Mement Miro

Memento Miro: The Last Dance (2021-2024)

Welcome to the fourth of our four-part series on the tenure of Miro Weinberger. See Part 1 here. See Part 2 here. See Part 3 here.

Burlington, VT Median Household Income: $59,331
Vermont Median Household Income: $74,014
USA National Median Household Income: $74,580
Burlington,VT Percentage of Population in Poverty: 26.4%
Vermont Percentage of Population in Poverty: 10.4%
USA National Percentage of Population in Poverty: 12.4%

Facing a significant opponent in Max Tracy and coming off of a disastrous year and a half, Weinberger took the race seriously. His reelection campaign raised $126,147 – then a Burlington record – to Tracy’s $63,336; despite this, come election day, he managed to win by only 129 votes, capturing victory by the smallest margin since 1981. Had the ranked-choice ballot measure Weinberger vetoed been allowed to stand on the ballot the November prior, there are many conceivable outcomes in which Weinberger would have lost – as it was, ranked-choice voting passed by a large margin, 28%, on the same ballot that Weinberger squeaked to victory by dint of a mere handful of votes. In his victory speech, Miro promised to continue the “hard work, innovation, collaboration, and persistence that has made Burlington one of the safest cities in America,” to scattered applause.

Less than a month later, he had a sterling display of the hard work, innovation, collaboration, and persistence his teams were employing toward that end: Kyle Dodson, the Harvard-educated nonprofit CEO he had appointed to a lavishly-salaried sinecure as the newly-created Director of Police Transformation, was found to have committed serious plagiarism in an eight-page report to the city. The 1,542-word report – about the length of a college essay paper – that Dodson had supposedly been working on for six months had been decried by city councilors as insubstantial and without direction even before the news of plagiarism leaked. Of the 1,542 words in it, half of them were found to be plagiarized. 

Upon his plagiarism making the news, Dodson said, “the plagiarism really only matters if I wanted credit for it […] Really, at this point, I don’t even want the work,” going on to add, “I had no police experience,” and that as Director of Police Transformation “I didn’t present myself as a police transformer.” He tacked on for good measure, “…people who have studied their whole lives are doing this work, and we’re still where we are, why was I expected to have the silver bullet?” 

As if appointing a feckless plagiarist wasn’t enough, Weinberger attempted to replace the city employee responsible for managing the city’s assessment of its Police Department, Racial Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging director Tyeastia Green, a Black woman, with the general manager of the Burlington Electric Department, Darren Springer, a white man. When asked why the mayor had taken her off this particular duty, Green responded, “I think that I’m just going to say that this was a mayor’s decision to make, and this is the decision he made.” Weinberger, later in the meeting, responded, “I think neutrality is key here,” then followed that statement up by saying, “I do have concerns that there might be questions about the report and questions about the conclusions of the report if it is seen as being kind of guided only through the lens of racial equity, racial justice.” Two weeks later, Weinberger backed down in the face of withering public backlash, saying, “I made a mistake,” but continuing to assert his decision was made “focusing [the decision] on achieving ‘neutrality,’” a phrasing that excluded the ideological underpinnings of replacing a Black woman in charge of racial equity with a white man from the electric department in a key piece of police oversight less than a year after George Floyd’s murder.

The first month of Weinberger’s new term wasn’t all bad news, however – the same week that news of Dodson’s plagiarism broke, Vermont Governor Phil Scott announced bars were allowed to reopen, ending restrictions on a large amount of Burlington’s downtown business sector. That week, the last of March, also saw federal approval of the American Recovery Plan Act, a flood of federal funding for states and municipalities economically devastated by COVID-19. Burlington was apportioned $27.3 million in “city and county allocations” and $14.3 million for its school district. In addition to the city desperately needing funding from a year of curtailed economic activity, the school district was in dire need. Burlington High School, its campus having been closed for good the year prior, had just paid out $3.5 million to Farrington Construction (of the CityPlace partnership group) to renovate downtown Burlington’s old Macy’s department store, now abandoned due to the prolonged CityPlace construction debacle. The school district had already signed a $1.2 million per year, three-and-a-half-year lease with Don Sinex’s Devonwood Group, who conveniently still owned the building. Eventually, a new high school would need to be built to the tune of $190 million – the architects for this plan, Freeman French Freeman, also being principal architects of CityPlace and the Weinberger Administration’s Moran Plant redevelopment into the “Moran Frame.” (Freeman French Freeman has also been contracted to work on the controversial new women’s prison.)

The Weinberger Administration had other fires to put out. That July, Gene Richards, the landlord and mortgage broker-turned director of aviation, whom Weinberger had praised as his “top appointment” in a 2013 article that anointed Richards as a “rock star” with “the eye of a businessman,” found himself placed on paid administrative leave. The city refused to disclose any further details other than the leave being related to a Human Resources complaint: in fact, the mayor’s administration did not notify the City Council or the Airport Commission of Richards’ absence or the ensuing internal investigation, echoing the secretive and immediate paid leave given to Brandon Del Pozo years before. Now, the man the mayor had appointed with “great confidence” and congratulated for his “outstanding job” in – what else – boosting the airport’s credit rating, faced the same fate as Miro’s other golden boy. 

