1) The PIAP was won by private developers Burlington Harbor LLC, a group made up of three folks, one of whom is Chuck DesLauriers, co-owner of Hotel Vermont. Hotel Vermont was designed by architects at Truex and Cullins. The chair of the PIAP process? Bill Truex.2) The private PIAP got a final score of 79, while the public marina scored 78.8, and I have been unable to find how they were scored. That’s so close for comfort, one would hope that every aspect of that grading process would be as transparent and open to the public as possible. A records request may soon be in order if I cannot find those documents soon.
The city council recently did business with local slumlord Rick Bove in overwhelming support, voting 9-3. It seems that the 70 housing codes the Bove family amassed over the past few years, did not factor into the minds of our elected leaders. The priority to build up our downtown core seems more important to our city than ensuring that working class residents can live with dignity. As our city continues to grow, now is the time to create more protections for our most vulnerable neighbors, to ensure that slumlords like Rick Bove are held responsible for their actions.
A little background is needed to understand why I would make such a bold claim against a renowned Burlington family. Over the past 4 years the Boves have amassed over 70 housing code violations on their 16 properties, not far behind notorious slumlord Soon Kwon, with one property falling into such disrepair it was condemned by the city and tenants were forced to move. According to Seven Days, in 2013 the city even held their liquor license hostage so that the Boves would pay and fix over 40 housing code violations.
Rick Bove’s response to Seven Days? “You can write whatever you like, it doesn’t matter to me.” Clearly, it also doesn’t matter to him what terrible, heartbreaking conditions his tenants live in.
At my NPA, I wanted to understand why slumlords like the Boves are given countless chances to change without any serious repercussions or consequences. While it was heartening to hear Councilor Roof admit that the Boves have been slumlords for decades, it was discomforting to know that he and other elected officials have done little (to little effect) to curb these criminal behaviors. Several councilors even stated that the ends, more housing in the city, justified the means, slumlords being encouraged to develop and own more property in Burlington.
One would think our elected officials should be doing everything in their power to discourage criminal behavior, and recognize that positive ends rarely justify destructive means.
Why are landlords allowed to have outstanding fines for so long? Why hasn’t the city council enacted and funded more vigorous protections and enforcement? What are they now going to do to start addressing a long-ignored problem?
There is some hope coming from our Code Enforcement Director, Bill Ward. He has been working with a city attorney to find ways to revoke landlords’ rental licenses when they act like slumlords and amass many fines.
While this is a really great start, now more than ever we need to ask our elected leaders to ensure all residents have stable, safe housing, and that landlords who racks up fines will be held responsible – particularly by the city taking away their rental license, and refusing to do business with them until they have made a long-term effort to change their past behavior.
As someone who works directly with vulnerable populations, it’s often hard to feel optimistic in the current national and local political environment. It’s particularly difficult to see policy decisions and actions taking place in our city that inadvertently end up negatively impacting the vulnerable populations they are meant to help. The YMCA’s planned early education expansion is a good example of this, where they will add 100 more classroom spaces, 50% for families on childcare subsidy. On the surface this looks like a clearly positive addition to the city and especially for children living in poverty, but without any coordination from the larger early education community, this decision will likely do more damage than good.
Last week I wrote about how Burlington’s early education system is strained to the point of full-blown crisis. One critical part of this crisis is that preschools, in programs throughout the spectrum, have significant trouble finding and retaining highly educated teachers who can work with traumatized populations. A friend of mine at a different highly rated center said it took them an entire year to fill a single teaching spot. It turns out that when the cost of living is high and early educators make under $15 an hour, graduates choose to move elsewhere. That’s not even considering the nearly $30,000 in average debt students have when they graduate UVM, with debt repayments equaling 6 weeks of pay for 10+ consecutive years.
My school offers a good example, and I hope this information won’t get me into trouble, but I do believe it’s important to be honest and open about how our school struggles. My school is one of the best in the city if not the state (I say this to brag about the amazing work of my coworkers and directors, because if I was as good as them I’d be more focused on curriculum, not on political blogging!), and we recently put out an ad to hire substitute teachers on a per diem basis. After 3 months, only one person sent in an application. I think it’s pretty clear that the situation is dire.
