A Burlington city councilor raised ethical concerns Wednesday over City Council President Jane Knodell's (P-Central District) direct communications with a former Burlington Telecom bidder.
Councilor Joan Shannon (D-South District) criticized Knodell for phone calls to ZRF Partners over the past weeks, which, she said, "wreak havoc on the process."
"Councilors should not be negotiating with anybody," she said. The council had hired the head of Dorman and Fawcett, Terry Dorman, as negotiator for a reason, Shannon said.
The criticism came as the two finalist bidders, Tucows and the co-op Keep BT Local, met Wednesday to try to hammer out a compromise proposal to buy Burlington Telecom. Monday, the council deadlocked in a 6-6 vote, and asked the two bidders to partner up. The two entities have until the end of the day Friday to put forward a joint proposal.
If they can't come to an agreement — or if the council doesn't support their agreement — two previously eliminated bidders, Schurz Communications and ZRF Partners, would be readmitted to the process.
Shannon also said Knodell's conversations with other bidders were part of a political charade by councilors who voted for Keep BT Local but now are backing off that support.
"President Knodell isn't exactly rooting for @KeepBTLocal & @TingBurlington to successfully negotiate," Shannon tweeted on Wednesday. "I hope KBTL supporters like Schurz because it looks like that's where we're headed."
Councilor Dave Hartnett (D-North District) agreed; he guessed that Schurz would win if given a second chance before the council.
Knodell acknowledged that she had several phone conversations with ZRF Partners over the last few weeks, but said she did not negotiate anything. "To characterize my conversations with anyone as negotiations is absolutely wrong and baseless," she said. "The council has been very divided. I felt it was prudent to keep our options open."
Hartnett said he supported Knodell's communications, saying that it was the only way to ensure that the process the council voted on Monday was followed. "I think the council's lost trust in the format of Terry Dorman and the administration" as negotiators, he said.
Councilor Kurt Wright (R-Ward 4) also reached out to Schurz, he said, and on Wednesday, he defended those calls. "Obviously we should not be negotiating, but it's important to be prepared, because we know there's a timeline," Wright said. "If we sprung it on them, then we'd be getting criticism of, how are we going to do this on the tight timeline?"
"I think we should stay on the high road here," Wright added, urging councilors to focus on the negotiations at hand.
While communications with bidders without council approval do not explicitly violate council rules, they obscure a process meant to take place in the public eye, Shannon said. Knodell had not told the council about her communications, Shannon added.
In an interview last Friday, Mayor Miro Weinberger also said that he had discouraged councilors from reaching out to bidders. "That's not something I support," he said.
On Wednesday, councilors all around were quick to fling barbs. Knodell said she was "disappointed in Councilor Shannon's remarks."
Hartnett, too, was quick to lambast Weinberger's lack of transparency throughout the process.
"If people want to know why we're at where we're at, it's because of the mayor and what's he been doing," Hartnett said. "Quite honestly, it's been a wreck."
None of the councilors who spoke to Seven Days said they had heard updates on the negotiations between Tucows and KBTL. That's the way it should stay, Knodell said. "I'm hoping that councilors and the mayor will let the parties negotiate freely without interference," she said.