Business & Economy

City Council terminates Burlington Aviation Director Gene Richards

Gene Richards, director of the Burlington International Airport, reacts after the Burlington City Council voted to terminate him on Thursday, September 9, 2021. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

The Burlington City Council has voted to terminate Aviation Director Gene Richards’ employment with the city. 

The decision was made in a 10-1 vote at the end of a six-hour meeting Thursday night, including more than 90 minutes of debate in executive session. Councilor ​​Ali Dieng, I-Ward 7, was the lone vote in Richards’ favor. Councilor Chip Mason, D-Ward 5, abstained. 

Reading from a statement after the vote, City Council President Max Tracy, P-Ward 2, said that councilors felt it was “untenable” to keep Richards employed with the city because his relationship had eroded with the mayor and his employees. They recognized the “gravity” of their decision, he said.

“We stand behind our city employees. We believe that our city should be a safe and positive workplace,” Tracy said.

Councilors recognize that the city’s processes governing this conflict are “broken and have let everyone down,” Tracy said. 

Richards, who has served the Burlington International Airport in its top role since 2012, refused Mayor Miro Weinberger’s requests last month to resign after an investigation conducted by labor relations attorney Anita Tinney found that he mistreated employees by berating them, screaming at them and using profanity. 

His refusal led to Thursday night’s City Council termination hearing. A two-thirds vote was needed to end Richards’ employment, meaning at least eight votes out of 12 councilors. 

At the meeting’s start, AFSCME Local 1343 union members lined the walls of the City Hall Contois Auditorium wearing matching union shirts. Most airport workers are part of the union, and the group has made it clear that Richards is no longer welcome by workers to continue leading the Burlington International Airport. 

During the 45 minutes each that was given to attorneys for Richards and the city — up from the 15 minutes that was planned, but less than the four hours Richards’ attorney had asked for — they painted conflicting pictures of the aviation director: a foul-mouthed boss who terrorized his employees or a loyal city worker taken down by faulty claims. 

“Leaders accept responsibility. They apologize for their mistakes, and then they learn from them,” city attorney Pietro Lynn said. “What Mr. Richards said was, ‘It’s not true.’” 

Attorney Rich Cassidy, who represented Richards, said the allegations against Richards do not accurately reflect his character, calling him a “good person with integrity” who has successfully operated the airport for years.

Richards himself also read out an apology.

“I am truly sorry for any offensive behavior,” Richards said. “Whatever happens this evening, please know that I have learned from my experience, and I am disappointed in my actions that have cast a negative spotlight on the airport.”

Lynn, of the Burlington law firm Lynn, Lynn, Blackman and Manitsky, focused his arguments on the violations of city policy that he said Richards committed through his treatment of city employees. 

City policy dictates that department heads must create a harmonious work environment and ensure that employees feel valued. Richards facilitated nothing of the sort, Lynn argued. 

He provided examples from the investigator’s findings: Richards allegedly called an employee “a son of a bitch” on multiple occasions, would say “I run this goddamn airport,” called employees “useless” and “ungrateful,” would refer to staff as “worthless pieces of shit,” and said he didn’t care if they got Covid-19.

(Another allegation of Richards’ inappropriate behavior surfaced hours before the meeting. Seven Days reported that a former airport employee sued Richards for workplace discrimination in March. Sheila Edwards, who held her position for 17 years, alleged that Richards bullied, humiliated and intimidated her out of her job.)

Lynn reminded councilors that the investigator interviewed Richards about the accusations. During the conversation, Richards admitted he was passionate about his work but said he never intended to harm employees, according to the investigation. Because every employee interviewed substantiated at least some of the accusations of employee mistreatment against Richards, the investigator did not find Richards’ denial to be credible. 

Lynn also pointed to Richards’ use of airport gasoline 59 times for his personal vehicle without prior approval from the mayor. Although the investigator found that this practice did not explicitly violate city policy, Lynn said it created a perception of impropriety — which Cassidy dismissed as a “cynical” complaint.

Cassidy continued to draw doubt about the credibility of the information in the investigator’s report that was presented to councilors. He said he has not received recordings, notes or other documents supporting the investigator’s findings. 

He said the report paints a picture that does not match Richards’ typical behavior and argued that anyone in a high-pressure managerial job has slipped when speaking to employees. 

Cassidy said Richards deserved an opportunity to reflect on and correct his behavior, pointing to a document in which Human Resources Director Kerin Durfee made a similar suggestion. 

Weinberger later said that document preceded the discovery of more egregious examples of Richards’ behavior, and it subsequently became clear that it would be inappropriate to allow Richards to return to the airport and potentially continue harming employees.

Still, Cassidy said the mayor did not allow Richards “restorative justice,” arguing that such an opportunity would be available for most city employees who make mistakes. 

During his statement to the council, Weinberger said he regretted that this process had to come to a termination hearing in front of the council and the public. 

“To put him back in a supervisory role would amount, I feel, to condoning the serious mistreatment of employees in the airport,” Weinberger said. 

Following the council’s vote, Richards said he supported the body’s decision. He said he wanted to receive “process” from the hearing, something he felt was missing from the investigation into his conduct. 

“I’m disappointed in the system,” he said. “But I hope we all learn from it, and it’s a better system moving forward.”

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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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