Progressives on the Burlington City Council tried for the third time on Monday to halt the closure of the Sears Lane homeless encampment, but a majority of councilors blocked the resolution from even being discussed.
Introduced by Councilor Joe Magee (P-Ward 3), the measure called on Mayor Miro Weinberger's administration to come up with a long-term housing plan for the 40-some campers who lived at the South End site. But before Magee could describe his proposal, Councilor Joan Shannon (D-South District) argued that it was materially the same as one he had introduced on October 25.
Shannon’s objection touched off a contentious debate between councilors, which ended in a 6-5 vote killing the resolution. The two council independents and four Democrats outvoted the Progressive contingent, which was one vote short of a tie as Councilor Zoraya Hightower (P-Ward 1) was absent.
“I didn't expect when I got elected to this body that I would have to beg people to consider the humanity of our houseless neighbors,” Magee said during the debate. “For us to not have this conversation … will be an abdication of responsibility by this body and complicity in the worst possible outcomes that face the people that live in Sears Lane.”
The encampment has proven a political flashpoint since Mayor Miro Weinberger ordered the South End site cleared last month following two arrests there. Magee attempted to introduce a resolution to stop the eviction in mid-October, but came one vote short of the two-thirds majority he needed to modify the agenda.
Magee successfully brought a similar resolution the following week, but councilors stripped out any language that would have allowed the camp to continue operating.
His third attempt Monday night not only called for the city to “delay the further removal and destruction” of the camp, but also sought more supports for campers beyond a monthlong hotel stay. Some campers have been asked to leave the hotels and have returned to Sears Lane.
The resolution asked the city to reopen a request for proposals “to seek a facilitator for the self-management” of the camp. The city’s previous request, which was only open for two weeks, didn’t attract any offers. Magee’s proposal would have kept the request open “until a suitable partner is found.”
Councilor Shannon said that the issue was already addressed by the council and that introducing it would be a violation of council rules. Asked for his opinion, City Attorney Dan Richardson agreed, saying Magee’s resolutions contained “substantially the same question.”
City Council President Max Tracy (P-Ward 2) disagreed and ruled the resolution in order, earning him a chiding from both Shannon and Councilor Chip Mason (D-Ward 5), who called Tracy’s ruling unprecedented.
Shannon appealed the decision on the floor, saying that councilors can’t reintroduce a resolution when they don’t like the outcome of a vote.
“That is not good governance,” she said. “The processes of this council are extremely important, regardless of where you fall on an issue.”
Progressive councilors countered that the body has revisited issues in the past, namely when councilors voted three times on the police department staffing cap. Councilor Jack Hanson (P-East District) said councilors are asking to revisit the Sears Lane issue because there’s an “evolving crisis” at the camp.
“There has to be that ability to respond to a dynamic situation, even if you're taking up a similar policy,” he said.
As soon as the vote total was read, one member of the audience began shouting at the councilors.
“Shame on you!” Lee Morrigan yelled. “These are fucking people!”
Tracy repeatedly asked Morrigan to let councilors continue their meeting, but Morrigan spoke over him.
“I want you guys to look into their eyes and tell them you don’t care,” Morrigan continued, referring to several Sears Lane campers in the audience. Morrigan left the meeting once a security guard entered the council chamber.
The meeting attracted a sizable number of activists who have been providing food and other services to Sears Lane residents. Many who spoke during the meeting’s public forum warned officials that the city would be endangering unhoused people by not providing other options as temperatures continue to drop.
Some campers addressed councilors directly during the public comment period. Alexys Grundy, one of the plaintiffs in an ongoing lawsuit against the city, called the city’s eviction heartless and pleaded with the city to allow her to stay at Sears Lane, where she’s lived for the past year and a half.
“I found somewhere where I fit,” Grundy said, adding that many people there are down on their luck. “It doesn’t make them bad people. It just makes it harder. Please, just think about what you’re doing. Like, honestly, please.”
Also at Monday's meeting, Weinberger asked councilors to approve additional spending for the city’s ongoing police chief search, which has so far only yielded two viable candidates. One is acting Chief Jon Murad; the other hasn't been publicly identified. Weinberger said that if the councilors don't take his recommendations, he'll nominate one of those candidates for the position.
Weinberger wants councilors to offer as much as $160,000 a year — about $30,000 more than the high end of the advertised salary range. He’s also asked them to hire a civilian recruiter and public information officer, and, for $75,000, to hire a professional search firm.
The mayor also wants councilors to agree to preserve the chief’s authority on officer discipline. Late last year, Weinberger vetoed a Progressive-led proposal to create a civilian-led board that would have had final say on disciplinary matters.
Councilor Hanson said that by including that demand, with which Progressive councilors disagree, Weinberger appeared ready to proceed with just the two candidates. Hanson suggested that the administration work with councilors to find consensus before the council's next meeting on December 13.
Some councilors — including Mason, Shannon and Ali Dieng (I-Ward 7) — seemed to support the request to increase the salary offer. Councilor Sarah Carpenter (D-Ward 4) agreed that a search firm could help the city land the best candidate.
Weinberger said he's willing to meet with councilors about the best recruitment strategy.
"The administration will put time and effort in to working with councilors to attempt to do that," he said. "And if that does not succeed, I do feel I'll have no choice but to proceed to an appointment through another way."