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Burlington Mayor's Attempt to Diversify Leadership Falls Short


Published June 12, 2019 at 10:00 a.m.

Some of Mayor Miro Weinberger's appointments during his tenure
  • Some of Mayor Miro Weinberger's appointments during his tenure

In a crowded, stuffy conference room in Burlington City Hall on May 28, Mayor Miro Weinberger announced his pick to run the city's Community Economic Development Office. Lukas McGowan, tall and trim, wearing a navy blazer with a white dress shirt and no tie, told those assembled of his plans to support small businesses and to make the Queen City a more inclusive place.

"This is a unique place, and CEDO is a unique government entity that has a big mandate" including social equity, McGowan said.

The South Woodstock resident's résumé boasts stints at a West Coast tech startup and several years working for former president Barack Obama and vice president Joe Biden. Like a handful of his new colleagues, McGowan is an Ivy Leaguer, a trait he touted when he gave a shout-out to other Harvard Kennedy School grads in the crowd. And just like most of them, McGowan is white.

In seven years as mayor, Weinberger has appointed 29 department heads and hired seven senior mayoral office staffers. Only two of those 36 total people represent ethnic diversity: former Fletcher Free Library director Rubi Simon, a Latina woman who resigned in 2016; and Police Chief Brandon del Pozo, who is half Cuban.

Click here for our counting methodology.

Stephanie Seguino, a University of Vermont economics professor who studies race and gender inequality, explained that Weinberger's cabinet currently contains no racial diversity because Hispanic is an ethnicity, not a race, and del Pozo identifies as white.

The lack of diversity in the upper echelons of Weinberger's administration exists despite a 2014 strategic plan that laid out a framework for achieving more equity and inclusion in city government. The 82-page document, created by the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, listed 49 steps — including one to ensure that people of color are proportionally represented in the city workforce at all levels.

That would mean 17 percent of the 825 city workers should be nonwhite, according to the most recent demographic data for Burlington. The number is actually about 7.5 percent, or 64 people, 2018 data supplied by the city shows; just over half of those nonwhite workers hold full-time positions.

The only city leader of color is Yaw Obeng, a black man who serves as Burlington School District superintendent — a position the mayor doesn't appoint.

Weinberger said he stands by his leadership team but recognizes he's fallen short in recruiting, hiring and retaining employees of color, particularly those in charge of setting policies that could close equity gaps.

"It is a frustration of ours that we have not been able to hire more candidates of color for these senior leadership positions," he said. "We've struggled with it."

"It" was evident last week, when the mayor presented to the Burlington City Council his all-white slate of 16 department heads, from public works director to chief innovation officer. The council confirmed them all, though del Pozo received two "no" votes because of recent controversies involving his officers, two of whom have been sued for using excessive force against black men.

"Racism exists. Discrimination exists. We cannot accept or have a chief of police who would allow such wrongdoing for people of color in this community without saying anything," Councilor Ali Dieng (D/P-Ward 7) said at the meeting.

Dieng and other advocates argue that there's no excuse for the lack of diversity in the mayor's cabinet, especially in light of a strategic plan adopted five years ago.

"It's not on the mayor's radar," Dieng, an African immigrant and the only black man on the 12-member council, said in an interview last week. "To me, he doesn't have a goal of diversifying the leadership in the city."

Dieng plans to introduce a resolution at an upcoming meeting to address some of the issues. He wants to revive a long-forgotten council committee on diversity and equity and will ask the mayor to hire a new employee who would focus solely on diversity and inclusion.

Currently, "there is no one person charged to be this voice," Dieng said.

He's partnering with Mark Hughes, executive director and founder of Justice for All, an organization that aims to dismantle systemic racism in Vermont. In 2018, Justice for All successfully lobbied the legislature on the same issue: Act 9 formed a state Racial Equity Advisory Panel and created an executive director of racial equity to collect data and write policies.

"To me, it's not about making statements," Dieng said. "It is about doing the work."

For his part, Weinberger defended his progress in implementing the strategic plan. Since 2015, department heads have received implicit bias and cultural competency training. The city conducts national searches for high-level positions — though most employees are hired from in-state — and search committees always include a person of color, he said.

The city has also begun advertising positions more broadly, in places such as email lists for minority communities. City employees of color increased from 5 to 7 percent in four years, Weinberger said. Most of the time, a diverse candidate is a finalist for high-level jobs. In 2015, del Pozo was one of two minorities among the four final candidates, the mayor said.

The city has strived for greater gender parity, said Weinberger, who hired Burlington's first-ever female city attorney, Eileen Blackwood, and chief administrative officer, Beth Anderson. A Seven Days analysis found that throughout his tenure, Weinberger has appointed or hired women for nearly half of the positions counted for this story.

The city's efforts "with respect to race issues have not been as successful, which is a frustration," he said.

