- File: Rob Donnelly
On Town Meeting Day in March, Burlington voters will consider a charter change that would create a new police oversight board with the power to fire and suspend officers for misconduct.
If the proposal sounds familiar, it is: City councilors approved a nearly identical plan in December 2020, but Mayor Miro Weinberger vetoed it.
A group of residents recently bypassed city officials entirely by collecting signatures from at least 5 percent of registered voters — 1,764 — to put the item directly on the ballot.
The group used the same method to put another charter change on the March ballot. Known as "Proposition Zero," the proposal would allow residents who get enough signatures on a petition to put ordinance changes and advisory items directly on the ballot; the current process requires city council and mayoral sign-off.
"Everybody's pretty frustrated that one person has all this power to stop this thing that was collaborated on by hundreds of people," Munarsyah said of the control board. "Decisions are being made without public participation, and that's un-Burlington."
"Over the last two and a half years we have lost more than 40% of our police officers, many due to concerns about the lack of support for their work by the City Council and the community," Weinberger wrote. "This proposal would dramatically exacerbate those concerns just as we are beginning to recover from the 2020 Council vote to reduce the officer cap."
The issue of police oversight has been a flash point in the city's ongoing debate over public safety reform. After the murder of George Floyd in summer 2020, activists took to the streets to demand that three Burlington officers be fired for allegedly using excessive force. One of the officers, sergeant Jason Bellavance, later took a $300,000 buyout to leave the department.
Councilors followed up by proposing an "independent community control board" that could hold disciplinary hearings, subpoena witnesses and mete out punishments. Under the current charter, the police chief has the final say in disciplinary matters; the police commission can only issue recommendations. The council passed the measure on a 7-5 vote but didn't have the numbers for a veto override in early 2021.
But the issue didn't go away. That fall, CNA, an independent consultant that analyzed Burlington police operations, recommended the city create a "citizen review board" to conduct internal investigations. City officials said such a change would need to be negotiated in the next police contract. It wasn't.
Acting Police Chief Jon Murad has vocally opposed the concept, while Weinberger has suggested giving the police commission more power. In his veto letter, the mayor argued that the council's plan would drive officers from the department.
The force has been shrinking since the council's June 2020 vote to reduce the number of officers by 30 percent through attrition. Councilors have since agreed to hire more officers and have approved various retention and recruitment efforts.
The board would also have an investigative office with access to police reports and crime scenes. Staff would issue regular reports that detail the status and findings of internal investigations.
"The community now has an important opportunity to express their support and appreciation for the brave, difficult and essential work that police do by decisively voting down this Charter Change," Weinberger wrote.
Munarsyah, who has lived in Burlington for 25 years, said he's become increasingly concerned about police behavior. He recalled a 2012 incident when officers fired pepper balls at protesters who were demonstrating against expanding shipments of tar sands oil. He also noted the two times Burlington cops fatally shot residents experiencing a mental health crisis.
"This issue with Burlington Police Department has been accumulating before George Floyd," he said. "Under this administration, the accountability that used to keep that in check has been removed."
The petition was initially circulated by People for Police Accountability, an offshoot of the group that led the monthlong occupation of Battery Park in 2020. Munarsyah, who has been organizing for Prop Zero the past few years, said he approached that group about a joint petition drive, since both issues involve people being "alienated from the whole decision-making process," he said.
Under Prop Zero, petitioners could bypass the council and mayor, just as they can for charter changes. The proposal also includes a provision allowing voters to demand the council reconsider existing ordinances. Petitioners would have to collect signatures from at least 5 percent of registered voters to put a question on the ballot, the proposal says.
Councilors have permitted advisory questions on past ballots, including those about legalizing cannabis and basing the F-35 fighter jets at Burlington International Airport. But they've rejected others, notably advocacy group Keep the Park Green's 2019 petition for a ballot item to cancel a $4 million planned renovation of City Hall Park.
Munarsyah said he's primarily running for council to advocate for both ballot items. He also thinks the South End needs new representation, as incumbent Councilor Joan Shannon (D-South District) has been in office nearly 20 years. Shannon is also facing a challenge from fellow Democrat Jason Van Driesche.
Munarsyah, who organizes with mutual aid group the People's Kitchen, ran as a Progressive-endorsed independent in last year's Ward 5 election but lost to Democrat Ben Traverse. He plans to run as an independent in March but will seek both majority party nominations. The Dems caucus on Thursday; the Progs, in early January.
Win or lose the election, Munarsyah is happy that the two questions will be on the ballot. "That's already a victory for me," he said.
Correction, December 12, 2022: A previous version of this story inaccurately described the size of the proposed board and who would be eligible to serve.