Meanwhile, under Acting Chief Jon Murad, Burlington Police Department was enacting its own radical new strategy of hard work, innovation, collaboration, and persistence to dig itself back out from the muck. The “Priority Response Plan,” as Chief Murad called it, entailed the department delaying or flat-out ignoring “low-priority” calls regarding mental health incidents, trespassing, noise complaints, and vandalism while also justifying the cessation of late-night downtown foot patrol shifts on weekends despite the reopening of bars – bar closing time being the highest-volume times for calls. In conjunction with this, Murad spammed as many press releases as possible, most of which bemoaned their staffing shortages. In the summer of 2021, the Burlington Police Department under Murad released as many press statements as they had the past three summers combined. That summer, the department claimed that over thirty of its seventy-five officers were actively seeking employment in other departments. 

Another thing the Burlington Police Department pursued in the spring of 2021 with hard work, innovation, collaboration, and persistence was brutalizing a Black teenager. On May 15, 2021, a local mother of a Black youth, noticing a change in his behavior stemming from updated ADHD medication, requested that a pair of Burlington police officers come to speak with her son after she suspected he had stolen vape pens from a nearby gas station. Before the officers spoke with her son, she informed them of his switch to a new medication and the impact it had on his disability, as well as a recent medical procedure he had undergone to investigate potential heart issues. The officers, upon speaking with the teen, recovered several of the vape pens and then began threatening him with handcuffs and arrest should he not produce the last of them. Ignoring department policy, the officers forcibly restrained the youth. They recovered the final vape pen, then handcuffed and pinned the screaming teenager to his bedroom floor before calling paramedics, failing to inform them of the teen’s medical condition. When paramedics arrived, they wrapped the teen’s head in a mesh bag. They forcibly injected him with ketamine, citing “excited delirium,” a term referred to by the ACLU as an ‘illegitimate diagnosis rejected by the medical community yet often applied to victims of police violence.’ Acting Police Chief Murad, upon receiving the Burlington Police Commission’s recommendations regarding this incident’s internal investigation, declined to accept them, instead choosing to reply that the officers’ actions were appropriate in their use of force. Murad then told the teen’s mother that his officers did not violate department policies.

The same summer, a City Council resolution brought forward by realtor, future failed Democratic mayoral candidate, and arch-advocate of law enforcement Joan Shannon to raise the officer cap by eight was tabled after the New North End’s Ali Dieng cast a deciding vote in favor of waiting until a much-ballyhooed external consulting agency’s assessment of the Burlington Police Department’s resource management was delivered to City Council. The agency, CNA Consultants, delivered a draft of their report a month later. The report was not entirely positive – it found, among other issues in the department, proof of racial bias in policing, poor shift scheduling, poor training, and a significant lack of oversight. The draft also suggested a reduced cap for sworn officers from the prior year’s 105 to 76-84 officers, or two to ten more than the City Council had pruned the force back to. 

Weinberger and his acting chief both took exception to the draft report’s findings and initiated correspondence with CNA, demanding clarity regarding the suggested officer cap. They insisted that CNA consider the city’s obligations to provide the area’s airport, located in South Burlington – considered Burlington property – with security, specifically, police officers operating under the same union contract as Burlington Police. CNA responded by adding a proviso to their final report, suggesting that airport security be factored into Burlington’s officer capacity separately if not entirely provided from a separate labor pool. In addition to condemning the current contract as being “inappropriately negotiated” and implying impropriety in the Burlington Police Union’s monopoly on airport security negotiations, CNA’s response to the mayor’s requests for additional clarity in the final report included their own request – for an additional $40,150 for an extra 200 billable hours in search of said clarity. The consulting agency had no response at all to Murad’s requests. A month later, the City Council raised the officer cap to 79.

While the City Council dealt with an intransigent and hostile Police Department, it also confronted an intransigent and hostile Aviation Director. Gene Richards, Miro’s handpicked head of Burlington International Airport, had been on paid administrative leave for over a month; by August, a late-night Friday press release from the city disclosed that Richards had been found to engage in habitual embezzlement of airport resources and abuse of airport employees. Per the release, Richards stood charged with “regularly engaging in behavior that employees find humiliating and offensive, including yelling, screaming, name-calling, and using profanity.” The press release began and ended with Weinberger calling for Richards’ termination; apparently, the mayor had started the day asking his once-highest-trusted Director to resign, but Richards had refused. In a later lawsuit, Richards alleged that during this meeting, Weinberger had told him he was hurting the party and the administration, as well as threatened him with embarrassment and ruination. Now, the City Council removed him from his position at the mayor’s behest. Weinberger denied any knowledge of his longtime appointee’s history of abuse, stating, “the first I became aware of this was in the course of this investigation,” despite a lawsuit filed against Richards for discrimination and abuse three months before the city’s internal investigation over missing gasoline. 

Meanwhile, the city was busy releasing the ARPA funds it had received, allocating $1.795 million of its stash toward various initiatives, chief among them renovation of ventilation in public buildings, renewing water mains at UVM, and spearheading multiple smaller initiatives to ensure COVID-19 testing and mitigation could remain active. One particular carveout, not infrastructure or Covid related, was a $250,000 apportionment for homeowners whose property had appreciated 40% or more in value during the city’s recent property value reappraisals – this money was set aside to placate said homeowners who were waiting on the State of Vermont to provide them with tax credit relief due to said reappraisal. With this disbursement, the city burned through over $12 million of its initial $27.3 million ARPA allocation. Kara Alnasrawi, former board member of the Burlington Business Association, Director of the Church Street Marketplace Commission, former chairperson of the Downtown Action Group, former Church Street business owner, and derivatives trader during the 2008 global economic meltdown, tapped by Weinberger to serve as Burlington’s Economic Recovery Director, said, “we will be engaging the community” regarding the $15 million ARPA funds yet to be spent. 