Now, in a system where quality teachers are already scarce, the YMCA is looking to add 50 infant/toddler spots and 50 preschool spots. If we assume that 2 FT and 1 PT teachers will be hired for every classroom, which is fairly common, and each infant/toddler classroom has 8 children while each preschool classroom has 16 children, the Y will need to hire conservatively 27 teachers, most of whom will need 4-year college degrees and a teaching license. So, while it is nearly impossible to find lower-qualified substitutes, the Y will need another 27 highly trained educators. Add the fact that last year at the governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission, after reading this letter that my staff and I wrote discussing our successes and challenges, newly hired YMCA CEO Kyle Dodson commented that the letter was overly dramatic. I have a lot of doubt that these new positions will pay a fair, livable wage. I feel sorry for the unlucky worker who has to hire for the expansion.
Just to reiterate: The YMCA will expand way too quickly in an environment when every center is struggling. At best, schools like mine, that already cannot compete with the Y in terms of fundraising and advertising, will need to raise salaries just to keep staff and not have to compete in an even tighter labor market. This means that tuition will rise for families, especially those in the middle of the income ladder. More spots for those with wealth and those without, but the middle and lower middle class will be squeezed even worse. On top of that, without highly trained staff who know how to work with children with trauma, the Y will likely see incredibly high rates of teacher and student turnover, and all quality in all centers will start to suffer. Worst case scenario, the Y pushes centers like mine out of business, leaving a handful of larger early childhood ‘factories’, like Heartworks, to choose from.
It’s a lose-lose, and I think any gains for the few families who get the new spots will be eaten up by system destabilization and potential closure of other centers. Is the risk of destabilizing the system worth it? Or should the city take its time, actually work with early childhood educators, and make sure the centers that are currently open can improve on quality and teacher retention until we as a community figure out a sustainable plan?
I have been a very vocal critic of the Burlington Town Center for several years, mainly because the development relies on trickle down housing and trickle down economics to help low income residents. A recent article in VTDigger about UVM Medical Center’s expansion to the BTC, and the pressure and ‘passion’ Mayor Weinberger used to persuade them to move there, shows how the Mayor’s policies consistently hurt more residents, especially vulnerable ones, than help them.
Sources said the mayor lost his cool at the meeting and reminded hospital officials about the sweet deal they had for city services, though Weinberger said that argument was “not a major part of the conversation,” largely because the city’s hands are tied for another decade plus.
(As an aside, the Mayor’s ‘passion’, which has been described to me as temper tantrums, a good source tells me is a big reason why beloved former Library Director Rubi Simon decided to leaver her job and move out of state over a year ago.)
Now that the hospital will be paying an extra $1,00,000 a year, who will be paying for it? As the article makes clear, “patients”. It’s as if the mayor is so insulated from the yearly 8%-10% yearly increase in healthcare costs and premiums, that adding another $1,000,000 onto the backs of overworked Burlingtonians remains somehow overlooked. Not to mention that UVM Medical Center will likely use this as an excuse to continue paying MUCH less than the fair share of a $1 billion business should be paying for their fees in lieu of property taxes.
Who will benefit from the Burlington Town Center? Businesses on and around Church Street, landlords, hotels, and restaurants. Bringing people to the downtown core, even just for a few hours, means they will spend some amount of money there. The city will likely see a small increase in sales tax and alcohol tax revenue. Property taxes, however, will remain stagnant for 20 years, due to voters’ majority to support the TIF vote (supported almost unanimously by city councilors except Max Tracy). Instead of getting upto $1,000,000 a year in badly needed revenue, we will have to wait until the next generation is voting and having children.
Who will lose from the Burlington Town Center? Workers, especially low-wage workers, service workers, and now anyone who uses the UVM Medical Center (which is, essentially, everyone because they have a monopoly). Wages for service workers continue to remain stagnant, and likely the wealthy Church Street business owners, most of whom don’t live in Burlington, will end up pocketing any extra revenue.
“This decision is highly defensible” after all the factors are weighed, Weinberger said.
