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Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger Looks For A 'Way Forward' After Narrow Victory

A man sits in a chair.
Elodie Reed
VPR File
Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger narrowly won a fourth term this month.

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger will be sworn in for his fourth term leading Vermont's largest city next month, after an exceedingly narrow victory on Town Meeting Day.

Weinberger beat City Council President Max Tracy by just 129 votes. Factoring votes cast for Independent City Councilor Ali Dieng, a majority of Burlington voters chose someone other than Weinberger as mayor in the last election.

VPR’s Henry Epp spoke with Weinberger about how these most recent results will affect the way he leads the Queen City and his priorities for governing. Their interview is below and has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Henry Epp: So, as I mentioned, the margin of victory was quite narrow, the narrowest of your four elections thus far. You said on election night that you were “humbled” by how close this election was. So, I'm curious, how does that change the way you plan to lead in this next term?

Miro Weinberger: Actually, I did have one election that was closer. My first nomination caucus, I was tied in that election at one point.

So, I've been through narrow elections before. This was an election like no other. I'm just grateful, thankful, that when that [was] all sorted out, I [was] reelected to serve the people of this great city for another three years. I am really committed to working very hard and making good on the promise of these unprecedented times to make our great city even better, and I'm looking forward to the three years ahead.

But given just how close this election was, does that change your calculus for how you work with other people in the city that perhaps don't share your point of view on every issue?

So, I mean, the people of Burlington made a decision. They decided who is going to get to set the direction for the next three years. They chose a proven leadership team, as I campaigned on for these unprecedented times.

I've been really clear what I think the work is going to be about. It's going to be about ending this pandemic. It's going to then be about shifting to get the resources that are coming down from the federal government out into this community in an equitable way, and really leading the economic recovery. And it's going to be to continue to make progress on these challenges of our time that all levels of government are focused on right now — this long overdue reckoning with racial justice and the climate emergency.

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I think in many of those areas, there is actually quite a bit of consensus at the council, between the council and the administration, about how we move forward. There are certainly areas where we do not have consensus, where there are strong differences of opinion about how we move forward with public safety, with racial justice, elements of racial justice.

All of us are going to have to kind of put this contested election behind us, roll up our sleeves and do what I've seen happen many times in Burlington — [which] is forge new consensus out of difference and find a way forward for our shared constituents.

Well, let's dig into a couple of those issues. As you mentioned, the city continues to deal with the fallout of the pandemic and the recession. What specific steps do you plan to take in the next few months to make sure that city residents — especially those who are struggling financially, perhaps to pay rent or their mortgage — what steps will you take specifically to help those residents recover financially?

"As we finish the job and end this pandemic, I do think the first priority then does become leading the economic recovery." - Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger

In the next few months, Henry, I think clearly a lot of the focus does still need to remain on the public health orders and on staying vigilant. As we finish the job and end this pandemic, I do think the first priority then does become leading the economic recovery.

What are we going to do on that front?

Well, we are going to keep in place this Resource and Recovery Center that has helped thousands of Burlingtonians from the beginning of this emergency get one-on-one help.

Also, I'm very excited that it appears the city will, for the first time in this pandemic, get a direct allocation of federal resources that we can use in flexible ways and put into economic recovery.

Do you have a sense at this point of how much money that would be?

We have gotten some projections, Henry, and they are significant. I don't want to misstate them here, especially as they're being finalized. But let me put it this way: We know that we have lost more than $8 million in lost revenues over the course of the last fiscal year and the one we're currently in as a result of these economic setbacks. The kind of numbers that appear to be in this bill would exceed that and allow us not only to make up for the lost revenues, but to have some flexible resources on hand for us to take innovative steps to ensure a racially and equitably just recovery.

I want to turn to another issue that came up in the recent election. The police department has shrunk in recent months after cuts that were approved by the city council last year. You called that situation a “crisis” during the campaign. But do you have evidence so far that a smaller police force is hurting the city in any way?

So, yeah, I do think that certain aspects of what the police department has done in recent years has already been curtailed. We have had additional shifts of officers since 2015 — on foot, out of their cars, out from behind their desks, getting to know people within the community, bringing a greater police presence to the downtown and to areas of the city where we had had issues.

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We've had to cut back with some of those shifts, and we have definitely had concerns about activities and behaviors in the downtown that have flowed from that. There's been a lot of focus in the last couple of months on the uptick in graffiti. A number of issues that are driving that — I think the pandemic more than anything, and the lack of people being out on the street is the biggest cause of that — but the fact that we've had to curtail the police's role in discouraging and following up on graffiti, I'm sure has had an impact as well.

So, we absolutely are starting to see the early problems of an action that was taken by the council with no plan in place for how we would backfill and address a reduction in the police department.

OK, so what's the path forward there? Because you have made it clear that you are opposed to these cuts. The city council has made it pretty clear that they don't seem willing to bring on more staff, at least in the sense of traditional police officers, to the force. What do you see as the way forward in terms of making sure that there are adequate public safety resources in Burlington?

First of all, I think there is some consensus around bringing in other types of resources. The Public Safety Continuity Plan that I brought forward: over the course of December, January, February, a significant part of that was approved by the council, that involved the addition of new community service officers and community service liaisons — these unarmed professionals with different backgrounds to address certain public safety needs. And I think there's more work to do there and expansion to happen there.

And I am hopeful that is an area of consensus and common ground. We are starting this police operational assessment by a third party that hopefully will bring some light and greater professional opinion informed by the experiences of other cities, as well as feedback from the community, that hopefully will give us a path to some greater consensus around what the ultimate number of officers that our city requires is.

I continue to think that is almost certainly going to need to be more than the 74 that the council has currently approved, and this study should shed greater light on that.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message or get in touch with reporter Henry Epp @TheHenryEpp.

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