Politics

Burlington officials to investigate sex assault allegation against city councilor

Jack Hanson arrives at the Progressives’ results viewing party in Burlington on Tuesday, March 5, 2019, when he was elected to the city council. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Burlington officials say they’re committed to investigating a sexual assault allegation leveled against City Councilor Jack Hanson, P-East District. 

City Council President Max Tracy, P-Ward 2, and Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger are in agreement that the allegation against Hanson needs to be investigated. But some city councilors are raising questions about whether it’s the city’s responsibility to investigate an incident that occurred in 2017, while Hanson was not a city employee. 

In an email sent to all city councilors and local news reporters, a group is also calling on Hanson to resign.

“We are anonymous because we can’t trust people in power not to discredit and abuse victims and their allies,” the email stated. “This is our message: Jack Hanson must resign immediately, and we are calling on you to demand him to.” 

Hanson told VTDigger Wednesday he has no plans to resign. 

Instagram user @zanevia.wilc posted the sexual assault allegation on behalf of the person who had the alleged nonconsensual encounter with Hanson. In the anonymous post, the person claimed the assault happened in 2017 while working as a canvasser at the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group.

The author of the post described Hanson as their boss — he was one of 10 directors with VPIRG that summer. The person said they agreed to become physical with Hanson after a party, at a time when the person was inebriated and “very very vulnerable.” The person said they felt pressured into the interaction because Hanson was their supervisor. The day after, the person said Hanson asked them not to tell anyone about the interaction. 

“So we ‘hooked up’. As in, he assaulted me,” they wrote. “Maybe I went along with us, but under the context, who could blame me?” 

In the post, the person also asked that Hanson step down from the city council. “I believe he should step down from city council, as people who abuse power should not be in positions of power,” they wrote. 

In a Facebook post, Hanson corroborated the interaction but denied there was sexual assault. He said he and the person both established consent and were physical, but they did not have sex. 

He added that his supervisor at VPIRG knew about the interaction and questioned Hanson about it. Hanson said he did not face any disciplinary action. 

“I’ve worked hard to take accountability for engaging in sexual activity in a scenario in which a power dynamic existed between my coworker and myself, and I recognize how that power dynamic colored my request to not discuss the encounter broadly with other coworkers,” he wrote in the post. 

He also said in the post that he supports an investigation into the allegation. In a text message to VTDigger Wednesday, he said he doesn’t think he should be the one to say whether it should be led by the city or not. He also confirmed that he will not be resigning. 

Investigation: city-led, third party, or not at all? 

Tracy said he was “deeply concerned” when he heard about the allegation. 

After Monday night’s council meeting, where a small group of people had protested Hanson and, at the public comment session, urged the council to hold him accountable, Tracy said he pulled Weinberger aside and asked him to consider a city-led investigation into the allegation, conducted by an independent party.

He said the mayor told him he was open to the idea. In a statement provided to VTDigger Wednesday, Weinberger said he and Tracy were working out a plan to investigate. The process and funding source for the investigation has not yet been nailed down. 

“Survivors should be heard, believed, and protected,” Weinberger said. “In service of these goals, President Tracy and I are in agreement that the allegations against Councilor Jack Hansons [sic] should be fully investigated and are working quickly on a plan.

Because Hanson is “technically” a city employee and receives compensation from the city, Tracy said, he thinks Hanson should be held accountable by the local government. He still supports a city investigation even though Hanson was not being compensated by the city at the time of the incident. 

“I take the allegations seriously,” Tracy said. “And I think it merits a full investigation.” 

Councilor Joan Shannon, D-South District, does not support a city-led investigation into the allegation against Hanson. 

“I believe this woman. Her story and her experience are meaningful. She should be respected in this process,” Shannon said. “I don’t believe that taxpayer money should be spent investigating an anonymous Instagram post.” 

She questioned what benefit an investigation would bring. Typically, when a city employee is investigated for an indiscretion, an investigation would determine if their employment should be terminated. But Hanson is not a city employee, Shannon said; he’s a local politician elected by citizens. 

“If people want to call on Jack to resign because of it, that’s fine,” Shannon said. “If you’re going to be spending taxpayer dollars on something, it should be something that affects the city.” 

She said the allegation is a criminal allegation, and thinks it should be handled by the police. Burlington Police Chief Jon Murad did not respond to a VTDigger inquiry about whether any crime allegedly involving Hanson had been reported. 

Councilor Jane Stromberg, P-Ward 8, said she supports an investigation into the Hanson allegation, preferably by a third party, beyond city control and potential political influence, and she’d like to avoid spending taxpayer money. But, if a city-led investigation is the only option, she would support it. 

She said residents are upset by the allegation and would support funding an investigation with their taxpayer dollars. She said she also recognizes that endorsing this investigation may set a concerning precedent for the city — that every accusation against a councilor warrants an inquest.

“So then, going forward, do we put it on the taxpayers to investigate every councilor for everything, for any type of allegation?” Stromberg said. 

Stromberg also worked for VPIRG in 2017 as a field manager at the time when Hanson was a director. She said she heard about the physical interaction he had with the VPIRG canvasser from the accuser themselves. Stromberg said at the time, they did not characterize the physical intimacy as sexual assault. 

“What I was told at the time did not raise any red flags to me except for the fact that they were in a subordinate position in comparison to him,” Stromberg said. “That’s obviously not appropriate. But that aspect of it, while very negative, is separate and apart from sexual assault.” 

Calling on Hanson to resign

The group that sent the email to councilors and local media calling on Hanson to resign did not respond to a VTDigger request for comment. The message stated that the group plans to protest at the next city council meeting, scheduled for early August. 

The email encouraged councilors to focus on the facts of the interaction that Hanson didn’t contest: He physically engaged with a staff member who was a subordinate to him, creating an unfair power dynamic. 

“As a boss, you ordered them to keep their mouth shut, you brushed it under the rug, and you greedily sought more power,” the email stated. “We don’t need an investigation where we revictimize your victim, intimidate her into not cooperating, and help you do a coverup. Your own statements already mean the only right thing for you to do is resign.” 

The email also criticized Stromberg for “downplaying” the accuser’s allegation, stating that sometimes it takes victims years to “tell the truth about a powerful predator.” The email’s author also criticized Councilor Perri Freeman, P-Central District, for introducing a resolution to protect sex workers in the city while not publicly holding Hanson accountable. The email also called on Tracy to hold Hanson accountable. 

“We will not stop until Jack Hason [sic] resigns from the city council,” the email stated.

VPIRG: ‘We deeply regret any sense of harm’

VPIRG issued a statement about the allegation, stating that the organization takes the situation seriously and “we deeply regret any sense of harm” that the accuser may have experienced while working as a canvasser. 

It said the organization did not receive a complaint about the incident at the time, but did take steps to improve office culture. 

VPIRG instituted a diversity and inclusion initiative, personnel policies are continually updated to protect employees with marginalized identities, nondiscrimination and harassment policies have been expanded, and it established a more robust incident reporting system. 

It also instituted a fraternization policy, which prohibits directors from having any sexual or flirtatious relationships with subordinate employees. 

“If an investigation is initiated now by an independent entity with authority, we encourage current and former VPIRG staff with pertinent information to share what they know while maintaining appropriate confidentiality toward all parties involved,” the statement read. 

Liz Edsell, VPIRG associate director, confirmed to VTDigger that the organization will not conduct its own investigation into the allegation, since neither Hanson nor the accuser currently work for the advocacy group or have requested an investigation. 

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the City Council district represented by Max Tracy. It is Ward 2. The story was also clarified to more precisely describe the VPIRG canvasser’s working relationship with Jack Hanson.

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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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