As long as those factors don’t include the vast majority of Burlington workers and service workers? Mayor Weinberger, the working class hero.
We, as a community, are at a crossroads. Recent policy decisions by our current administration continue to put the welfare of businesses and wealthy landlords over the needs of our residents. But we can change that! A case study can be the Boves family, especially local landlord Rick Boves, shows us how if we let developers and landlords build for the good of the city, even when they have caused serious damage to residents, we send out a message that large landlords can play by a different set of rules.
Folks who have never rented from the Boves may not know that, as landlords, they leave much to be desired. In fact, after researching articles for this post, I have zero qualms calling them slumlords. As a former renter, the apartment wasn’t kept nice, where mice and house centipedes were regular guests, where you could still see bits of carpet where the floor met the wall. It wasn’t fixed up from the previous tenants before I moved in, and it cost a decent deal more than it was worth. So it is fair to say I’m a bit biased about the Boves as landlords.
Fortunately for us (but not for their tenants), there is quite an extensive history of the Boves’ treatment of their tenants. In 2013, the city held the restaurants’ liquor license due to over 40 housing codes they refused to resolve at their crumbling George Street apartments. I used to live on Monroe street and had the misfortune of walking by these miserable apartments every day. I cannot imagine how miserable it felt to live inside them.
You’d think, after an article like that came out shaming the Boves, they would spend a few dollars to at least make their apartments look decent on the outside. I think any reasonable, thoughtful landlord would admit their mistakes and try to change. But the Boves made no such efforts. In May of this year, with another 38 code violations still pending, the Bove family decided to knock down the apartments to build newer, pricier apartments (and a hotel), which their current tenant certainly couldn’t afford.
In 4 years, they have received over 78 code violations.
It gets worse. The renters in those apartments were all very low income residents, some of whom I’ve been told even worked for Boves. If this feels like a Charles Dickens novel, you wouldn’t be wrong. These folks lived in abysmal housing, where “violations including broken windows, leaky plumbing, a cracked toilet seat, failed caulking, defective cooking equipment, and cracked walls and holes in the ceiling” were left unfixed. These aren’t the sort of violations that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to fix – they are the type of reasonable fixes ANY landlord should make.
Instead of fixing up the apartments, the Bove family has moved their tenants to other buildings and are knocking it down to build luxury housing. What are the odds that the old tenants will be given affordable units?
Once, when Boves was cited for ‘(L)live electrical wires dangling from a ceiling” at a North Williams apartment, the place was deemed uninhabiatble by Code Enforcement. What did the Boves have to say?
“You can write whatever you like. It doesn’t much matter to me.”
Now, the city, supported by Mayor Weinberger and by CEDO Director Noelle McKay, are considering selling a parking lot to Boves so he can build a boutique hotel. Land is a hot commodity in Burlington, and land this close to downtown, with support, could easily be converted into MUCH needed homeless or very low income housing – hell, it could and should be used to give Bove’s former tenants a decent place to live.
If this development happens, and if the city supports this development by selling off land, we will be sending a really terrible message, one where if you ignore our local laws, if you treat fellow human beings like shit, you will be rewarded.
We need to send our elected officials a message that this type of behavior should NOT be rewarded. Please email Director McKay, please email your city councilors and come to the city council meeting in a few weeks where councilors will vote on whether to sell land to Boves. They clearly do not deserve to be landlords, never mind to build new hotels or apartments in our beautiful city.
As a preschool teacher, a graduate of the Snelling Center’s Early Childhood Leadership Institute and as a 2017 city council candidate who campaigned for universal publicly funded early childhood education, it is fair to say I’m pretty passionate about early childhood education, especially at the public policy level. Last year my school even wrote a letter to the Governor’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Early Childhood Education to discuss how much it costs to run a high quality top-rated program, how hard it is to run that program and how everyone in the system suffers due to a severe lack of funding.
Here are the biggest issues.
