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Can Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger Survive a Social Media Scandal?

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Mayor Miro Weinberger - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Mayor Miro Weinberger

Updated on December 18, 2019.

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger had a spectacularly bad Monday. In a span of hours, he employed three different chiefs of police.

The first, Brandon del Pozo, resigned after acknowledging that he created an anonymous social media account and used it to troll a critic. The second, Jan Wright, admitted she'd done something similar only after Weinberger named her acting chief. Before taking the job, the third, Jon Murad, "confirmed explicitly ... that he has never engaged in anonymous social media posting," Weinberger said in a statement announcing his appointment.

An hour earlier, a dozen protesters assembled at city hall, armed with signs bearing slogans such as "Privilege Protecting Privilege" and chanting demands that Weinberger step down. They funneled inside for a City Council meeting, where they charged that the mayor covered up for his lying police chief and is just as culpable for not informing councilors of del Pozo's bad behavior.

As the bizarre social media scandal deepens, public attention and scrutiny has turned to the mayor, who was first elected in 2012. Four years ago, Weinberger brought del Pozo from New York City to Burlington. He stuck by the chief throughout his tenure, even in instances of intense public pressure.

That loyalty could be Weinberger's undoing.

"I just can't imagine how any members of the public can trust him," Jaz Mojica, a member of the police accountability group BTV CopWatch, said of the mayor at Monday's council meeting. "He never would have come out with this information unless he was directly asked."

Weinberger and his political allies, though, maintain that he deftly handled a uniquely challenging situation.

"I've done my best throughout," Weinberger said. "It's all out there for Burlingtonians to evaluate."

At Monday's press conference announcing del Pozo's resignation, Weinberger appeared near tears at times as he extolled the former chief's progressive policing initiatives. The mayor had been willing to give del Pozo a second chance, he said, because the former chief's actions were caused by an underlying medical condition. Weinberger's disciplinary actions "were informed by compassion," he said.

This wasn't the first time Weinberger had del Pozo's six. In April, the two were criticized for attempting to influence the state medical examiner's finding that a Burlington cop's punches led to the death of resident Douglas Kilburn. Councilor Ali Dieng (D/P-Ward 7) called del Pozo and Weinberger's actions "unethical" and noted that "no one is above the law."

In May, the council questioned del Pozo for more than two hours after learning from the media — not Queen City leadership — that Burlington cops had knocked two black men unconscious eight months earlier. Weinberger stood by his man, telling the council, "We were right to place our confidence in this chief."

It was in July that del Pozo told Weinberger about the anonymous Twitter account he used to troll activist Charles Winkleman, a former chair of the Burlington Progressive Party. Weinberger initially placed del Pozo on administrative leave before the chief took a six-week family and medical leave of absence; Weinberger informed only a handful of people of the reason.

Charles Winkleman at City Hall - COURTNEY LAMDIN
  • Courtney Lamdin
  • Charles Winkleman at City Hall

City Councilor Max Tracy (P-Ward 2) thinks these decisions show that the mayor has a pattern "of hiding bad conduct from the council." Weinberger campaigned on a platform of transparency and as a practical alternative to former Progressive mayor Bob Kiss, who diverted $17 million of taxpayer money to bail out Burlington Telecom and hid it from the council, Tracy noted.

"I find it incredibly hypocritical for him to have done that and now similarly withhold information," said Tracy, who cochairs the Burlington Progressive Party. "You don't get to have it both ways."

City Councilor Joan Shannon (D-South District) disagreed that this scandal is on par with Burlington Telecom. She said it's "ridiculous" to suggest that Weinberger should resign because he did not inform councilors that he'd placed del Pozo on administrative leave in July and taken the chief's badge and gun.

"This does not nearly rise to that level," Shannon said. "No elected official would resign over something that is a judgment call. We can all evaluate that judgment call, but that's what it is."

Shannon, a city councilor since 2003, said Weinberger's administration is far more transparent than others. The mayor has her full support because, Shannon said, "I really believe that he is a person of integrity."

Attorney John Franco has sparred with the Weinberger administration several times over the years, often in court. The Progressive Party stalwart thinks the mayor's excuses for keeping quiet about del Pozo's actions are bunk. He said Weinberger's team "operates in complete secrecy as much as possible" and that the mayor told a "half truth" by disclosing that del Pozo was on family and medical leave days after the chief was placed on administrative leave. It was, Franco said, a cover-up.

"Bob Kiss paid the ultimate political price," he said. "Miro Weinberger should, as well. This is egregious."

It remains to be seen whether the Progressives will benefit from the backlash against Weinberger, the city's top Democrat, but the politicking has already begun. Hours before del Pozo's resignation was announced, the Burlington Progressive Party issued a press release demanding that the chief resign and that Weinberger "be held accountable."

Weinberger denounced the move, saying he'd informed Progressive city councilors of del Pozo's resignation on Sunday — before the press release went out.

"I thought it was in poor taste on such a sad and significant day that there was an attempt to seek political advantage like that," Weinberger said. "There's plenty of time in the campaign context for that to be sorted out and debated."

The mayor himself is not up for reelection until 2021. Council seats in all eight wards are up for grabs on Town Meeting Day in March, however.

Nathan Lantieri, a Progressive candidate in Ward 5, said Weinberger's handling of the del Pozo situation only solidifies his plans to run on a platform of transparency.

"This is actually a pattern," Lantieri said, adding, "I think [Weinberger's actions] will continue to be a part of the story that a lot of Progressives are telling."

Lantieri, who is challenging incumbent Democrat Chip Mason, expects there will be some blowback at the polls come March. "That really will be as great a condemnation as anything," he said.

In the meantime, Weinberger has vowed to hire an outside investigator to look into social media use by members of his police department. And he said he'll work to strengthen a draft social media policy meant for all city employees.

That document has been a long time coming. Without one, there were no repercussions in 2017 when del Pozo posted on the Facebook page of a young woman who had accused Burlington police officers of touching her inappropriately during an arrest.

At the time, Weinberger also promised that a social media policy would be published soon.

"In general, we receive overwhelmingly positive feedback about Chief del Pozo's use of social media and general accessibility to the public," Weinberger wrote in an email at the time to Seven Days about the incident. "In the few cases where we have received complaints, we have addressed them with the chief."

Key Events in the Twitter Trolling Scandal

July 4: Burlington police chief Brandon del Pozo creates an anonymous Twitter account, @WinkleWatchers, and fires off tweets at a critic, Charles Winkleman. The chief said he deleted the account after about an hour, but Winkleman takes screenshots of the messages.

July 23: Seven Days reporter Courtney Lamdin asks del Pozo whether he created the account. He repeatedly denies it.

July 28: According to Mayor Miro Weinberger, del Pozo comes to his home and admits he created the account and lied to Lamdin about it.

July 29: Weinberger takes del Pozo's gun, badge and phone and places him on administrative leave.

August 1: Del Pozo begins a family and medical leave of absence.

August 2: Weinberger's chief of staff announces that del Pozo has taken a family and medical leave of absence.

September 16: Del Pozo returns to duty. His absence is not fully explained.

December 9: On his website, Winkleman lays out his evidence that del Pozo was behind the @WinkleWatchers account.

December 12: Weinberger admits to Lamdin that del Pozo was behind the @WinkleWatchers account and blames an "underlying medical condition." Less than two hours later, del Pozo admits he created the account and apologizes for lying to Lamdin. Seven Days publishes a story.

December 13: Del Pozo tells reporters he won't resign. The mayor promises to give him a second chance. That evening, Seven Days publishes six and a half minutes of audio from Lamdin's July 23 interview with del Pozo. It shows that the chief lied at least a dozen times about the account.

December 16:
11:52 a.m.: Attorneys file a motion in an excessive-force lawsuit alleging that del Pozo failed to disclose the @WinkleWatchers account when asked a direct question under oath in legal discovery proceedings.

Noon: At a press conference, Weinberger announces that del Pozo has resigned. As the event begins, del Pozo tweets his resignation letter. 

6:30 p.m. Protesters rally at city hall, calling for Weinberger to be held accountable for failing to act in July. 

6:54 p.m. Weinberger's office announces that acting chief Jan Wright, who replaced del Pozo, was removed from the post after she admitted to discussing the department using a Facebook account with the name "Lori Spicer."

7:30 p.m. At a city council meeting, residents and councilors alike question Weinberger's role in the del Pozo incident.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Chief Concern | Can Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger survive a social media scandal within his police department?"