Three Burlington city councilors called for Benjamin Bergstein to step down from his post as president of the Vermont Performing Arts League, a week after VTDigger.org published a story outlining extensive allegations of sexual misconduct against him. They also demanded that April Werner, Bergstein's wife and business partner, resign from her role as the league's executive director.
Reached Wednesday evening, Werner told Seven Days that Bergstein has already resigned — and did so before VTDigger's story broke on April 15. Bergstein agreed to the board's request that he step down "because he felt it was really the only way the organization could move forward," Werner said. "This is no way an admission that these accusations are true in any way," she added.
Seven Days confirmed that Bergstein had resigned through an arts league board member who spoke on condition of anonymity.
VTDigger interviewed eight people who attested that Bergstein had forcibly kissed, sexually harassed and groped them, with instances dating back a decade. The outlet reported that Werner knew about her husband's behavior but "brushed it off."
Werner said she continues to work at North End Studios and serve as the art league's vice president and treasurer. Allegations that she witnessed Bergstein's misconduct "completely do not reflect any reality whatsoever" because "there weren't any" incidents to witness, Werner said.
The board plans to discuss "whether my presence is also that much of a detriment to the future of the organization," Werner said, adding that she'll accept the board's decision either way.
In 2016, Bergstein was investigated for sexual assault by the Chittenden Unit for Special Investigations but was never criminally charged, VTDigger reported. The alleged victim told police that Bergstein had brought her to a bar when she was underage and had taken her to his home where he “sexually penetrated her,” the article says. Other alleged victims told VTDigger that they felt powerless against Bergstein, “given the influence Bergstein carried in Burlington.”
Bergstein has denied the behavior, according to VTDigger.
The arts league board has issued no statement since the story was published, and Bergstein's status has not been previously reported.
City Council President Max Tracy (P-Ward 2) and Councilors Brian Pine (P-Ward 3) and Perri Freeman (P-Central District) posted a statement Wednesday on Front Porch Forum. "[Bergstein's] pattern of behavior has turned a number of community and performing arts spaces in Burlington and Winooski from places of joy and expression to ones of fear, intimidation, and trauma," it says.
All three councilors represent the Old North End, the home of what was Bergstein's North End Studios, which rents space to artists and nonprofits for community events. Bergstein and Werner also operated programs at the Old North End Community Center in Burlington and the O'Brien Community Center in Winooski. They launched the performing arts league in 1978.
Several of Bergstein's accusers are former arts league employees who told VTDigger that Bergstein had harassed them at North End Studios and at public events.
"Even as stories from people he has harmed have become increasingly public in recent days, there has been no acknowledgement from Ben or April of the tremendous harm that was done or, as an extension, acceptance of any consequences for their actions," the councilors' statement says.
Meanwhile, the trio asked the arts league board to remove Bergstein and Werner if they refuse to step down. Tracy said he had not heard Bergstein had already resigned.
The councilors are also calling on individuals or businesses to terminate their contracts with the arts league should Bergstein and Werner remain involved.
"These actions are crucial to stopping Ben Bergstein's abuse," their statement says.
Earlier this week, the Winooski City Council met in executive session to discuss the league's lease at the O'Brien Center but took no public action afterward. Bergstein, however, has already been barred from Winooski city property, VTDigger reported.
Werner said Bergstein would not be making any comment on the allegations. The couple reportedly declined to comment to VTDigger for its story, and her words are the first public response either of them has given.
"This is a very painful subject for us because we've given so much to the community, " she said. "And to have no one have any faith in us, in our integrity, is a pretty tough pill to swallow."
The denials haven’t stopped various organizations that worked with Bergstein and Werner from distancing themselves from the couple — and calling out Bergstein’s behavior.
On Tuesday, the Champlain Housing Trust put out a statement about the allegations, saying the organization had spoken “with survivors of Ben Bergstein’s abuse, and learned how this pattern of behavior has been in our community over many years and it sickens us.
“The harm caused to the survivors is tangible, and we know that the system for uncovering such behaviors is difficult and often not supportive of victims or survivors,” the organization said.
Through North End Studios, Bergstein and Werner had managed the event hall at the Old North End Community Center. That arrangement came to an end in February, when CHT found out about the allegations, the organization said.
“We have also barred both Ben Bergstein’s and April Werner’s access to the property,” the statement said. “As of February 11, North End Studios has no ongoing relationship with CHT or the Event Hall.”
The statement continued, “In solidarity with and in support of these survivors, CHT encourages any person or business that has business with the Vermont Performing Arts League to cancel their events.”