That fall, Burlington’s South End was home to a troubling type of community engagement: the forced removal of a community of homeless people on an empty lot on Sears Lane. It was this very same plot that, four years prior, the Burlington Police Department under Brandon Del Pozo had come under fire for violating the US Constitution while dispersing a homeless encampment. At the time, Del Pozo stated he was “unsure of where the campers went” and that “disbanding the camp may have been enough to disrupt the pattern of safety incidents,” as well as, “Whatever was catalyzing the problems at that encampment, we’ll see if those problems catalyze at the new location.” Four years later, in October 2021, officers carried out multiple arrests at Sears Lane under Del Pozo’s fellow Harvard-educated successor Murad, just a few hundred feet away from where Del Pozo had given those remarks in 2017. Weinberger gave the campers five days to move out or be forcibly displaced.

Local activists began petitioning City Council meetings to extend the deadline or even allow the encampment to remain indefinitely, eventually winning the encampment an extension and drawing out the process of dismantlement for weeks; this action brought campers much-needed time to find other arrangements but could not stop the camp from eventually being cleared and dismantled by the City. At the beginning of December, the last campers and an errant activist were arrested, and the plot was swept of all remaining evidence that people once lived there. For his part, the mayor issued a press release teasing new housing initiatives, signaling his sincere belief in “housing truly being a human right for all.”

It was thus that a short amount of time later, the city reeling from wildly inflated property values, virtually no available rental stock, and an influx of unhoused individuals on the street (some of whom were there having been directly bounced from Sears Lane), the Mayor’s office released “Mayor Miro Weinberger’s 2021 Action Plan to Fulfill the Promise of Housing as a Human Right in Burlington,” with the pithy subheading “Ten-point plan outlines roadmap to double rate of housing production and end chronic homelessness.” The one-page Action Plan’s ten bullet points toward ending chronic homelessness resolved to the investment of $5 million of the remaining $15 million ARPA funds, one-fifth of which would be invested “to better serve the chronically homeless,” the rest toward building new “permanently affordable housing,” as well as creating a new administrative assistant position within CEDO. A large group of hastily drawn target goals were affixed to these concrete actions, approachable only through deregulation, upzoning, and finger-crossing. One of the ten bullet points simply read, “Open new housing opportunities through the creation of a mixed-use Enterprise Innovation District in a portion of the South End,” the same South End that only a short while prior had housed very cheaply and for a lengthy amount of time people who had no means of affording anywhere else to live.

A survey conducted immediately after the Mayor’s Action Plan’s release reaffirmed its key suggestion: to spend significant amounts of ARPA money on supporting the unhoused. The survey, which received the largest response of any such initiative in the city’s history, overwhelmingly indicated Burlingtonians’ wishes that the federal funding go toward expanding housing options for the houseless. With the mandate of the people and a ten-point, one-page action plan in hand, Weinberger set into motion to Fulfill the Promise of Housing as a Human Right in Burlington. 

In February 2022, the City Council approved the release of almost $3 million in ARPA funding for a community of “emergency shelter pods” and a year-round day shelter, the site of which might be determined later. A month later, Weinberger administration officials formally requested that a parking lot on Elmwood Avenue be the site of the pod community until 2025. Elmwood Avenue, in Burlington’s Old North End, is a much lower-income and working-class neighborhood than those abutting the South End’s Sears Lane. So while, in the Mayor’s scheme, the high-income South End’s part in Fulfilling the Promise of Housing as a Human Right would be to host a mixed-use Enterprise Innovation District, Elmwood Avenue was firmly set as the target for where a small number of qualified unhoused people might temporarily take shelter, provided they met specific qualifications. By April, despite considerable backlash and concern from those in the neighborhood, Elmwood Avenue was set in stone as the future site of the pod community. 

While these decisions may have directed suspicion toward whether Weinberger believed housing is a human right, like many things, it can be hard to understand principles and beliefs without understanding a person’s definition of reality. Understanding Weinberger’s definitions of how housing might be a human right became clearer in March 2022 when he vetoed an ordinance passed by the City Council to regulate short-term rental speculation in Burlington. His reasoning for the veto was that it might disenfranchise current landowners of their property rights, lessening their ability to make money, which they would then potentially go on to invest in creating larger amounts of permanent housing. A week later, the City Council fell a vote short of overriding Weinberger’s veto, with Karen Paul – Miro’s last-minute champion in the dismantlement of Burlington Telecom – switching her vote and upholding Weinberger’s particular vision of human rights. 

As the mayor descended from his figurative Temple Mount, having full-throatedly sung his support for one type of human right, Tyeastia Green – his director of Racial Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging – departed her office. While she declined to comment on her unexpected resignation, others close to her did: a state senator was quoted as saying, “there were conversations that made her feel truly unwelcome and that made it clear the systemic change she was trying to bring was unwelcome,” adding, “I frankly don’t know how she stayed this long.” Max Tracy, Weinberger’s erstwhile foil on City Council and electoral opponent, blamed the mayor as well, as per Seven Days, “alleging that the administration threatened to slash Green’s budget and to move management of the department’s marquee event, Juneteenth, to Burlington City Arts.” However, this would be the only glimpse the media would gain of Weinberger’s motive, as he canceled an interview with the publication on the topic, sent out a press release, and then had his chief of staff call said allegations “pure fiction.” As Green departed, multiple other department staffers left as well, seemingly in solidarity. In parting, Weinberger said, “Of course, we didn’t always agree 100% on everything. Whenever that happened, I tried to work through it with her and I was committed and eager to do that right up until the end.”

Also in February, Weinberger nominated acting Police Chief Murad to be appointed Chief permanently. The City Council voted on the nomination and was unable to reach the seven-vote consensus required for the appointment despite a last-minute about-face by two city councilors; the six councilors who voted against Murad did so out of concerns that he was unwilling to commit to the reforms they had mandated in 2020. In addition to their concerns, the six councilors who voted against instating Murad as Chief permanently cited multiple members of the Burlington Police Commission’s allegations of disrespectful and defensive behavior on Murad’s part during closed-door meetings.

Dejected by this setback but anticipating, perhaps, that yet another summer of completely unpoliced downtown Burlington might spoil its return to full-bore economic activity from Covid restrictions, Murad spent the Spring of 2022 finally implementing City Council’s 2020 recommendation to supplement its force of sworn officers with unarmed positions. Nominally focused on responding to mental health crises and other incidents containing a low potentiality of violence, these positions took only a few months to fill, and so by April, acting Chief Jon Murad felt it finally within his department’s grasp to allow a two-person patrol on Church Street during the peak hours of bar business and closure. 

Despite the resumption of police presence after a year of absence on Burlington’s busiest, drunkest street during the hours it was busiest getting drunk, April in Burlington’s downtown area saw three gunfire incidents in its downtown area. May saw four more gunfire incidents plus multiple attempted stabbings in Burlington’s urban core late at night. The police department responded to these incidents with initiatives typical of the city: issuing press releases and otherwise sitting on their hands. Chief Murad had even gotten out in front of the matter – on May 10th, after the sixth of ultimately twenty-six “gunfire incident” press releases Murad’s department would issue that year, the acting Chief went to the press to ascribe the majority of said gunfire incidents to “affinity groups,” comprised of individuals who were already known to Burlington Police. Of the seven gunfire incidents occurring downtown late at night, which Burlington Police issued press releases on, only three were reported by the press as cases of assault; only one of these – the shooting on the 23rd – was verified and reported in the media as an attempted homicide. 

At the same time that Burlington Police were shining a light on a rash of gunfire in downtown Burlington, which they were seemingly powerless to prevent, downtown Burlington saw a high-profile killing of a very different sort: the death of Don Sinex’s involvement with the CityPlace development boondoggle. Having been bought out of the project by his three local partners, Sinex still owned the existing mall properties, the redevelopment of which he promised to be involved with in “Phase II” and “Phase III” of the project. While Sinex’s departure from project ownership and leadership signaled an ignominious end to the initial egocentric exercise embarked upon in 2014, it also once again allowed the mayor to speak hopefully regarding the embattled enterprise, extolling the new leadership’s “long record of delivering successful building projects…” a consideration of his – better late than never – which was eight years in the taking.

As if to mock this development, CityPlace’s rocky history was echoed that May when Weinberger’s Elmwood Avenue pod community found itself mired in delay and snares of red tape. Originally planned to launch in July, the effort to construct suitable emergency housing for the handful of Burlington’s unhoused who met City-approved documentary criteria was now projected to be open and admitting applications that November. While not exactly good news for the project, a launch date of November would still allow the few who made it into the pods relief from the oncoming winter; it would allow this, that is, were there to be no further delays. 

While the city struggled to fill the vacant lot on Elmwood with temporary housing, further delay plagued one of the city’s largest vacant properties, Memorial Auditorium, which the Weinberger administration had entirely abandoned two terms earlier. Memorial Auditorium’s closure, meant to provide time enough to find a plan for its reuse, had been precipitated by deferred maintenance; now, six years later, having received only cursory maintenance and having garnered no further plans, the structure received a vote from the City Council allocating additional money toward preserving the decaying hulk of a building. Estimates on its rehabilitation ranged upwards of $40 million; the city’s projected bond allotments tapped out on a new high school could only apportion $1 million to keep it afloat, $700,000 of which would be used just to keep the building standing. The mayor was clear that his preference would be against the demolition of the structure, but with no publicly available funding on the table for redevelopment, the only option remaining seemed to be courting an influx of private capital for commercial use of the once-iconic beacon of civic pride and investment.