The challenge isn't unique to his administration, Weinberger added, though former mayor Peter Clavelle, who served in the 1990s and early 2000s, recalled that both his mayoral assistant and code enforcement director were black men. Still, Clavelle said his cabinet wasn't as diverse as he'd have liked.

"We wanted a workforce that was at least as diverse as the city's increasingly diverse population," Clavelle said. "I thought a diverse workplace is a smarter, more effective, more responsive workplace. It's also an issue of equity and fairness.

"I see it as a challenge, but an important one," he added.

Weinberger said he understands his responsibility to "keep trying to do better here," and he admitted recent efforts have stalled. After the 2014 plan, he created a "core team" that included people of color and vetted hiring decisions through an equity lens.

That work fell by the wayside in recent years with turnover in the HR and CEDO departments, both of which are tasked with diversity initiatives. And last year, Curtiss Reed Jr., a black man who serves as executive director of the Vermont Partnership, stopped consulting with the city, Weinberger said. Reed was out of the country and did not respond to requests for comment.

Weinberger pledged to reboot the core team with the city's new HR director, a white woman named Deanna Paluba, who has experience retaining a diverse workforce. That will start at a department-head retreat this month, the mayor said.

"It's something that weighs on me," said Weinberger, who added that both of his daughters are nonwhite. "I feel this great opportunity to have an impact on the city that they're being raised in."

State Rep. Hal Colston (D-Winooski), an advocate who contributed to the 2014 plan, said the city can't blame Reed's departure for its failings.

"This is the mayor's issue," said Colston, who is black. "Come on, man. [Reed] gave you a tool to do something about it, but if you're not doing anything about it, it's not his fault. It's you and your team that are asleep at the switch."

Colston said Burlington's diversity deficit likely exists because its hiring process is contaminated by implicit bias. He once served on a Champlain College hiring committee and convinced the administration to include a neutral member to critique the hiring process in real time. The consultant pointed out when committee members' negative reactions to an applicant's answers were bias-based.

"If we're not called out in a productive way, we can't learn and do things differently," Colston said. "White folks are well-meaning, but they can't help themselves because this is all they know. Until they learn a different perspective of how they're analyzing a person who is qualified, they're always going to go to their default."

And that means hiring leaders who look the same as they do, he said.

Councilor Brian Pine (P-Ward 3), who served on the hiring committee for CEDO's McGowan, said the job attracted more than 30 applicants, including some of color. McGowan was "by far" the most qualified, he said.

"It sort of illustrated that this continues to be a really challenging municipality to recruit people [of color] to," Pine said. "I would say there's consensus on this issue, but yet we haven't made progress, and that's frustrating."

Kesha Ram, a former CEDO staffer who worked on the plan in 2014, is now an equity consultant for the City of Winooski. The Onion City's public schools are 58 percent minority, substantially more than any other district in the state. Burlington is second with 37 percent. Ram said Burlington must continue its equity work so those kids, many of them New Americans, can envision themselves as leaders someday.

"Otherwise, those young people will see a dead end," she said. "They don't see a pathway to prosperity in their city."

Hughes, of Justice for All, said the problem is urgent. He reflected on Republican Gov. Phil Scott's most recent budget speech, during which he said that Vermont needs more taxpayers to sustain the economy. To Hughes, that means Vermont — one of the whitest and oldest states — needs black and brown people. And as the state's largest city, Burlington needs to lead.

"I'm a radical African American, liberal, progressive," Hughes said, "and I want to use a conservative white man's return-on-investment language for this conversation: If Miro doesn't get this right, then the state follows."

Colston, one of a handful of minorities serving in the Vermont legislature, agreed.

"It's not going to happen overnight, but it takes that kind of leadership to say, 'OK, I get it,'" he said. "To be able to listen and to learn — that's a different type of leader. I hope that's Miro. That's what it takes."

How we counted

  • Burlington's mayor has the authority to appoint 30 city positions. We counted only appointments for the most influential of those: 16 city department heads, plus the mayor's chief of staff, and his communications and projects coordinator.
  • That amounted to 36 total appointments or hires by Weinberger, who is serving his third three-year term.
  • The majority of these positions are reappointed annually, though some hold two-year terms. The mayor also fills vacancies, so the number of appointments is higher than the number of positions.
  • We did not include Weinberger's appointment of interim or acting directors. Many of his appointees have served for several years; we only counted them once unless they served in two positions — in which case they were counted twice.
  • Nine department heads held their positions before Weinberger took office and stayed during his tenure, and we counted them.
  • Lastly, we did not include his appointments of five assistant city attorneys/grand jurors, four constables (two of whom are also currently assistant city attorneys), and the poundkeeper, because people in those positions don't influence policy or run a city department.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Burlington's White House: Mayor's Bid to Diversify Leadership Falls Short"