1) I take no joy in writing this, as I know firsthand the pressures of keeping a sometimes chaotic room full of children safe. That being said, there are real problems right now with several of the ‘high quality’ programs already operating in Burlington, where two centers have lost a STAR, one because children were left unattended and another because no one knew a child had wandered several blocks away from the school. Our STARS rating system does not take into account the work and cost needed to adequately support families with trauma, living through drug addiction, poverty, etc. A program can have 5-STARS but still be unprepared to work with the 70% of young Burlington children who come from homes making below 200% of the federal poverty level. Most, if not all, highly rated programs struggle acutely with these challenges.
2) Centers have real trouble retaining teachers, especially high quality teachers, and some centers have yearly turnover rates as high as 50%. That’s essentially every teacher leaving ever 2 years. Not only do centers struggle to build consistent teaching teams and a clear set of values and expectations, but children who see staff high turnover suffer academically. For children who already come from families where adults are constantly coming into and out of their lives, this can be incredibly stressful and triggering.
3) The typical early childhood educator works two jobs, because most of the best private early childhood educators in the city are paid less than $16 an hour, or $33,000 a year, while the city’s 2018 livable wage with health benefits is only a few thousand dollars less, at $29,619 a year, while neither come close to covering Burlington’s high costs of living. Teachers end up coming to school tired and short-tempered, either because they are burnt out from being tired/sick from overworking, stressed financially, or both. Public schools are incredibly attractive alternatives: while teachers in public schools put in more hours of work during the week, they are compensated, with the help of strong unions, upwards of 50%-70% more than private preschool teachers and early educators, to say nothing of the myriad vacations, health benefits, CTO time, tax breaks, loan forgiveness programs, and secondary education/professional development benefits. When even the Bagel Market on Shelburne Road offers a starting salary of $15 an hour, it’s hard to feel like your community values your work.
4) Most centers also have trouble retaining substitute teachers for when staff are sick, which is why one highly rated center last year had to close their doors for several days at a time due to lack of staff. Imagine what this does to overburdened staff, who may not use sick time even when they should so as to not burden their center. It happens a lot more than you think.
5) Schools often lack the necessary professional development/trainings to prepare teachers to work with children with high levels of stress and trauma due to generational poverty, drug addiction, learning delays, and English Language Learners. My school regularly enrolls ‘problem children’ from other highly rated centers in the area. These centers, which as our mayor will tell you, are a business that should make money, do not have the capacity to deal with these children (often class size-ratios, 8:1 children to teachers, are too high to effectively manage, never mind teach, but that’s the only way to try to break even as a business!) and often parents say they and their children feel much more respected and valued over their previous center.
6) School are ill-funded. If not for the United Way, my own center would be tens of thousands of dollars in the red every year, just to cover operating expenses. Meanwhile, our executive director, with a masters’ degree and over two decades of experience, makes $45,000 a year. Neither staff nor lower-middle class and working class families win in this system.
7) To reiterate, early education will always be, and should be, a money losing business! It’s a terrible business to get in to because our community has recognized that education from K-12 is not a money-making business but rather a public good. I wish Mayor Weinberger agreed.
While lawsuits will likely abound (potentially from Citibank!), it seems like the untransparent, debacle of a process-to-end-all-of-the-city’s-failed-processes has finally come to an end. With that in mind, it’s time to see who succeeded and who lost during last night’s marathon city council meeting to decide the fate of Burlington Telecom.
It’s hard to believe the Mayor’s hand wasn’t involved in this process, especially since he is known to be very ‘demanding’ that councilors always support his positions. As someone who once considered privatizing Burlington Electric if the price was right, it looks like Weinberger’s ‘anything but the coop’ neoliberal attitude won the day. While it wasn’t a perfect win, voting on a handshake (the best of backroom politics), it should leave some wiggle room to sweeten the deal. Or screw taxpayers and customers over. Remember to vote on Town Meeting Day (for those who can make it to the polls even though you have to work, which definitely doesn’t hurt voter turnout)!
No one won more than Schurz. Will their owners continue to support conservative movements and their politicans? Will they sell in 5-10 years? Will they continue to say ‘the hell’ to net neutrality? One thing is for certain, the process allowed for them to be the perfect compromise that nobody but Kurt Wright wanted (I think. More on that later).
Staying up until 2am and writing great coverage about arguably the city’s greatest shit show means you should thank them and buy them coffee the next time you see them. I assume this is what they live for, so this is the closest any Burlington (Vermont?) citizen has for a win.
Councilors Tracy, Dieng, and Mason
The only three councilors who were entirely consistent throughout this whole process. Love them, hate them, disagree with them, but I have to respect them for sticking it out in the face of angry citizens, threats of lawsuits, and more. I want to give a special shoutout to Councilor Tracy for consistently calling out what a farce this whole process has been.
In the face of an angry Councilor Hartnett, Shannon kept her cool. How anyone kept their cool is besides me, so half shout-out to anyone watching or in the room whose head did not explode. More on her later.
The Democratic Process
I know I’m an idealist but if there’s one sliver of light, it’s that the whole city and state could see how inadequate our city council positions are. Councilors are expected to work full time jobs while also doing full time work as an elected representative. It may work during the day-to-day, but it’s clearly inadequate for huge issues such as these.
It’s time we rethink how we vote and who perennially ends up running (and winning and keeping and keeping) local office, so that folks who have been outside the system for far too long, particularly those who are not from the professional classes or from economic privilege, can successfully run. May I suggest publicly financed elections and councilor pay equal to 40 hours a week of minimum wage or ‘livable wage’?
Burlington Citizens and BT Subscribers
No question we all lost this one. As a vocal coop supporter, I’d much rather have Ting than Schurz (for the reasons mentioned above, and others), and if I realized the city would finally employ IRV, I would have urged my city councilors to support Ting over Schurz). Schurz-ZRF seems like the riskiest parts of Ting (corporate-ness and no actual local presence) with the riskiest parts of KBTL (folks who seem fairly new to the whole telecom business).
Every non-jounalist on #btvcc Twitter
Ting supporters found KBTL supporters to be condescending and KBTL supporters found Ting supporters to be condescending. But in the end, you all lost, since you’re all condescending, including me. No one who regularly tweets #btvcc won, and that includes me, who contributed to this grossness early on. I’m just glad I finally quit the toxicity that has become Burlington political Twitter.
Councilor Knodell and Hartnett
I look like an idiot for defending them in comment sections, where folks claimed their support of KBTL was disingenuous. Frankly from the way voting happened, it certainly looks like they proved me wrong. Whether it’s political maneuvering at its worse or whether it just looks like it, neither one makes them look good.
Other Councilors not named Tracy, Dieng, or Mason.
This looks so bad. So so bad. Why fight so hard for KBTL or Ting and then give in to arguably the worst of the three options? What was gained from angering nearly every voter? Why does it always happen that folks on the left compromise hard while those in the middle/right get most of what they want? I’d love to know what went through anyone’s mind, on any side, who voted for Schurz. Regardless, no one other councilors can claim to have a shred of supporting transparency (especially Hartnett who whole-heartedly endorsed the final vote).
While it was great to see Councilor Shannon persevere through Hartnett’s rude interruptions, it was incredibly disingenuous of her to imply her vote and final speech was not about political theater like her peers. In fact, her voting history and public comments regarding BT show a regular disregard of transparency when the ends meet her needs.
Councilor Shannon voted for the BT Advisory Board to increase transparency in the process, but then largely ignored results of their citizen survey. When Miro was accused of manipulating the BT voting process, or when the city’s consultant had a direct financial involvement in the decision-making process, Shannon took Weinberger’s side and remained silent, respectively. And we certainly should remember the VERY political decision in 2009 to rush the council vote (in the middle of the financial crises) to not refinance BT, which set us up on the path to where we are today. No political points awarded for only calling out bullshit when it’s your political opponents.
There have been complaints since the beginning of the BT process that Mayor Weinberger has not been transparent with councilors, that councilors have not been transparent with their constituents, and then last night’s backroom deal really sealed the deal. Do you remember when Weinberger ran on the platform of transparency? It’s like Burlington Telecom is a blackhole that sucks up integrity and honesty. I’m sure the city will release very useful data on this though.
Burlington is no stranger to police shootings. Four years ago a mentally ill man was killed by police officers in the New North End, and last March a mentally ill man was killed downtown in his home by police, while this August our city councilors overwhelmigly passed an ordinance to criminalize behaviors often associated with homeless people. It is not clear what, exactly has changed in those 4 years, or how this new ordinance will help our growing mental health crises. We as a community need a clear plan, increased public education, and outreach to local communities affected by this crises about how to best help those in need. As a city, we need civilian oversight of our police department to ensure that our police policies are constantly monitored for equity and consistency, we need to support further deescalation trainings for our officers, and stronger mental health services and increased funding for alcohol and mental health treatment for our homeless. By doing this we can make sure we treat our homeless neighbors with compassion, fairness, and respect as members of our community, while also recognizing the unique challenges they face.
There is no question that there are some people downtown who make this city unsafe for everyone, but a lot of folks living on the street are doing their best to survive with complex trauma and years of substance abuse with the added stressor of homelessness. There are no easy answers to this growing crises of inadequate mental health services, growing poverty and income inequality, which can make those of us who have homes and strong support networks feel self-aware of the privileges we take for granted. As Kelly Devine, BBA director, recently summed up, “Everyone should feel comfortable downtown.” Yet we must do more than make everyone comfortable – we must treat these homeless folks as our neighbors even in the face of discomfort – and we should hold our elected leaders to the same expectations – or else our language will more closely treat our homeless as if they are invaders, undeserving of our city’s typical forward-thinking, progressive policies. This sort of language will inevitably hurt everyone. What incentive do homeless folks have to be decent if we treat them as outsiders, and what incentive do wealthier folks have to treat them humanely if we are constantly being told they are so different from us, so much more violent, so much outside our community that we must create laws specifically for them?
A clear plan forward led by our homeless residents and mental health workers would be ideal for helping our homeless, especially since opinion by our politicians is so divided. Councilors Tracy and Dieng want to put more money behind treatment, councilors Wright and Knodell want to treat the symptoms of homelessness, Chief del Pozo and Mayor Weinberger want to lower the visibility of homelessness so that there are less downtown public safety concerns, while also protecting our nonviolent homeless population. We need mental health professionals and those who struggle with the affliction to lead the community around helping our neighbors, as we have seen work so well with the opioid epidemic.
As an aside, I believe that it is a noble goal to protect all residents including our homeless, but moving our vulnerable populations away from the public will allow the violence in our homeless community to be less contained and less visible. Would the man at City Hall Park who had his throat slashed survive if he was out in the woods at a homeless encampment? The death of homeless resident Amos Beede last year leads me to believe the answer would be no. All the more reason to work towards integrating our homeless residents into the larger community, so that we can keep all members of our community safe regardless of where, or how, they live.
We must remember that we are working to help people, not simply solve a problem. Homeless folks not only need more patience from us, they deserve it. While it is easy to pass judgement, the real emotional and physical struggle that our homeless neighbors suffer daily is something few of us understand, which is why it would be best if we began listening to our homeless experts – our homeless and mental health professionals who work with them – and give them voices at the table when it comes to formulating new ordinances and laws, on and off a civilian-controlled police oversight commission. By doing this we can ensure that new ordinances are written and policed equitably, that we help our homeless with treatment and compassion, and by working with more marginalized voices, we can create a stronger community for all of us.
I received this letter today in my email, referencing a homeless man in Burlington who was recently in the news over punching someone in the chest. What I appreciate most is how compassionate Mark Redmond is, and how well he recognizes that many of the homeless folks downtown, the ones who will soon be treated as criminals, are often not 100% in control of the decisions they are making. Mental health issues, years of self-medicating with drugs and alcohol, and the numerous traumas they have experienced all play a huge role in what these neighbors of ours are going to do. I agree with the police chief that there needs to be consequences – but only for the folks who are violent and harassing others, not the ones drinking and panhandling peacefully – and we need to remember the situation all of them are in and remain compassionate while getting them the help they need.
Our police chief del Pozo is often described as a progressive reformer looking to humanize and bring compassion to 21st century policing. Mayor Weinberger and del Pozo often work hand-in-hand on finding ways to solve our city’s biggest public health issues. And in many, many ways that is exactly what he does. But too often our chief’s words do not agree with his actions.
