Challengers in Burlington’s mayoral race clashed with incumbent Miro Weinberger in a Friday night debate over how he has handled issues of policing throughout his tenure, while he defended his track record and promoted his experience.
Six out of seven mayoral candidates attended Friday night’s debate hosted by Seven Days and Town Meeting TV. Weinberger and City Councilors Ali Dieng, I-Ward 7, and Max Tracy, P-Ward 2, were in attendance, as were some of the lower profile candidates. Independents Will Emmons, Haik Bedrosian and Kevin McGrath also participated. Patrick White is also in the race, but did not participate due to illness, according to moderator Sasha Goldstein, news editor at Seven Days.
At one of the most heated points in the debate, candidates were permitted to ask each other questions.
City Council President Tracy, who is running as a Progressive, asked Weinberger, a Democrat, about the “social media scandal” surrounding ex-Police Chief Brandon del Pozo, who resigned from his position in December 2019 after it was revealed he had a fake Twitter account he used to harass one of his critics. A deposition revealed this past December that Weinberger knew about the account before del Pozo tweeted from it.
“Do you regret your actions and the way you handled that?” Tracy asked, “And do you take full responsibility for the damage that was done?”
Weinberger responded that the incident was “very challenging” and that he “worked hard” to handle the situation correctly. He said he would have handled some things differently, but didn’t specify what. Instead, he aimed a question at Tracy about the dwindling police department staff.
The department announced in December that it may have to forgo staffing its overnight shift because it has been losing officers quickly after the city council voted to reduce police staffing levels by 30% to reallocate funds to racial justice initiatives.
“When I’m out campaigning right now, Councilor Tracy, what people are focused on with respect to the police is not this incident from quite a ways back now,” Weinberger said. “They are focused on the current crisis in policing, that you have created through your actions through your, I think, terrible judgment.”
He asked Tracy whether he would support the Public Safety Continuity Plan he’s presented to the council to hire unarmed, community service officers and liaisons.
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Tracy said he supported the proposal for an independent police oversight board that would have investigatory and disciplinary power over the police — a proposal that he pointed out Weinberger had vetoed. Tracy said he supports adding unarmed, community-centric staffing roles on the police force, but didn’t say whether he would support Weinberger’s latest proposal.
Weinberger said he didn’t hear an answer from Tracy. He also defended his decision to veto the oversight board, saying that it would have made the “staffing crisis” the police department is seeing even worse.
“It had to be vetoed because we are getting close to the point where we are not going to be able to assure the people of Burlington that we can keep them safe,” Weinberger said. “Are you ready to act to fix the crisis you created or not?”
Tracy repeated that he supported adding more unarmed members to the force. “I don’t like that effort to increase the cap on officers,” he responded.
Weinberger still didn’t like his answer. “Councilor Tracy, mayors need to act. Mayors need to be decisive. Mayors need to do things. This proposal has been in front of you since December,” he said. “And you still can’t tell us an answer.”
“I provided an answer,” Tracy responded. “I don’t support the increase in the officer caps. I do support the other elements. We may be bringing some amendments to bring that resolution more in line with that vision.”
Weinberger also posed a question to Dieng, who is running as an independent, about whether he would support the Public Safety Continuity plan.
“The city council did not start this problem,” Dieng said. “But I think they tried to solve the issue that you did not solve.” He said Weinberger should have taken action on issues persisting in the police department before they became issues the council attempted to deal with.
He said he thinks the council needs to do an assessment of the department and determine how many officers the city needs before he would support any proposal to raise or decrease the cap on officer levels.
Bedrosian also posed a question to Weinberger about his decision to write to the city’s medical examiner following the death of Douglas Kilburn, who died after being punched by Burlington police officer Cory Campbell. The medical examiner ruled the death a homicide, but Weinberger and then-Police Chief del Pozo questioned the results.
Bedrosian said the request seemed “a little bit unethical.” Bedrosian, who mentioned he had served on the city council in his twenties and had previously run for mayor, in the 1990s and early 2000s, said at the beginning of the debate that he believed Weinberger would “almost certainly” win the race.
At the time, Weinberger said he reached out to the medical examiner to ensure that the findings were transparent and accurate and that he couldn’t comment on whether the findings were correct. But Friday night, he made it known that he took issue with the report.
“We thought he got his report wrong then,” Weinberger said. “I still think he got the report wrong.”
“Forgive me, but you’re not a doctor,” Bedrosian pushed back.
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“Just because someone is an expert doesn’t mean they should be beyond reproach, or should be beyond questioning,” Weinberger argued. “I think that’s very dangerous thinking.”
Weinberger’s critiques of Tracy and Dieng on issues of policing tie back to his central pitch to voters, which he made at the beginning of the debate: now is not the time for radical change; instead, steady leadership is needed.
“We continue to grapple with a historic pandemic. A great recession. A long overdue reckoning with racial justice, and an accelerating climate emergency,” Weinberger said. “This is a moment that deserves, that demands, proven leadership. Moments like this are no time for a mayor without management experience to be learning on the job.”
Tracy told voters he’s running to make Burlington a more affordable, accessible city that promotes transparency and accountability.
“Burlingtonians deserve better than maintaining the status quo that only works for the powerful few,” Tracy said. “Let’s be clear about what’s at stake in this election. This is not about just surviving a pandemic. This is about having the courage as a community to take on our most pressing issues as a city.”
Dieng centered his vision for the city around building a more equitable, just system. “My administration will eradicate systems of oppression and discrimination against people of color and minorities,” Dieng said.
Emmons touted himself as the candidate promoting “open streets” for Burlington. He lamented the loss of jobs resulting from the exit of the downtown Macy’s store and questioned why the business didn’t receive tax breaks to incentivize its commitment to the city. He spoke vigorously about many different subjects during the debate — including amputees living at hotels and racial profiling lawsuits that he said he’s been fighting — and often didn’t directly answer questions.
McGrath said he’s running to advocate against private prisons and end the practice of sending Vermont inmates to out-of-state facilities. Bedrosian said he’s gotten into the race to renew “Burlington’s sense of identity” and inspire creative solutions.
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