Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger has installed a new person to oversee a major study into policing in the city, a decision that drew outrage from city councilors and police commissioners during a meeting on Monday.
Darren Springer, the general manager of the Burlington Electric Department, will manage the contractor responsible for the operational and functional assessment of the Burlington Police Department. He’ll replace Tyeastia Green, a Black woman who serves as the city’s director of Racial Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging.
The change was made, the mayor said in an email Monday to members of the council’s Public Safety Committee and the Police Commission, to insert an “independent department head who has been neutral and separate from the contentious debates in recent months over proper officer staffing levels.”
But the move drew particularly sharp rebukes from Police Commissioner Melo Grant and City Councilor Perri Freeman (P-Central District), both of whom demanded answers from the mayor, who was not initially at the meeting. The City Council had at a February 8 meeting voted to award a $99,525 contract to a Virginia-based nonprofit called CNA to analyze "who, what, where, and how the department polices." Green was to oversee the contract, which came out of a city council decision last June to cut the police force by 30 percent.
Springer has worked for the National Governors Association; the Vermont Department of Public Service; as chief counsel in Sen. Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.) office; and as chief of staff for former Democratic governor Peter Shumlin. Springer joined the Burlington Electric Department in January 2017; Weinberger appointed him as general manager in October 2018.
Springer told the joint committee that he had much experience overseeing requests for proposals and dealing with consultants, and said he felt up to the task the mayor had assigned him.
“What I’ve done is reviewed the materials with CNA, reviewed the RFP that was issued by the city, and looked at the different things they are supposed to get done over a fairly quick period of time,” Springer said. “My plan would be to engage with them, with you, with all the different pieces that are involved in that scope of work and ensure that they deliver, that they talk with the different constituencies and groups, and experts and community leaders that are envisioned in the RFP … that that’s provided and that I can be as fair as possible in administering that, and as communicative and transparent as possible. That’s what I would try to bring to the table.”
Green seemed unwilling to speculate on Monday when asked why Weinberger had replaced her.
“That is a question, Commissioner Grant,” Green said. “I think that I’m just going to say that this was a mayor’s decision to make, and this is the decision that he made.”
The mayor’s chief of staff, Jordan Redell, ultimately summoned Weinberger, who appeared at the virtual meeting after a short recess.
“It’s a very divided city,” Weinberger said. “I think neutrality is key here.”
He compared keeping Green from overseeing the report to keeping the police department from managing it.
“I do have concerns that there might be questions about the report and questions about the conclusions of the report if it is seen as being kind of guided only through the lens of racial equity, racial justice,” Weinberger said in explaining his decision. “Clearly racial justice is a critical lens and one that must be brought to bear, and I am absolutely counting on Director Green and her team to be weighing in on the report.
"I think if that is seen as sort of guiding the report, overseeing the whole report, then there could be similar kinds of questions about the fairness and the impartiality of it," he continued, "which I think is critical if this is going to be accepted and it’s going to be a document that leads to that new consensus.”
He faced repeated questioning about the decision from Grant and Freeman.
"The optics of this are terrible," Grant said. "They’re just terrible."
She argued that installing Springer would insert someone who had not followed the debate, nor attended committee meetings, into a charged situation. Further, she wondered why the mayor would not consider Green a neutral party in guiding the assessment. She argued that Green’s office should at least co-manage oversight of the contract; Weinberger disagreed.
“I think that you really need to review the concept of trust as you see it, and this concept of neutrality as you see it, because I think a lot of people are not going to feel that’s the best way forward,” Grant said. “It feels to me like a rug is being pulled from under us … I’ve just got a lot of concerns.”
Councilor Zoraya Hightower (P-Ward 1), the Public Safety Committee chair, had spoken to the mayor ahead of the meeting. She noted that she had voiced support to keep oversight of the contract in Green’s office as a counterbalance to what she expects will be heavy participation in the process by the police department.
Hightower argued that the public safety and police commission joint committee should also have some sort of oversight role as the process moves forward.
The meeting ended with no vote on what was already a settled matter. But members of the public were given time to weigh in on the mayor's decision before the session adjourned.
“I also find it really infuriating that neutrality is going to be embodied in a white male — yet again,” activist Jess Laporte said of Springer. “And that somehow, inherently, having marginalized identities is a way that makes you no longer neutral.”
Watch the full meeting below, courtesy of Town Meeting TV: