Burlington City Council Fires Airport Director Gene Richards | Off Message

Burlington City Council Fires Airport Director Gene Richards


Gene Richards at Thursday's hearing - COURTNEY LAMDIN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Courtney Lamdin ©️ Seven Days
  • Gene Richards at Thursday's hearing
Gene Richards’ nine-year run as the City of Burlington’s aviation director came to an unceremonious end Thursday night as city councilors voted 10-1 to fire him.

The vote came just before midnight, at the end of an unprecedented, nearly six-hour-long termination hearing for Richards, who had been accused of berating subordinates with profanity and using “physically intimidating behavior” — violations of city policy.

After deliberating in private for nearly two hours, the council voted to fire Richards for mistreating employees at the Burlington International Airport. Councilor Ali Dieng (I-Ward 7) cast the only vote against Richards' termination. Councilor Chip Mason (D-Ward 5) recused himself from the proceedings due to a professional conflict of interest.

“The current situation is untenable to retain Mr. Richards as director of aviation,” City Council President Max Tracy (P-Ward 2) said, reading from a prepared statement after the vote. “The evidence and testimony tonight shows that the relationship between Mr. Richards and Mayor Weinberger is broken, and the relationship between Mr. Richards and his staff is also broken.”

“We stand behind our city employees,” Tracy said, “and we believe that our city should be a safe and positive workplace.”

Richards, who was first hired in 2012, denied the allegations that were first raised in early June by members of AFSCME Local 1343, the union that represents airport workers. Richards was put on leave June 30, and the city hired a third-party investigator to look into the claims.
Mayor Miro Weinberger asked Richards to resign after the city published its report in late August, but Richards refused, prompting Thursday night’s termination hearing.

At the beginning of the meeting, union members in matching T-shirts stood in the back row of the auditorium to show solidarity with airport employees who had been targeted by Richards. At one point, the group gave the mayor's attorney a round of applause — earning them an emphatic shushing from Tracy, who presided over the hearing.

The process played out like a courtroom drama, with each side given 45 minutes to present their cases. Weinberger and an outside attorney he hired, Pietro Lynn, acted as the prosecutors, explaining why Richards should go. Richards and his attorney, Rich Cassidy, then gave their defense. Councilors, who were each given four minutes to ask questions of either side, acted as the judge and jury. Weinberger and Richards were sworn in as witnesses.

Councilors came up with the rules after spending more than an hour in executive session. Cassidy had complained about the original rules, which afforded each side just 15 minutes to make their cases.

Cassidy spent much of his time raising issues with the city’s investigative process and noting Richards’ successes at the airport. Because Richards was not allowed to see witness statements, Cassidy said that his client couldn’t effectively rebut their claims.

Some of the allegations against Richards, Cassidy argued, were merely misunderstandings. Richards is “aggressive and passionate” but “a good man,” Cassidy said, adding that employees who reported being humiliated by Richards could have misread his tone because communication is “a subjective issue.”

“It appears that Gene failed to understand the impact of some of his words on others,” Cassidy said. “Does that make him a monster beyond hope of redemption? It does not.”
Richards spoke as well, reading from a prepared statement. He described himself as the best person to run the airport because he had improved its finances, addressed deferred maintenance projects and added new airline service routes.

“I hope you agree that my dedicated service and accomplishments have earned me a second chance,” Richards said.

Weinberger’s attorney, Lynn, responded that Richards' results didn't make up for his deficiencies as a leader. “From the mayor’s perspective, people are more important than profits,” Lynn said, prompting one audience member to cheer, “Amen!”
Mayor Miro Weinberger (left) and Pietro Lynn - COURTNEY LAMDIN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Courtney Lamdin ©️ Seven Days
  • Mayor Miro Weinberger (left) and Pietro Lynn
Lynn used a detailed slideshow to highlight how Richards failed in his duty to create a "harmonious workplace where people are treated with respect." Richards, Lynn said, had referred to staff as "worthless pieces of shit and fucking scum" and had commented that he didn't care if employees contracted COVID-19.

Lynn said true leaders apologize for their mistakes. Instead, he noted, Richards had spent more time complaining about the city's process than showing any contrition. "He acted in a manner that was intolerable in any workplace," Lynn said.
During his turn at the mic, Weinberger expressed sadness that he'd had to recommend that Richards be fired. The mayor acknowledged the good work Richards had done at the airport, but said the employees' allegations left him with no choice but to relieve him of duty. City department heads, the mayor said, are held to the highest of standards, and Richards conduct hadn't met them.

"When I commended Gene publicly for his service during the pandemic ... a few months ago, I did not imagine that his work at the city would take this turn so soon thereafter," Weinberger said. "Regrettably, I don't see any viable alternative."

"To put him back in a supervisory role would amount to condoning the serious mistreatment of employees," he said.

After the vote, Richards told a huddle of reporters that he was happy to get the chance to present his side of the story. He said he supports the council's decision because "they made the best decision they did with the information they have."

"I have no hard feelings about working for the city," he said. "The last nine years are some of the best years of my life."

Watch full video of the hearing below, courtesy of Town Meeting TV:

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