Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger has vetoed a Progressive-led proposal to create a new police oversight board, offering to rescind his decision only if city councilors agree to "find common ground" before Monday evening's council meeting.
The proposal sought to form an "independent community control board" with the authority to investigate and discipline cops for misconduct. The council passed the resolution on a 7-5 vote on December 14, intending to send the charter change to the Town Meeting Day ballot in March.
Instead, Weinberger kicked the measure back to the council without his approval. In a three-page memo issued on New Year's Eve, the mayor wrote that the proposal would dismantle the city's police department and "compromise the City’s ability to ensure public safety."
"I veto the Charter Change with great reluctance, because I agree that the current charter is problematic and there is urgency to amend it," Weinberger wrote. "If we cannot find consensus now and my veto is sustained, we must find other ways to make near term progress on the issue of police discipline."
The ballot item emerged after a year in which the nation grappled with racial justice and violence in policing. In Burlington, activists staged a monthlong protest this summer and demanded greater police oversight, pointing to the cases of three local cops who were accused of using excessive force, particularly against young Black men. The protesters argued that the punishments handed down by the chief — who, under the current charter, has the sole authority to discipline officers — were far too light.
In his memo, Weinberger said he agrees the chief should not have "near-absolute power." But the mayor argued that the council-passed proposal "appears designed to be hostile to police officers" and would further drive them out of the department. Burlington has lost nine officers since June, when the council voted to reduce the force from 90 to 74 cops through attrition.
Weinberger said the civilian-led oversight board would dissuade police recruits from joining the department, at a time when it lacks a permanent chief. He also criticized the proposal for not giving the mayor a bigger role in oversight, writing that the months of protests had made "very clear that the public holds the mayor accountable for police disciplinary decisions."
Weinberger wrote that he had contacted City Council President Max Tracy (P-Ward 2) — who is challenging Weinberger for mayor this March — with an offer to collaborate. If those talks fail, Weinberger said he would introduce a proposal to give investigatory authority to the city's existing Police Commission and would commit to forming a special committee to write a new oversight proposal for a special ballot this fall.
The council would need eight of 12 members to vote for a veto override, a tall task for the controversial proposal, which divided the body along party lines.
Tracy called Weinberger's veto "deeply disappointing" and lamented that it may bar voters from weighing in on an issue that has captivated public attention for months.
Tracy said he hopes to speak to Weinberger before Monday but that "there remain pretty fundamental differences" between the council's proposal and the mayor's vision for police reform. Under the council's plan, the police chief could make recommendations on discipline but the control board would have the final say. Weinberger's proposal would allow the chief to make disciplinary decisions, which could be overturned by the existing citizen police commission.
"The police cannot effectively police themselves, and so we need to create new structures for accountability," Tracy said, adding that police commissioners already have a lot of policy work on their plate.
"An independent oversight body vested with real disciplinary authority would be able to create an effective sense of accountability and therefore rebuild public trust," he said.
The veto is only Weinberger's second in his nearly nine years in office. In August, he shot down a council resolution to reinstate ranked-choice voting in Queen City elections, another Progressive-led effort. Councilors were unable to override the veto but later came forward with a scaled-back resolution that Weinberger let pass. That item also requires a charter change and will be on the March ballot.