Burlington City Council fails to override veto of new police oversight board

Burlington City Councilor Zoraya Hightower speaks at the Vermont Womxn & Femme March in Montpelier in October. At the City Council meeting Monday, she said she was frustrated a compromise over a ballot measure on a proposed police oversight board could not be reached with Mayor Miro Weinberger. Photo by Mike Dougherty/VTDigger

The Burlington City Council’s Progressive members made an unsuccessful attempt to overturn Mayor Miro Weinberger’s veto of a new police oversight board charter change that would have given the group investigatory and disciplinary power. 

The council also teed up a resolution that will allow voters on Town Meeting Day to choose whether recreational marijuana products can be sold in Burlington. The vote on the resolution was postponed to the council’s next meeting to make time for more discussion.

The City Council had passed the police board charter change at a Dec. 14 meeting. The change would establish a new independent community review board that reviews complaints leveled against police. The proposal garnered intense public comment — one council meeting was entirely dedicated to four hours of public input that largely focused on the oversight board. 

Weinberger vetoed the proposal on New Year’s Eve because he said it was “hostile” to the police department and would make it difficult for the department to recruit new hires at a time when the city faces a law enforcement staffing crisis spurred by new reforms. 

The mayor cited three other reasons for vetoing the charter change: the language was overly detailed and would be too difficult to revise; it didn’t involve the police chief enough in the board’s decision-making process; and it did not have a formalized commitment to fairness and impartiality. 

The veto override failed in a 7-5 vote. Eight votes would have been needed to reach the two-thirds majority needed to overturn a veto. The vote largely fell along party lines. All of the Progressive members of the council including Ali Dieng, I-Ward 7, who is often a swing vote, supported the override. Democratic Councilors Joan Shannon, South District, Franklin Paulino, North District, Karen Paul, Ward 6, Chip Mason, Ward 5, and Sarah Carpenter, Ward 4, voted against an override.

Members of the council and the mayor’s office attempted to negotiate a compromise over the weekend. Weinberger said that councilors had returned revisions of the proposal in an effort to negotiate. However, he said they “fell well short” of addressing his central concerns. 

Additionally, he said city lawyers have advised him that in order for the charter change to make it on the March 2 Town Meeting Day ballot, it could no longer be revised in time for legal review and continued public comment on the language. 

“It is very unfortunate that a clear opportunity for consensus and progress on this important policing and racial justice issue was missed,” Weinberger said.

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Progressive members of the council were exasperated that the proposal won’t move forward after hearing desperate pleas from supporters of the charter change that the city needs to hold the police more accountable. Democrats supported the premise to further racial justice but said the details of the proposal sank its chances for survival. 

Councilor Zoraya Hightower, P-Ward 1, expressed frustration over the failure to achieve a last-minute compromise with the mayor. She said the differences between the proposals were surmountable. 

The compromise proposals would have excluded the police chief from board discipline, required formal commitments from the board to fairness and impartiality, and allowed the administration make recommendations to the board. 

“I have to say that as the only black femme on this council,” she said, while holding back tears, “I am unsurprisingly bending over backward to make this proposal as palatable as possible to my fellow politicians and getting heat from both sides in order to get what we all know is a very real need in this community.” 

Councilor Jane Stromberg, P-Ward 8, said she was particularly concerned that Burlington residents wouldn’t be provided the opportunity to vote on the measure on Town Meeting Day. She described Weinberger’s veto as an “abuse of power.” 

Karen Paul, top center, and other Burlington City Council members listen to Mayor Miro Weinberger, right, at a council meeting in December 2019. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Paul said that she entered a “dark” space after originally voting against the proposal. She voted against the veto override Monday night. 

“As I said on December 14, that as much as I felt that there really needs to be badly needed reform, that I don’t think that this charter change is the path that I can support,” Paul said. 

Charter change language should be broad, she said. The proposal was too specific and could have locked the city into policy that is difficult to amend. 

Councilor Chip Mason said he is concerned the framework for the proposed board would accelerate police departures. 

“I have a hard time disregarding those warning bells that go off as we’re hearing — and I respect that some are calling it gaslighting — but very real concerns in terms of staffing,” Mason said. “We’re all getting the emails from constituents who, you know, don’t want to move to less than a 24/7 police presence.”

Marijuana marketplace for Burlington

This past legislative session, Vermont lawmakers passed Act 164, which allows marijuana to be sold legally in the state. The drug was legalized for possession and cultivation in 2018 by the Legislature, but no retail market was established.

The legislation requires that residents approve legal sales in each municipality. The ballot item faces easy passage in Burlington. In 2012, 70% of Burlington voters approved marijuana legalization in a citywide election. 

The Burlington resolution was postponed until the next meeting on Jan. 19. Councilor Jack Hanson, P-East District, one of the sponsors, said more time is needed to discuss licensing options for retail sales. 

Small growers have criticized the state law for giving large growers an advantage in the marketplace. Racial justice organizations have said it doesn’t rectify the past criminalization of marijuana, which has disproportionately affected people of color. 

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“We need to try to do anything that we can at the local level to go above and beyond in terms of equity,” Hanson said. “And this is an opportunity to do that. The state statute doesn’t actually give a ton of leeway to the municipalities in terms of regulation and policy around cannabis.”

The council also passed a resolution that places a question on the Town Meeting Day ballot pertaining to a charter change that would allow the city to track how much carbon is used by Burlington heating systems and potentially charge for usage in future.

The ballot question will ask voters whether carbon tracking should be used to create clean energy policies, programs and incentives that benefit racially diverse, low and moderate income, and disadvantaged residents.

In September 2019, the city council approved a net zero thermal emissions target by 2030. The charter change question is an extension of that commitment.

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Grace Elletson

About Grace

Grace Elletson is VTDigger's government accountability reporter, covering politics, state agencies and the Legislature. She is part of the BOLD Women's Leadership Network and a recent graduate of Ithaca College, where she was editor in chief of the Ithacan. She previously interned for the Chronicle of Higher Education, The Christian Science Monitor and The Cape Cod Times, her hometown newspaper.

Email: [email protected]

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