Business & Economy

Burlington councilors divided on whether airport director should resign or get second chance

Gene Richards
Gene Richards on May 29, 2019. File photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

Some Burlington City Council members appear divided over whether Burlington’s aviation director, Gene Richards, should remain in his role after Mayor Miro Weinberger asked for his resignation

The mayor asked Richards to resign last week, following an independent investigation that found Richards exhibited inappropriate behavior toward employees and allegedly violated city policy while leading the Burlington International Airport. 

But Richards refused to step down. Now, the fate of his future employment lies with the 12-member city council, which is scheduled to hold a termination hearing Sept. 9. It would take a two-thirds vote to remove Richards from his position. 

Some city councilors told VTDigger on Tuesday that Richards is no longer fit to lead, while one argued he deserves a second chance.  

In a press release sent to media Tuesday, the leaders of the AFSCME Local 1343 union urged city councilors to vote next week to terminate Richards. They also said that airport employees had been complaining about Richards’ behavior to the city for the past three years. 

“AFSCME 1343 appreciates the mayor’s commitment to a zero tolerance of abusive behavior in the workplace,” the union’s release stated. 

The investigation into Richards began in late June after a Federal Aviation Administration employee reported Richards was seen fueling his personal vehicle at an airport gasoline pump. Through subsequent interviews with employees, complaints about Richards’ mistreatment of staff were uncovered, according to a press release from the mayor’s office.

Samantha Sheehan, Weinberger’s spokesperson, said in an email to VTDigger that the mayor became aware of Richards’ inappropriate behavior toward employees in the course of the most recent investigation and took “swift action.” 

“Past grievances from the union filed prior to Mr. Richards’ administrative leave were fully adjudicated, and had no bearing on the mayor’s disciplinary decision,” she said. 

The report, released to the public on Friday, found that Richards regularly humiliated employees, screamed at them and used profanity at work. It found that he would sometimes physically intimidate employees by banging his fists on a table and telling them that they were “disposable,” among other disparaging remarks.

The mayor’s office also found that Richards “created the appearance of misuse” of city resources by using the airport gasoline pump to fuel his personal vehicle. 

Richards told VTDigger on Friday that, while he is “passionate” about his work, he would never intentionally harm an employee. He also said he thought he had the authority, as the head of the airport, to use the gasoline pump, which he said was used only for work travel. 

He said he’s refusing to resign because he has concerns about the transparency of the investigation process. 

Councilor Jane Stromberg, P-Ward 8, described Richards’ refusal to resign as an “adult temper tantrum” and said it shows an unwillingness to take accountability for his actions. 

Stromberg said the report carries credibility, as allegations about Richards’ behavior were corroborated by multiple airport employees. She said she plans to vote next week to terminate his employment.

“It’s really disappointing and disheartening to see that somebody that the community has embraced for almost a decade isn’t taking accountability for any of this,” Stromberg said. 

The Sept. 9 termination hearing is set to be the first for Councilor Joe Magee, P-Ward 3, who won a special election for the seat Aug. 17. 

Magee said they plan to vote for Richards’ termination. 

“I think (the report) paints a pretty clear picture of a hostile work environment,” Magee said. “The mayor was right to ask for Richards’ resignation.”

Councilor Ali Dieng, I-Ward 7, said he’s not planning to vote for Richards’ termination. The report’s findings concerned him, Dieng said, but he thinks Richards should get an opportunity to correct his behavior, given his successes in leading the airport. 

Richards has held his position since 2012. He’s overseen expansions of the airport’s terminal, improvements in the airport’s credit rating and increased passenger growth before the Covid-19 pandemic — all achievements Dieng thinks Richards deserves credit for. 

This should count as Richards’ first strike, Dieng said. If issues persist at the airport, Richards should then be terminated, he said. 

“I do definitely think that putting him out, for someone who has done so much great work, we are doing a disservice to him,” Dieng said.

Some councilors say they’re still undecided. 

Councilor Sarah Carpenter, D-Ward 4, said she doesn’t know how she’ll vote yet. She wants to hear more information at the meeting. 

“I do think it’s important for the mayor to have confidence in his management team,” Carpenter said. “But I also want to hear what everybody has to say.” 

City Council President Max Tracy, P-Ward 2, said he thinks the report’s findings are “really serious” and the “right path is to seek a termination hearing.” As the facilitator of the meeting, he declined to disclose his current voting plan to preserve the impartiality of the proceedings. 

He said the council is still determining the format for the hearing, but Richards and Weinberger’s office would both have space to make their case to the City Council. 

The other city councilors did not respond to requests for comment from VTDigger.

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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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