Burlington Aviation Director Gene Richards said he will not resign, even though Mayor Miro Weinberger asked him on Friday to step down from running the Burlington International Airport.
Richards has been on leave since June 30 over allegations that were previously undisclosed. On Friday evening, Weinberger released a seven-page investigative report that concluded Richards violated city policy by regularly “yelling, screaming, name-calling, and using profanity” at employees.
The mayor says he no longer has confidence in Richards and has suspended him without pay. By city charter, the mayor can’t unilaterally fire Richards, so he plans to call a special “termination hearing” at the next city council meeting on September 9.
“The mistreatment of City employees documented in this investigation is unacceptable and Mr. Richards can no longer serve the City in a leadership role, despite his many past accomplishments,” Weinberger wrote.
“Department Heads, in particular, must lead by example in order for us to achieve our best performance for the people of Burlington,” the mayor’s statement continued. “Regrettably, Mr. Richards did not maintain this high standard of service I require from City leadership.”
Richards first confirmed the turn of events to Seven Days on Friday afternoon, after he’d left a meeting at Weinberger’s Summit Street home during which the mayor asked him to resign.
"I did not agree to that," said Richards, who was appointed to the position in 2012.
“Honestly,” he continued, “I’m just extremely disappointed and sad.”
The city’s internal investigation spanned nearly two months and included interviews with 11 former and current airport staff. A third-party investigator also reviewed 1,500 pages of documents. The probe centered on two primary allegations: Richards’ misuse of city property and his mistreatment of employees.
According to the report, Richards “regularly engages” in “humiliating and offensive” behavior toward workers, calling them “useless and ungrateful to their face.” Multiple witnesses corroborated that Richards embodied a “big dog” persona, telling workers that “I run the goddamn airport and what I say goes.” The report says many workers have left or are considering leaving.
Richards told investigators that he occasionally uses “the F-bomb” but “toward himself and not others.” In an interview with Seven Days, Richards said the report contained complaints about his “management style” but said he couldn’t recall specific incidents beyond one interaction this past June when he used a “tone” with an employee.
“I own it," he said. "It wasn't terrible. It probably could have been done better, but it's not fireable; it's manageable, in my eyes."
Many airport workers disagree. Earlier this week, 34 members of AFSCME Local 1343, which represents them, submitted a petition calling for Weinberger to fire Richards. They did not outline their specific concerns about Richards in the document, which was also sent to Burlington city councilors and the Burlington Airport Commission.
The city’s report also found that other allegations against Richards were unsubstantiated. Witnesses had reported that Richards routinely used the airport’s gas station and car wash for his personal vehicle — 59 times in six months. While he had done so “without any documentation of what fuel or travel was for the purpose of work,” he did not explicitly violate city policy, the report concluded.
“Therefore, while the use has created a perception of impropriety, a policy violation is not evident,” the report said.
The report also details Richards’ decision to rent one of the Kirby cottages — homes near the airport purchased by the city as part of a federal noise-reduction program — to a city employee. A 2017 city council resolution said that the homes could be leased to airline crew members “on a short-term basis.” The investigator, however, concluded Richards didn’t act in bad faith because the council hadn’t explicitly prohibited leasing the homes to city workers.
For his part, Richards defended his record serving the airport. BTV's credit rating was near junk bond status in 2013, and the airport had just one day's worth of cash on hand when he started. Richards built up cash reserves and raised the credit rating to investment grade. Richards has also landed several federal aviation grants to improve the facility.
"I think I should be able to stay because I'm very good at what I do," he said. "The product of that is the airport."
Weinberger, though, made clear that Richards’ accomplishments were not enough.
“I appreciate the members of the Airport team who raised concerns,” the mayor said in his statement. “I hope my colleagues see in these events the deep commitment of this administration to its employees. I will continue to prioritize our shared values of collaboration, belonging, and respect across all areas of work the City team endeavors to do together.”