Last week’s dustup over a controversial city attorney nominee provided a glimpse of what Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger can expect from a new city council still learning how to work with — and against — a new mayor.
Just two and a half weeks after Weinberger nominated his close friend and political adviser Ian Carleton to be the city’s top lawyer, he found himself scrapping the appointment Thursday afternoon in the face of resistance from half the council members.
Leading the opposition was Councilor Paul Decelles, the 34-year-old, goateed, shorts-wearing Republican from the New North End. Though long a voice of conservatism on an otherwise liberal council, Decelles has emerged in the nascent Weinberger administration as a particularly vocal foil to the Democratic mayor.
The very night the mayor was sworn into office last month, Decelles challenged Weinberger’s nomination of Paul Sisson as interim chief administrative officer, complaining that the council had little notice to review such an important appointment. Two weeks later, Decelles was the first to criticize Carleton’s nomination, arguing that the former Vermont Democratic Party chairman was too partisan for the role and too close to the mayor. When Weinberger was weighing whether to raise property taxes to balance the budget, Decelles made it clear he would fight such a move.
“The voters elected him clearly with an overwhelming number,” Decelles says of Weinberger’s recent mayoral victory. “But at the same time, 14 of us were elected to provide checks and balances. To simply rubber-stamp or approve his agenda without questioning or talking about it would be ridiculous.”
With the departure of former council president and recent mayoral candidate Kurt Wright, Decelles is now the senior Republican on the council. Dave Hartnett, a Ward 4 Democrat who ran Wright’s campaign, sees Decelles as “trying to establish some leadership.” Hartnett, for one, thinks that’s a good thing.
“Paul always speaks with passion and believes in what he says, and I have respect for his opinions. I think it’s a plus for the council as a whole, ” Hartnett says. “Not that I agree with him on every issue. I certainly don’t.”
Democratic Councilor Ed Adrian (D-Ward 1) sees it differently. He says Decelles’ politics are out of the mainstream and his constant criticism of Weinberger is counterproductive.
“I think that it sets a negative tone, which clearly, at this stage in the new administration, nobody else is willing to set. I do think it speaks volumes about where Paul’s coming from,” Adrian says. “I’d like to see him turn it around. I think he has the ability to turn it around.”
For Decelles to effectively counter the new mayor, he will have to find common ground with an ideologically diverse group of pols. Despite Weinberger’s landslide win over Wright, the 14-member council remains divided between six party-line Democrats, three Progressives, two Republicans, two independents and Hartnett — a nominal Democrat who votes with the Republicans more often than not.
Carleton’s failed nomination is an illustration of what can happen when the non-Democrats on the council unite.
Two weeks after Weinberger announced the appointment, Carleton came before an informal panel of councilors, who grilled him on everything from his proposed salary to his residency outside of Burlington. But the common theme that emerged was a matter of trust: Could Progressives, Republicans and independents trust a former Democratic party chairman and close friend of the mayor to give them impartial, confidential advice?
Decelles upped the ante during the interview when he accused Carleton of deceiving him in a private conversation the night of Weinberger’s inauguration. Decelles maintains that Carleton assured him he would not be seeking the city attorney post, while Carleton says he simply said he was very happy in his current job.
Either way, the fix was in. Whatever chance Carleton stood of being confirmed was further diminished by a ham-fisted explanation that he deserved a salary $8000 higher than the city’s step system entitled him to, in part because he attended Yale Law School.
Three days later, Weinberger withdrew the nomination and apologized to the council for misunderstanding the unique role the city attorney plays: representing not just the mayor, but the council and the city as a whole.
“I said that I would be a mayor that acknowledges mistakes when they were made and took the consequences, and I indicated many times over the course of the campaign that a key part about rebuilding the public’s confidence in the mayor’s office was repairing the fractured relationship between the mayor’s office and the city council,” Weinberger said.
Those — like Decelles — who spoke loudest in opposition to Carleton’s appointment reacted graciously to Weinberger’s apology, saying it represented a stark contrast to his predecessor, former mayor Bob Kiss, who tended to dig in when challenged.
“I do hope that this is a sign of things to come,” Decelles says. “Obviously there’s going to be times when we don’t agree with him and he doesn’t agree with us, but I think the way it was handled was well.”
Of course, it’s easy to be gracious when you’ve just won a skirmish. The bigger question is whether the Carleton fight was just an anomaly or a preview of coming attractions. That will depend on how effectively and often the council’s Republicans and Progressives work together — as they have historically — or if Weinberger can peel off enough non-Democrat votes to support his agenda.
“I think it’s going to be an issue-by-issue thing,” newly elected City Councilor Max Tracy (P-Ward 2) says of Prog-Republican relations. “I think we Progressives are happy with our current small caucus. I think we might meet with [the Republican caucus] on an ad hoc basis, but I don’t think it’s going to be a regular thing because we’re really far apart on a lot of issues.”
As for how he’ll approach future nominations, Tracy — who, like Decelles, voted against Sisson’s appointment — says he’ll keep an open mind.
“Provided that Miro sticks with his campaign pledge to make an effort to have a tri-partisan administration, I don’t see myself as being a robotic ‘no’ on the rest of his nominees,” Tracy says. “I obviously want to ask questions and hold their feet to the fire a little bit, but I don’t want to be a robotic ‘no.’”
Councilor Vince Brennan (P-Ward 3), a fellow Progressive, says he sees an opportunity for his caucus to work collaboratively with Weinberger — and to pull the mayor to the left, when possible.
“In talking with Miro, I think he holds some Progressive values. That’s why I feel hope also,” Brennan says. “In all honesty, you can be a Democrat with Progressive values and that’s an OK place to be.”
Council President Joan Shannon (D-Ward 5), a Democrat who was elected without opposition to lead the body, says she is hopeful that councilors can transcend party labels and work constructively with the new mayor — and each other.
“There’s a lot of new people on the council and we have a new mayor, so everybody is really in the process of feeling each other out and finding that way of working with each other,” she says. “I know Miro really wants to work with the council, but exactly how the council wants to be engaged — he’s still finding that out and so are the councilors.”
Shannon says she’s confident the spat over Carleton’s nomination won’t cast an early shadow over her council’s tenure.
“I’m certainly not going to forecast doom and gloom. We’ll hope lessons are learned in this process, and we’ll work through this and we’ll learn from this.”
“I think the situation really points to the role of the opposition in city government,” he says. “You look for reasons to help the mayor first and foremost to make the city work, but at the same time you also ask questions when things go awry.”