June brought downtown Burlington another nebulous Burlington Police press release regarding a late-night gunfire incident, followed by another nebulous press release regarding a late-night gunfire incident in July. The day after this press release was issued regarding gunfire, a break-in occurred in downtown Burlington, which led to a horrifying murder-suicide; while this murder was an act of domestic violence, Jon Murad, speaking to the press, made sure to link it to his department’s recent preoccupation with documenting random and unresolved gunfire incidents on or near Burlington’s Church Street block, the bulk of which was spurred by his aforementioned “affinity groups.” The incidents continued throughout August unabated, with four more gunfire incidents occurring in downtown Burlington, including another murder

For their efforts, or lack thereof, the Burlington Police Officers’ Association was able to negotiate a new contract in July of 2022, which promised them 20% base pay raises over the contract’s duration. The contract’s pay raises aligned with Weinberger’s rebuilding plan for the police force, which, as approved by the City Council, set aside $270,000 for officer signing bonuses and $150,000 for housing, education, and child care incentives. The police department was one of two that were not afforded budget cuts by the administration, the other being the leaderless Department of Racial Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging, which had seen its staff go from fifteen under the recently departed Tyeastia Green to just five at the time of budget proposal.

Although there was much cause for celebration among Burlington’s law enforcement, one of August’s “gunfire incidents” was unlike the others. While driving home, Colin Burch encountered a small traffic jam caused by a police standoff on Manhattan Drive. Burlington Police had been called to a mental health crisis caused by a man wielding not a gun but a knife; when the three responding officers could not de-escalate the incident, the man charged at the nearest officer, who deployed their taser. As this happened, one of the other two officers, Simon Bombard, shot at the man three times, one bullet hitting the man in the leg, one bullet hitting a police cruiser parked nearby, and the last going through the pant leg of the officer being charged at before ricocheting and rocketing through Burch’s windshield, missing his head by a matter of mere inches.

The summer’s bad news stretched on – although several million in ARPA funding had been earmarked for Burlington School District, and although Weinberger took every opportunity possible to trumpet his decade-old rescuing of the City’s credit rating, news broke in June that the City and School District could not see themselves borrowing or raising enough money to build their already-approved plans for a new high school. While the City initially cited a $60 million funding gap between plans, Superintendent Tom Flanagan proposed various cost-saving measures to narrow the gap to $15 million. Noteworthy here, then, are the $16 million in TIF bonds – remember those from Part 1? – issued by the City for various initiatives centered mainly around commercial real estate for its Waterfront TIF District, including CityPlace and The Moran Frame. 

In the private sector, however, CityPlace seemed to be making good progress in attracting funding and developing construction plans. The new development group submitted a request for a $275,000 federal grant to develop 80 to 88 units of affordable housing on the CityPlace plot in partnership with local nonprofit Champlain Housing Trust. Originally to be included as a set-aside allotment of the main development’s housing units, the developers now planned for the affordable housing to be its own structure segregated from the main structure. The mayor lauded this new plan as part of “more progress in the last four months than in the prior four years,” a statement that belied the fact that the grant had yet to be issued and construction yet to start on this new phase of development. Although adding the construction of a hitherto-unconceived eight-story building might prove a complication, the partners held firm on their fall 2025 projected completion date.

By October, Chief Murad went to the media to make hay of a 300% rise in Burlington gunfire incidents. A week and a half earlier, one of the men involved in the deadliest and most targeted of these incidents had been murdered by another, also involved in said shootings. However, there was no further talk specifically of “affinity groups,” Murad went out of his way to disabuse the public of the notion that drug trafficking was precipitating gun violence, instead citing “old grudges, beefs, ego, or just agitation.” A month later, Seven Days published a lengthy investigative report into the “beefs,” “grudges,” and “affinity groups,” Murad might have been referring to, documenting a systemically unaddressed pattern of troubling and violent behavior among New American immigrants in the Burlington area. In the piece, Murad was quoted as saying, “help keep your friends safe, if they won’t help themselves,” and expressing disgruntlement at the recent removal of school resource officers from the Burlington School District.

All this information was available to law enforcement during this period; what exactly they and the city were doing besides issuing press releases every time a gun went off within city limits was an open question. The answer seems to have been very little other than treading water. Shortly before publishing their piece on the shootings, Seven Days published a story in which numerous sources confirmed Burlington Police dispatch was telling 911 callers they could and would not send officers to their location because the police had been “defunded.” 

Putting the lie to this was the City’s emergency request for outside police help: despite a $100,000 contract they had paid out to the Vermont State Police at the end of the summer for help filling out patrols, by December only 26% of the contracted shifts had been filled; a fact the State Police largely blamed on the shifts being “voluntary,” as well as that they were woefully understaffed – despite no “defunding” efforts at all on part of the state. That December, yet another New American was killed in a late-night downtown incident, potentially part of one of Murad’s “affinity groups.” Less than a year later, the particulars of the police work being done to prevent these killings would come to light.

By its readjusted opening date in November, the mayor’s pod community on Elmwood Avenue still had not materialized. Although the weather was turning cold and setup had been given an extra four months, the site was still waiting on the delivery of five pods, which would raise the number of units to thirty, as well as bathrooms with showers. The CEO of Champlain Housing Trust, who had been contracted to run the pod community, said the pods would be ready “sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas,” which a week or two later was changed to early January during a City Council meeting. In December, Weinberger reaffirmed the January date of his nearly $2 million ARPA-funded anti-homelessness silver bullet, stating that the thirty-unit facility would be “operational as early in January as possible.” The pods, originally projected to be ready in July of 2022, admitted their first residents the third week of February 2023 after the brunt of a cold and unremitting Vermont winter—the weekend before the pod community had seen record-low temperatures. Eighty unhoused people had applied for the thirty-five beds; the additional five pods that had not materialized in November were still out of place. 

