In a move to appease protesters camped out at Battery Park, the Burlington City Council agreed on Monday to offer a $300,000 buyout to Sgt. Jason Bellavance, one of three cops accused of using excessive force in recent high-profile cases.
Later in the meeting, councilors also backed a proposal to reexamine ranked choice voting and took actions to correct the body's violation of the open meeting law earlier this month.
Cosponsored by councilors Jack Hanson (P-East District) and Franklin Paulino (D-North District), the police resolution calls for Bellavance to resign by October 5. The agreement offers the sergeant 18 months of health care coverage, legal fees to cover his review of the agreement and "releases of claims," it says.
The city will also continue to contribute to Bellavance's pension for three years. In exchange, the sergeant has agreed to not seek employment at any Chittenden County police department for three years, his attorney, John Franco, told Seven Days on Tuesday morning.
The city is finalizing the deal with Bellavance, but the sides have essentially agreed to the terms laid out in the resolution, a mayoral spokesperson said.
Councilors passed the measure 11 to 1. Councilor Ali Dieng (I-Ward 7) cast the lone no vote, saying it will put "the taxpayers of Burlington in jeopardy."
Mayor Miro Weinberger said he supports the agreement with Bellavance but will not pursue separations with officers Cory Campbell or Joseph Corrow, the two other cops whose conduct has spurred nightly protests at City Hall and Battery Park for nearly a month.
Councilor Zoraya Hightower (P-Ward 1) acknowledged that the resolution doesn't meet the protesters' demands that all three officers be fired.
"It's not the outcome that anybody wants to see in its entirety, but I hope that this is the start of the city taking responsibility for not ... aligning our policies with our values in a timely fashion, for not acting boldly when we should have," she said.
The conduct in question dates back to the fall of 2018, when Bellavance and Corrow knocked two Black men unconscious in separate incidents downtown. Bellavance had responded to a fight, and a bar employee pointed to Jérémie Meli, a Congolese refugee, as the aggressor. Without warning, Bellavance approached Meli, shoved him into a wall and knocked him out cold. The night before, Corrow had a similar interaction with Mabior Jok. Both Meli and Jok have sued in federal court.
In spring 2019, Campbell slugged Douglas Kilburn, a disabled white man, in a scuffle outside the University of Vermont Medical Center. Kilburn died days later, his death ruled a homicide.
After the incidents came to light more than a year ago, activists had demanded that all three officers be fired. But the cries for local action grew louder after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May and the police shooting of Jacob Blake in Wisconsin last month.
The demonstrators have vowed to occupy the park until all three officers are fired. They've dialed into city council meetings by the hundreds, testifying that keeping the officers on the force upholds systemic racism in the Queen City.
Officials have argued that the officers can't be fired because their cases have already been adjudicated: Bellavance was suspended for weeks without pay, but Corrow was not disciplined. Campbell was reprimanded for using foul language.
Of the three officers, Weinberger said Monday night, only Bellavance was found to have violated the department's use-of-force policy. The mayor said Bellavance, on the force since 2011, was trained to deescalate situations but did not in the Meli case.
"He was in a leadership position where the officers under his command were looking to him to model what was expected of them," Weinberger said. "We must apply a higher standard to our leaders."
Protesters lining Pearl Street in downtown Burlington at a recent march
Extending buyouts to Campbell and Corrow would set a dangerous precedent that "the passions of public opinion" could dictate the reopening of future city employment decisions instead of using "fair, deliberative processes," Weinberger said. He noted that the officers have only served for a few years and deserve another chance to prove themselves. Corrow was hired in 2014, Campbell in 2016.
Franco said that the agreement is a compromise between the city and his client. The $300,000 payout — about three years of Bellavance's salary — is only a fraction of what the officer would have earned if he'd worked until retirement age, the attorney said.
The city's Retirement Board must approve the deal before it's finalized.
Councilor Chip Mason (D-Ward 5) said the resolution resolves the policing issue "within our legal and contractual rights."
"This is what we can do looking backward. Let's now direct our energy into looking forward and invite the protesters and those who are concerned about doing the right thing into that process," he said. "I'm hopeful that with this, we as a body can start to move forward and do the hard work."
For Councilor Paulino, that means confronting systemic racism and ensuring "equal treatment for Burlingtonians." He added that the separation agreement is "the best possible outcome" of a long deliberative process.
"I think it should bring closure to many," he said.
Councilor Joan Shannon (D-South District) said the fight for racial justice does not end with approving the buyout.
"This issue isn't limited to policing. It's simply a fact that as white people, we have benefited from racism for generations, and we need to start facing that," she said. "We need to start addressing that in really deep and meaningful ways."
Later in the meeting, councilors voted 7 to 5 to forward a proposal to bring ranked choice voting back to the ballot. Councilors Dieng, Mason, Paulino, Sarah Carpenter (D-Ward 4) and Karen Paul (D-Ward 6) all voted no.
The latest effort does just that. The resolution changes the voting method for only city council races, where the previous one had applied to council, mayoral and school board elections. Councilor Hanson, the resolutions' sponsor, acknowledged that some Burlingtonians want to see how ranked choice voting works before expanding it further.
"Given the veto and given the partisan split on the council on the issue, I thought it was important to bring more folks in," Hanson told Seven Days earlier this month.
Ranked choice voting would let voters rank candidates in order of preference. If none receives a majority of the vote, the race goes to an instant runoff. In each round, the person with the fewest votes would be eliminated, and all votes would be assigned to a voter's top remaining candidate. The process would continue until only two candidates remain, and the candidate with more votes wins. Burlington's current system only requires a 40 percent plurality to win.
The council will host public hearings on the matter before taking a final vote on whether to place the question on the March 2021 ballot. If voters approve it in March, the charter change goes to Montpelier, where the legislature must approve it, a process that can be lengthy.
In voting no, Councilor Mason said he wasn't convinced that ranked choice voting is a more democratic system. Burlington used the method from 2005 to 2010.
"Voters are not paying attention to this. They are focused on other issues that are on our forefront," he said. "I don't think it's rushed, I just think it's a bad idea."
In closing the meeting, the council adopted a slate of recommendations from City Attorney Eileen Blackwood that could help avoid another violation of Vermont's open meeting laws.
Monday night, the council agreed to not invite members of the public into executive session "unless the Council knows ahead of time that they have information that cannot be publicly shared or they are directly involved in the matter being discussed."
Councilors also agreed to be more specific in explaining why they need to deliberate in private. Going forward, they will reference the specific section of law that allows for an executive session; explain why discussing the topic in public would put the city at a "substantial disadvantage"; and state the names and position of each person attending that portion of the meeting. If the invitee isn't a city employee or consultant, councilors will explain why that person is invited.
The council also agreed to Seven Days' request to undergo a training on the open meeting law. The Vermont Press Association has offered to facilitate that training, which could occur as soon as the council's next meeting in two weeks.