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Report Raises Questions About City Official's Political Activity

Burlington officials are working to strike the balance between two fundamental aspects of government: Keeping speech free and keeping government resources off the campaign trail.

The Vermont Cynic (the University of Vermont’s student-run newspaper) released a story this week in which Progressive City Councilors Max Tracy and Jane Knodell question the ethical implications of Burlington city employee, state representative, and Democratic Party leader Kesha Ram working to recruit Democratic candidates from the UVM student body to run for city council in this year’s elections.

Organizing nonpartisan Neighborhood Planning Assemblies seems to conflict with Ram’s political activity and her recruiting Democratic candidates is “particularly inappropriate,” Tracy said. “You’re responsible for organizing a ward NPA, you shouldn’t be trying to organize the candidate to run in that particular area,” he said.

After the city redrew the lines on its council map, Burlington’s Ward 8 needed to be set up with elections officials for the upcoming Town Meeting day. Mayor Miro Weinberger says that task fell to Ram in her role in the Community and Economic Development Office.

While a party leader recruiting candidates for office is not new or inappropriate, Ram’s additional role as a city employee led Progressives to raise the issue with Ram’s political activity.

In a memo responding to the Progressives’ concerns, Ram’s boss, the director of CEDO, said there is a policy in place limiting city employees’ political activities, and one specifically designed with Ram in mind as well. The memo said Ram believed she was acting in line with those policies.

“Our inquiry confirms the [Community Engagement Specialist] held several meetings with a prospective candidate in Ward 8 in December on her own time, not as part of her job,” according to the memo. “The employee understood these meetings to be consistent with the parameters for her political activities agreed to when she started work two years ago—i.e. she would avoid public appearances on behalf of local candidates that might cause confusion with her job duties, but political activity in private, off work hours was OK,” according to the memo.

Weinberger, also a Democrat, said he understands the issues involved and insists Ram did nothing wrong.

“There are a couple important principles at stake here. Taxpayer dollars shouldn’t be used by political campaigns in any way,” he said. “On the other hand, all Americans, including government employees, have important First Amendment rights, have freedom of assembly, freedom to say what they want to say, freedom to talk to who they want to talk to, and local governments aren’t supposed to get in the way of that.”

"Max and I have a history of spirited political contention that dates back to our student days, but this is a new low." - Kesha Ram

In this case, CEDO director Peter Owens limited Ram’s political activity within Burlington politics for this election because of her official role in setting up election officials.

Ram declined an interview, citing a recent death in her family. In an email to VPR, Ram denied any wrongdoing and says both city and university officials have supported that assertion.

“I just want to convey that both the city attorney and university officials have determined that none of my activity constitutes any of the alleged ethics or policy violations,” she said.

Ram also said the questions raised about her activity were politically motivated attacks by a longtime rival, Progressive City Councilor Max Tracy.

“Max and I have a history of spirited political contention that dates back to our student days, but this is a new low,” she said. “I believe it only serves to hurt the institutions we both care about, the city and the university.”

Tracy denies that allegation.

“There’s no political element to this,” he said. “To say that this was an engineered attack on our part or something – or on my part – is just ridiculous.”

Tracy said Cynic reporters contacted him for comment on the story and that it wasn’t an “engineered attack” by him or other Progressives.

“I think that she still misses the point here,” he said. “She still misses the point that there’s a conflict of interest happening here.”