The City of Burlington is opposing an effort by police higher-ups to form a union.
If given the go-ahead by the Vermont Labor Relations Board, the department's 15 sergeants and lieutenants will be able to hold an election to form a collective bargaining unit. These officers are not members of the city's existing police union, the Burlington Police Officers' Association.
A successful union drive would mean that only the Burlington police chief and two deputy chiefs would not be protected by a union.
The New England Police Benevolent Association filed a petition on behalf of the Burlington sergeants and lieutenants on March 3.The city responded on March 15, asserting that the arrangement would be “problematic” as lieutenants serve as sergeants' direct supervisors. Further, the city wrote, the state labor board ordered sergeants and lieutenants removed from the existing police union in 2001 “because they are supervisory employees.”
“The City does not believe that any circumstances exist to change that prior determination,” assistant city attorney Justin St. James wrote in the two-page filing.
St. James declined to elaborate on the city’s position “given that this is pending litigation,” he wrote in an email to Seven Days this week.
Burlington Det. Sgt. Rich Weinisch declined an interview request on behalf of the would-be bargaining unit. “The consensus is that it is not in our best interest at this time to make any statements or comments to the media,” he said in a voice message.
An attorney representing the group, Thomas Horgan of the New England Police Benevolent Association, also declined to comment.
The request comes at a time of heightened scrutiny on the department. Protesters occupied a city park for a month last summer, demanding that the city fire three cops for allegedly using excessive force against city residents, particularly people of color.
As a result, the city council approved a separation agreement with one of those officers, sergeant Jason Bellavance, who had shoved a young Black man to the ground in September 2018, knocking him unconscious. Bellavance ultimately resigned in exchange for a $300,000 payout.
Mayor Miro Weinberger agreed to the deal because “we must apply a higher standard to our leaders,” he said at the time. He didn’t support buyouts for the other two officers — Joseph Corrow and Cory Campbell — because their actions were “consistent with the policy and training that were in place at the time," the mayor said then.
The decision also meant that the city could avoid a fight with the union. The officers' contract protected them from receiving discipline beyond what they’d already faced, City Attorney Eileen Blackwood said then.
“I don’t think the city can take further action against these officers without exposing the city to significant legal action,” she said.
Late last year, the city council attempted to put an item on the Town Meeting Day ballot that would have created the state’s strongest police oversight board. The “independent community control board” would have given civilians the power to discipline or even fire officers, including the chief of police. Weinberger vetoed the measure on New Year's Eve.
Texas attorney Ron DeLord, a national police union expert and former cop, isn’t familiar with Vermont labor laws but said he supports the Burlington officers’ petition. He pointed to a possible scenario of a sergeant and officer responding to the same incident. “If something goes wrong,” DeLord said, only the patrol officer would have union protection.
“What’s going to happen to the Burlington sergeant who’s just an at-will worker? The guy next to you — he’s got a union lawyer and is able to defend himself … and the supervisor’s left to their self,” DeLord said. “I can see why they want, in this day and time, to be covered by a union contract.”
Burlington Police union president Cpl. Tyler Badeau said the rank-and-file supports the department leaders’ petition to organize.
“They are also deserving of protected working rights and fair negotiations,” Badeau wrote in a statement to Seven Days. “We also hope that the City Council, who is mostly Progressive and have publicly recognized the importance of Unions, remains consistent and supports it the same.”
The labor board will hold a hearing on the petition on April 1 and will likely issue a decision later that month.