In January, news broke that the Burlington Police Department, having spent 2022 securing 20% raises, stoking public fears of gun violence via media appearances and press releases, complaining to 911 callers about “defunding,” and receiving $100,000 worth of sporadic night shift guest spots by Vermont State Troopers, had been moonlighting as security for a private apartment complex to the tune of $81/hour. Weinberger wasted no time going to bat for his Acting Police Chief. The mayor was quick to point out that Murad had not signed off on this contract, nor did he know when Murad had become aware of the contract himself. Eventually, it became clear Murad had known of the contract from the moment it was signed but had decided not to tell Weinberger. Murad denied multiple interview requests and avoided the topic like the plague, ostensibly hoping any furor would be blown over when the mayor nominated him for the permanent position of Police Chief again, as Weinberger had signaled he would do. 

Along with the latest public outcry against his already once-rebuffed choice for top cop, Miro’s new year started with a fresh headache – in a report released by state auditor Doug Hoffer, Miro’s most highly-favored pet project, the Waterfront Tax Increment Financing District, was found to be so profoundly mismanaged during his tenure thus far as to require three separate audits. The final bullet point of Hoffer’s report simply stated, “The City’s errors were so numerous and of so many different types, it is clear a new process is required to reduce the risk of significant errors in the future.” The report, in addition to finding grounds to initiate an entirely new audit, found the TIF, under Miro’s watch, had avoided almost $200,000 in payments to the State Education Fund, that it spent over $1 million more than it had initially disclosed requiring to voters, and that $173,000 of work had been done outside of the District entirely; underlying all this, the report stated, was a decade’s worth of irresponsible accounting that betrayed very little sense of record keeping or organization. To cap it all off, Hoffer issued a press release saying, among other withering phrases, “We estimate Burlington will pay more than $11 million in interest for $32.6 million borrowed to pay for improvements” as a result of the Weinberger administration’s profligate use of Tax Increment Financing. 

The mayor would not be content to simply sit idly by while higher-level authorities subjected him to damning audits, however deserved they may be: a few months later, seizing upon opportunity granted by a minor headline out of Minneapolis, that March, the administration decided to expose its lack of organization and fiscal accountability with an audit of their own. Spurred by former Burlington Racial Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging director Tyeastia Green’s controversial departure from the same position in Minneapolis, the Weinberger administration initiated an internal investigation into the department’s fiscal comportment regarding its 2022 Juneteenth celebration. The audit, itself costing $41,000, found that Green’s chief fault was in overpromising private contributions; she initially stated having $200,000 to $300,000 in private commitments to the celebration. Ultimately recorded intake and expenditures fell far short of these figures. The audit uncovered no fraud or abuse on Green’s part; all seven of the audit’s recommendations were made with an eye toward lax extant city policy regarding budgeting and expenditures. 

Acting Police Chief Jon Murad, never one to shy from the spotlight – or afford other department heads, let alone former ones, more than a few winks’ worth of time in it – tapdanced his way back into headlines in April of 2023. Murad had made news for displaying the precise, exacting methodology of 21st Century Policing in service of investigating the shootings happening in the summer of 2022. An eighteen-year-old in critical condition, having been shot, was undergoing treatment at the University of Vermont Medical Center when the trauma surgeon present requested police exit the operating room. The police refused, and the trauma surgeon repeated his request. Cue Murad: the Acting Chief, springing upon the scene, threatened to arrest the trauma surgeon. After, the surgeon filed a complaint with the Burlington Police Commission, which went unreported for nearly a year. When interviewed, the mayor and his Acting Chief called the incident a “disagreement” and refused to confirm its details. 

In fact, the mayor was very involved in cleaning up after his Acting Chief immediately after the incident. In an email to the Police Commission, Miro told commissioners that Murad had apologized to the surgeon, and so “I am now satisfied that this matter is resolved” and that “I would ask the Commission to consider adopting the same posture.” When the Commission referred the complaint to state authorities, Weinberger continued running interference, arranging a secretive meeting with the Police Commission as well as City Council President Karen Paul (she of the last-minute Burlington Telecom and short-term rental votes) while opting to leave the rest of the City Council in the dark, opting only to share information about the investigation into Murad’s misconduct in a memo months later after the Council’s political balance had shifted to the mayor’s favor. The memo itself disparaged the Police Commission’s investigation and decision to refer it to the state level, questioned the complaint’s veracity, and begged the City Council not to go public until “we have had a chance to discuss this together.” When they did in January of 2023, it was behind closed doors, and afterward, not a single Councilor came forward. 

As the results of this inquest and Murad’s chances at becoming the actual – rather than Acting – Police Chief hung in the balance, Weinberger’s administration continued giving ARPA funds to those who needed them most: business owners. $500,000 of the City’s remaining ARPA money went to seeding a “revolving loan program” of micro-lending. A month later, the City spent $1 million in ARPA funding in the form of grants to twenty-five area nonprofits targeted specifically for communities impacted most greatly by COVID-19. Still, they managed to sneak in a $50,000 grant to New Moon catering, owned by Andrew Schonbek – heir to a chandelier fortune and owner of a 2-plus million dollar downtown Burlington property. Schonbeck is also the sole listed personnel of the Isaiah 61 Foundation. This corporate religious foundation happens to be the largest sponsor of Weinberger’s favorite homeless shelter contractor, ANEW Place, itself partnered with New Moon Catering. Both share Matt Beer, Schonbek’s brother-in-law, as an Executive Director of ANEW Place and Director of New Moon’s parent company, 150 Cherry Street, a tax-exempt religious nonprofit.

Perhaps this cash infusion into ANEW Place’s associates’ coffers was spurred by an incoming revenue deficit: reports surfaced in May 2023 that Anew Place was winding down operations of the Champlain Inn. After taking in several million dollars to run the property, it was in no better condition than before; guests reported “black mold up around the ceiling,” as well as an “antisocial” management team. Now, Champlain Housing Trust, a larger and more experienced operation, would be given the run of the Champlain Inn. A few months later Champlain Housing Trust would receive $20 million in funding from MacKenzie Scott after she divorced Jeff Bezos; this cash infusion would directly precipitate further changes to the CityPlace development. 

In the first week of June 2023, with the investigation into his actions threatening a trauma surgeon with arrest pending, Jon Murad was finally appointed and confirmed as Police Chief permanently, further cementing Weinberger’s legacy of getting it done for those in his favor. During his three-year “job interview” as Acting Chief, Murad had presided over the widespread politicization of his department to the detriment of public safety, denied the influence of racial bias in racially-driven statistical disparities created by his department, taken on private security contracts supposedly behind the mayor’s back, had officers aid in forcibly injecting a Black teen with ketamine in their own home, and seen an officer almost shoot a bystander in the head while confronting a mentally ill man, to say nothing of the ongoing investigation into his conduct the summer before. 

As spring turned to summer, Weinberger’s $41,000 audit of the former Racial Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging director became public knowledge and immediately began accruing backlash. One critic, calling the audit a “modern-day lynching” and a “witch hunt,” connected the investigation to Green’s abrupt departure from the Weinberger administration, a theory echoed by a Black sitting City Councilor who went on to add that their relationship with the mayor had also rapidly deteriorated after said City Councilor became critical of the mayor’s decision-making. City Council’s Progressive caucus issued a statement alleging that any mismanagement in planning Juneteenth celebrations had happened after Green’s 2022 departure; the statement made sure to note that Green’s department experienced an exodus of many key staff directly after Green’s exit, well before the celebration’s most crucial planning stages. Finally, the statement made sure to point out that directly before Green’s voluntary exit, the city had seen a much higher-profile department head, Gene Richards, refuse to step down after tangible evidence that he had directly misappropriated thousands of dollars, if not more, worth of City material, with nary an audit or investigation into said behavior. 

Green personally responded as well, stating, “I believe that the audit came about because Miro was a white supremacist and he was very upset about the amount of money that was being spent on the Black community,” calling to mind former City Council President Max Tracy’s allegation that Weinberger had threatened Green with shifting budgeting and oversight for Juneteenth celebrations from her department to Burlington City Arts, whose board and management team is by a large majority white. Weinberger’s response to Green’s remarks, typically demure and tactful, stated, “I am aware that there are some who are trying to use this report to advance their own vile agendas, and I condemn that and reject that,” before tacking on, “some of the accusations made against me I find abhorrent […] and I reject them.” This itself lent the impression that Weinberger could not and would not bring himself to apologize to a Black woman – standing by his mental process in attempting to replace Green with Darren Springer on issues of police oversight to emailing her “I am left with a deep sense of regret that the steps I was taking over the last month to try to improve our working relationship were not understood that way by you and that perhaps if the last month had unfolded differently we would still be moving forward together,” after Green made it clear she was resigning.

There were to be few press events or news from City Hall for the rest of the summer, and on the tail of this controversy, at the end of September, Weinberger announced to a standing-room-only crowd that he would not be seeking another term as mayor. As part of his remarks, he included, “I’m committed to handing off a strong, effective and resilient local government for our next city’s leader to steward.” Before the evening, he made sure to remind the crowd that he considered one of his greatest achievements to be restoring the city’s credit rating.

A few months later, in November, the Weinberger administration spent $50,000 in ARPA funding on a “downtown safety initiative” to improve lighting, provide private security details to downtown Burlington businesses, and fund a “Love Burlington” marketing campaign to boost downtown business. This was apace with downtown businesses crying poverty while simultaneously advancing narratives about rampant crime destroying revenues –  this part of a long and well-loved tradition of businesses weeping and gnashing their teeth over supposedly slow holiday sales.

As the Weinberger administration drew to a close that December, so too did the CityPlace saga, not with a bang, but a whimper: the long-delayed, now-begun construction faced another change directly tied to the mayor’s tendency to throw ARPA money at private enterprise like a drunk lotto winner at a strip club. On his way out the door, Weinberger doled out $2 million in construction incentives to developers and housing initiatives, including his latest affordable housing darling, Champlain Housing Trust. Fresh off a $20 million investment of their own, Champlain Housing Trust no longer had as much interest in partnering with CityPlace in building an independent 80-unit structure downtown; the additional $1 million or so from the City was all the incentive that Champlain Housing Trust needed to cut loose from the commitment and work on 70 units of their own in Burlington’s New North End at their Cambrian Rise development. CityPlace Partners, no strangers to adjusting their plans, simply canceled the construction plans for a separate structure and announced that they would simply reabsorb 70 of the initial 80 units.

Weinberger’s (self-anointed) vaunted financial acumen was due for another series of hits on the way out the door. Although the greatest constant of his mayorship was his seeming inability to go through a public statement without mentioning that he had both saved the city’s credit rating and bolstered long-term fiscal growth through TIF projects in his very first term, yet another state audit of the city’s other TIF district – the Downtown TIF district – found otherwise. The sequel to 2023’s gravely-worded audit found that the city’s other TIF district owed the state education fund $95,363, that the city had misallocated funding that left the district $259,331 short. Additional funds of $106,338 and $134,653 had been misallocated as well, and most damningly, Weinberger’s administration had accrued $4.6 million of debt outside of proper channels and state-level approval. This was not exclusive to the Downtown TIF – the city’s borrowing behavior under Weinberger had incurred much higher amounts of debt than initially disclosed across the board; as one section of the audit put it  [bold lettering theirs]: “As required, the City informed voters about interest cost, disclosing an estimated $4 million for the remaining debt to be issued. However, the actual interest is almost $12 million of the $30,120,000 GO bond issued in August 2022.” 

Displaying his typical professionalism, humility, and willingness to own up to mistakes, Weinberger issued a press release in response to the second state audit in as many years showing a decade-long pattern of gross fiscal negligence by his administration. The mayor called the audit’s findings “bogus,” and argued that because the prior year’s audit of the Waterfront TIF district had not specifically found fault in the city’s use of bond premiums there was no basis to criticize its use of them this year. He then trotted out Burlington’s Chief Administrative Officer Katherine Schad – five-year Board Vice Chair at ANew Place, former Director of Operations at Chemonics International, a massive Washington, D.C. based foreign aid NGO with a troubling history of racial discrimination, misappropriation of funds, enablement of corruption, lack of transparency, and general poor performance, and former Project Manager at a separate NGO contractor during the exact time that it was covering up a major radioactive waste scandal  – to say that interest costs were subject to change, that terms had yet to finalize, and that anyway, the city should not have to answer its financing terms to the state as it might slow down the financing of projects. The kicker, perhaps, was the mayor’s press release glowering that, “The City will take action to correct some ledger errors uncovered in the audit, which will have no impact on the City’s operations, nor will they trigger a need to increase tax rates.”

It was, then, perhaps, surprising when news broke the next month that the city was facing a $9 million budget shortfall, that all but $1 million of ARPA money had been spent, and that the city would indeed be increasing taxes. The increased taxes would not address growing bond premiums due to the city’s woeful administration of its TIF projects, however – it would go to the police, whose new contract added $1.7 million in costs to the city. In addition to higher taxes to feed the Police Department, the Weinberger administration proposed studying staffing cuts across the board throughout the rest of the city’s departments. 

That same month, Weinberger’s longstanding albatross, CityPlace, underwent yet more planning changes: the project, which once eschewed using space for hotels at all in favor of increased housing stock, was cutting 70 units of housing – the exact amount it had committed as affordable housing when reabsorbing the units from their aborted standalone affordable housing project at the same site – in favor of adding a second hotel (comprised of 210 hotel rooms) to their project. The addition of a second hotel in place of housing was necessitated, the developers said, by heightened construction and operating costs. Dave Farrington posed it as an existential issue, saying, “this is an economic move that we had to do if we wanted this project to keep going on,” and that without the hotel addition, “there’d be zero units.” The mayor also posed it as a positive in the way only he could – “It means more money that flows to the city in terms of property taxes, in terms of gross receipts into local businesses.”

Hotels replacing housing and public space abounded in the last few months of Weinberger’s term: Memorial Auditorium, of which the mayor had said, “this administration has never supported the demolition of” less than two years ago, was now in Weinberger’s crosshairs: the city had begun officially considering partnering with local developer Eric Farrell, impresario of the New North End’s Cambrian Rise development (the same one that had hoovered up ARPA funds in the form of Weinberger’s Champlain Housing Trust pivot a few months prior), to at least partially demolish the historic civic center to erect a large commercial block potentially comprised of – among other things – several hotels. A month later the city would summarily approve a pre-development agreement for the project. 

The developer mayor, at the very end of his decade in power, less than a month away from being out of office, his city $9 million in the hole, was not quite done with his agenda yet. In late March 2024, weeks away from Progressive Emma Mulvaney-Stanak assuming mayorship, Weinberger was able to push zoning changes through City Council that amounted to “upzoning,” deregulation of zoning code that allows for higher-density development. Weinberger stated, “this is one of the most important actions the city council has done in the last 12 years,” and that “this will change the trajectory of housing in our neighborhoods.” In real-world implementation cases, upzoning has been linked to rises in housing prices in areas affected, called a “costly mistake” by one of its earliest proponents, correlated with worse affordability for owners and renters, and referred to in rigorous academic analysis as “gentrification without affordability.”

And so, having sold a public utility to private interests, having finally gotten his police chief, his large development agreements, his zoning deregulation, having spent all but $1 million of $27 million in ARPA funds in the space of a few years, and having eliminated any hope of public utilities, Weinberger was now ready to step down. Until, that is, the governor’s seat opens up.

Support The Rake Vermont

Our journalism can't happen without your support.

Become a Patron!

Related Articles

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this.