Burlington Councilors Fail to Override Mayor's Veto of Police Oversight Proposal | Off Message

Burlington Councilors Fail to Override Mayor's Veto of Police Oversight Proposal


Racial justice protesters in downtown Burlington - FILE: JAMES BUCK
  • File: James Buck
  • Racial justice protesters in downtown Burlington
Burlington city councilors on Monday failed to override Mayor Miro Weinberger's veto of a proposal to create a new citizen board that would investigate and discipline police for misconduct.

The 7-5 tally was one vote short of the eight needed to overturn the mayoral decision. The result was identical to last month's council vote on the original proposal, with Councilor Ali Dieng (I-Ward 7) joining all six council Progressives in support of an override.
None of the five Democrats flipped, despite pleas from dozens of callers during public forum who urged them to reconsider.

"Even for those of us who are going to be voting to sustain the veto, it's with a very heavy heart," Councilor Chip Mason (D-Ward 5) said during the virtual council meeting. "I think everyone that I'm seeing on the screen right now supports a civilian oversight body."

But the political parties were unable to reconcile their differences on the proposed "independent community control board," a seven-member body that would have had the power to demote, suspend or fire police officers, including the chief. After council approval on December 14, the proposal, which would have changed the city's charter, had been headed for the Town Meeting Day ballot in March.

Weinberger vetoed the measure last Thursday,  writing in a memo that the control board would be "hostile to police" and would drive cops from the department. Nine officers have already left since June, when the council voted to reduce the police force through attrition. Acting Police Chief Jon Murad has warned that more will be headed for the door in the coming months.

The mayor offered to rescind his veto if councilors could compromise before Monday's meeting, and he met with several council Progressives on Sunday. Weinberger said he left a 90-minute negotiation session feeling optimistic that they'd find common ground.

But when councilors submitted a new draft on Monday afternoon, their concessions didn't go far enough, Weinberger said. The councilors' proposal was not made public, but Councilor Zoraya Hightower (P-Ward 1) said it attempted to address Weinberger's desire to give the police chief and mayor larger roles in disciplinary decisions, and to set standards by which the control board would judge police misconduct.

Under the current charter, only the police chief can discipline officers. The council proposal turned that power dynamic on its head, giving final say in disciplinary matters to the new control board. Weinberger had proposed allowing the chief to make disciplinary decisions that could be overturned by the city's existing citizen police commission.

"It is very unfortunate that a clear opportunity for consensus and progress on this important policing and racial justice issue was missed," Weinberger said. He has offered to convene a special committee to craft a new ballot item for a special election this fall.

But Progressive councilors and members of the public said the city has discussed the issue for far too long without taking action — particularly after a summer of protests that included demands for greater oversight of police in light of several incidents involving force. They chided Weinberger for preventing them from voting on the issue at the ballot box.

"This is a very special type of abuse of power," Councilor Jane Stromberg (P-Ward 8) said. "Watching that happen in real time is just very disheartening."

Activist Ashley Laporte agreed. "The fact is that the people are speaking, and the mayor is willing to silence us to defend the status quo," she said.

Sensing how the vote would turn out, Councilor Perri Freeman (P-Central District) suggested that the council regroup and find the best way to support the city's Black, Indigenous and other people of color.

"I just don't want us to get so mired in the politics of this that we lose sight of actually making transformative change," Freeman said. "I hope we continue to work through this."
Earlier in the meeting, councilors postponed a vote to place two advisory questions related to retail cannabis on the March ballot.

Enacted last October, Vermont's retail marijuana law requires municipalities to opt-in to the marketplace before pot businesses can open. If approved at the polls, the first question would permit such operations in Burlington, subject to future city ordinances.

A second question asks whether the city should use the taxes generated by weed sales to help marginalized communities — including BIPOC residents, women and small growers — participate in the industry.

Racial justice advocates have argued that BIPOC growers should get a leg up in the pot market because Black people in Vermont and nationwide are disproportionately arrested for marijuana offenses despite similar usage rates as white people.

Councilors will resume the discussion at their meeting on January 19.

Watch the full meeting below, courtesy of Channel 17: