The Burlington City Council agreed to allow Superintendent of Schools Yaw Obeng to continue living outside of the city — but not before reigniting a lengthy debate about residency requirements.
The council voted 9-3 to extend the residency exemption for Obeng, who settled in South Burlington from Canada when he took the job in 2015. This time the measure extends the residency exemption indefinitely — "as long as Dr. Obeng holds the position of superintendent," according to the resolution.
Some city department heads are required to be Burlington voters, which means they must live in the city. Obeng contended on Monday that his family's suburban setup met the requirements for a "hardship exemption" under city ordinance.
The first vote, when he took the job, triggered controversy as Burlingtonians argued that Obeng should be subject to the same taxes and policies he implements as superintendent. On Monday, some spoke up with similar concerns.
"Any decision he makes should affect his children as well as ours," Mayumi Cornell, a mother of a Burlington student, told the council. "I don't think that's fair."
When the city hired Obeng, then-school board chair Mark Porter wrote a letter to the city council assuring them that Obeng would move to the Queen City in the future. "Dr. Obeng intends to establish his residency in Burlington and to work assiduously on securing his work visa and U.S. Citizenship," Porter wrote in April 2015.
Councilor Joan Shannon (D-South District), who opposed the measure Monday, argued that Obeng did not fulfill the commitment promised in the original 2015 letter.
Obeng said that he did not know about the requirement, or about the email that Porter sent. "I beg your forgiveness around the order of operations," he said to the council.
Councilor Max Tracy (P-Ward 2) also voted against granting the exemption, saying that living in Burlington should not be considered a hardship but "a privilege." "I think there's something to be said for feeling our pleasure and our pain," he said.
Other councilors noted that Obeng's request is one of many such exemptions that the council has approved.
According to Councilor Brian Pine (P-Ward 3), nine of 21 city department heads — including outgoing Community and Economic Development Office director Noelle MacKay, Burlington Electric Department general manager Neale Lunderville and city planner David White — also live outside Burlington.
The mayor’s office on Tuesday issued a clarification to Pine’s comment, saying only 16 department heads are required to live in the city. Of those, five — including Obeng — have hardship exemptions to live elsewhere.
School board chair Clare Wool wrote a letter in support of Obeng's residency exemption, arguing that Obeng has "a sufficient connection to the community to be able to be fully aware of its needs and also to be rapidly responsive."
In the end, councilors emphasized the need to support the schools, especially to promote reconciliation in the weeks following an investigation into possible racism on the school board, a contentious preschool building plan and a nearly 8 percent budget increase that voters approved in March. Earlier this year, the council approved another three-year contract for Obeng.
"I strongly believe this would ... send us right back into turmoil and uncertainty," Councilor Jane Knodell (P-Central District) said of a vote against the exemption. "It would do nothing good."
Corrections, May 15, 2018: A previous version of this story did not accurately characterize Joan Shannon's objection and misstated the number of department heads that must live in the city.