After a protracted debate over procedure, the Burlington City Council on Monday voted to postpone deliberations on a handful of proposed charter changes until a special meeting next week.
The council instead heard hours of public comment, mostly on the proposal to create an "independent community control board" that would investigate police misconduct and have the power to suspend, demote or fire officers, including the chief of police.
The decision to postpone deliberations puts more pressure on councilors to vote on the charter change proposals by December 21, the deadline to get them on the March ballot.
More than 130 people had signed up for public forum before the meeting started at 7 p.m. Councilor Perri Freeman (P-Central District), who sponsored the police control board resolution, moved to extend public forum past the 9:30 p.m. stop time so that every person in the queue could speak.
Councilors soon realized, though, that the meeting would adjourn well past 11 p.m. if speakers each used their allotted two minutes. Councilor Jack Hanson (P-East District) suggested limiting comments to one minute so that councilors could at least begin to discuss the charter changes.
"It was really problematic that we waited all the way until the deadline day to try to deal with an intense budget and try to make changes," Hanson said, referring to the council's last-minute budget vote in June. "I don't want to get stuck in the same position."
After more than 30 minutes of discussion, councilors agreed to end public forum at 11 p.m. and recess deliberations until December 14, a vote that wasn't well received by some callers.
The robust public forum "should be an indication of how important this is," Jadah Bearden told councilors. "The fact that there was any conversation about possibly not hearing the people when this is a people-centered, people-oriented council is absolutely trash. Do better."
Dozens of other callers urged councilors to support the proposal, which was born from a summer of protests in which activists camped out at Battery Park to demand justice for people of color harmed by police.
"We are tired. We're exhausted. We continue to turn out in massive numbers to show you we just want to be treated differently," Ashley Laporte said. "We are owed a new system of public safety."
Around 11 p.m., with some 50 people yet to speak, councilors voted to allow all in the queue to say their piece and extended the meeting.
Callers said that the police can't police themselves. They argued that the city’s existing police commission is toothless since its members can’t directly discipline cops; they can only recommend the chief impose certain punishments.
The control board would be able to hold disciplinary hearings and issue final decisions on officer discipline. An “investigative office,” staffed by a director, would be able to subpoena witnesses, interview officers who use deadly force within 48 hours of an incident and access crime scenes, among other powers.
The board would consist of seven members, including people of color, folks who have experienced challenges such as substance use or homelessness, and employees of organizations that advocate for civil liberties, LGBTQ rights and other social justice causes.
"We just want justice, and we need to give some balance to the power if we want to prevent, in the future, police brutality," Jorge Rios said.
"We need a mechanism of harm reduction, and that is what's on the table with this charter change," William Dunkley said.
The proposal has already garnered some skepticism from members of the police commission. In a memo to councilors, they suggested that the police commission be expanded in lieu of creating an entirely new board.
They also questioned whether the control board should have as much disciplinary power. As proposed, the board would make “disciplinary decisions in isolation from the police department … with no consultation,” the memo says.
Commissioners also warned that the police union would likely sue if the ballot item were to pass. They recommended that the council have an outfit such as the National Association for Civilian Oversight of Law Enforcement review the proposal before it goes on the ballot in March.
At next week's special meeting, the council will also discuss other proposed charter changes, including one that would prevent landlords from evicting tenants without a "just cause" and another that would add a Burlington Airport Commission seat for a Winooski resident. A thirdwould allow the city to regulate home and commercial heating systems, including by taxing greenhouse gas emissions.
The charter changes — should they make it on the ballot and pass — would then also be reviewed by the governor and Vermont legislature.
Watch full video of the meeting below, courtesy of Channel 17: