, until one candidate receives a majority of the votes.
The measure was vetoed by Weinberger in early August, in the first veto of his tenure, out of concern that it would cost the city $45,000 to print a separate ballot for the measure. He also called the ballot question “divisive” and that it would distract the community during its pandemic response and a consequential general election.
So the resolution was revised to add the ranked voting question to Burlington’s March Town Meeting Day ballot. It would also apply only to City Council elections, in an effort to simplify options for voters. Previously the ranked choice voting question would apply to City Council, mayoral and school commissioner races.
“To jump to using all those three offices was maybe a big jump,” Hanson said. “And folks felt like it would be better to start off with City Council, and allow the community to experience this.”
Still, the idea drew ire from some Democrats. Councilor Karen Paul, D-Ward 6, said by just having the resolution apply to City Council may confuse voters even more.
“We would have City Council races that have one method of voting, we would have school board races that have a different method of voting,” Paul said. “And not to say that I think that voters can’t understand that there are two different methods, but I do think that it's a challenging way to run on our elections.”
The resolution ultimately passed in a 7-5 vote.
Open meeting violation
During a Sept. 8 meeting, the council entered into executive session to discuss personnel issues surrounding Bellavance, Campbell and Corrow. Battery Park protesters, who did not formally identify themselves, were invited into the meeting because they told councilors they had confidential information to share.
Seven Days filed a complaint, alleging that during that meeting “nothing presented publicly suggested that the protesters possessed any privileged information regarding the conduct of the three police officers,” which the news organization argues violates executive session rules.
According to Vermont law, executive sessions are limited to the public body, its staff, attorneys and “persons who are subjects of the discussion or whose information is needed.”
Because the council agreed it was in violation of the open meeting law, it now has to provide a “cure,” proposed in a resolution drafted by City Attorney Eileen Blackwood. This included detailing what was discussed during the session with the protesters and defining the titles and names of the protesters. The resolution passed unanimously.
Still, the council members were only going off their own recollections of the conversation and what the names of the attendees were. No formal minutes or notes were taken of the discussion. Councilor Joan Shannon, D-South District, said her notes didn’t save to her computer.
Councilors proceeded to discuss what they could remember of the conversation. They made clear no action had been taken on the conversation with the protesters and that no legal advice was given by Blackwood during the discussion.
“A theme of the whole night was safety and that these individuals are young people of color who were feeling exposed, very very exposed,” Stromberg said. “They felt that 110% what they were sharing was something that they didn't want to share in front of everyone, especially given their current location.”
Council President Max Tracy, P-Ward 2, also said he would organize an open meeting law training prior to the council’s next meeting to deepen their understanding of the statute.
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