What makes our chief the ‘most progressive chief in America’? Del Pozo has regularly pushed his officers to carry the heroin overdose drug Narcan, collaborated with health professionals to get at the root of public health issues, increased officer foot patrols, opted out of militarizing his department, advocated for drug treatment in prison, has spoken up against given heroin addicts a criminal history, and was fairly patient with a homeless man who legally carried a rifle around town for several weeks. These have all been forward-thinking ways of dealing with many of the issues our city faces, and the police chief can often be found touting similar progressive-minded measures. There is no question his willingness to treat addiction as a public health issue and his work collaborating with mental health and social service agencies has saved countless of lives and improved everyone’s quality of life.
Yet del Pozo’s history of not following through on his words, along with his unwillingness to compromise with those he disagrees with, is worrisome and needs to be looked at more closely. He often seems quick to dismiss groups and professionals that disagree with him, while often acting swiftly and independently, regardless of how the community may feel. A few examples below highlight this failure of consistency and follow-through.
When del Pozo was first hired as police chief in 2015, he held a compassionate view towards drug-fueled shoplifting.
“The other thing is getting on … the heroin problem we have here in Burlington and in Vermont. Not only the dealing itself but addiction — how to help handle the addiction problem and also the crimes associated with heroin such as property crime, burglary, robberies…So what I mean specifically is being caught in the act shooting up or committing petty property theft, those are the folks that we want to divert from a life of being saddled by a criminal record. But there does come a point where you cross over into crimes that genuinely endanger citizens physically or that are really disruptive to the community and that’s criminal, that’s the full-bore police response that you’ll get.”
A year later, with pressure from businesses and business lobbies, his tone had changed.
“I think there comes a point, after innumerable arrests for retail theft, a person can be considered to be taking an unacceptable toll on his or her community, and meaningful jail time seems appropriate,” del Pozo said.
It’s rare for shoplifting to lead to that, the chief said. He thinks it’s time for prosecutors and judges to take a new approach when it comes to chronic offenders. “Retail theft to jail, to treatment, to sobriety is a success story. An endless cycle of retail theft to fuel addiction with no consequences doesn’t help anyone, including the person with the addiction,” del Pozo said. “We need to break the cycle.”
This past April, as fentanyl overdoses and deaths were steeply climbing and the situation was feeling hopeless, Mayor Weinberger and Del Pozo, both of whom advocated for compassionate and expanded drug treatment, went back on their desire to give addicts and petty drug dealers (often the same) on-demand treatment. Instead, they advocated for harsher criminal penalties for fentanyl users anddealers. In doing so, Del Pozo not only dismissed the exhausting work of mental health professionals, trying to make his voice the most important one in the room, but also tried to shut down their valuable community voice – a deep irony for a police chief who loves making public comments.
Bob Bick, executive director of Howard Center, which opposes the new criminal penalties, compared them to the disparate penalties created by the federal government in the 1980s for powder cocaine versus crack cocaine: a well-intentioned but misguided effort to address a serious problem.
“I think that there could be potential negative outcomes, in terms of targeting whatever subset of the population sees fentanyl as their drug of choice,” Bick said. When asked about Howard Center’s opposition, del Pozo suggested it’s not the social service organization’s place to weigh in on how drugs are policed.
“Once someone dies (of a drug overdose) they’re no longer under the care of the Howard Center,” del Pozo said. It then falls to his officers and other police agencies to notify family members and conduct death investigations, he added.
The chief said that in the same way he respects Howard Center’s clinical judgments about how to treat drug addiction, the organization should respect law enforcement’s determinations about how to clamp down on the illegal drug trade. Bick described the chief as “a passionate advocate for addressing the opiate issue” but rejected the notion that Howard Center’s involvement ends when someone dies of an overdose.
“My staff is routinely confronted with the horrible aftermath of an untimely death,” he said.
Leaving alone the irony of del Pozo telling one group how to do their job but asking them not to do the same to him, this attitude, which has been increasingly pervasive, gives the impression that the police department is not interested in collaborating and listening when disagreements arise.
While the city and del Pozo have more often than not been on the compassionate side of heroin addiction (this instance notwithstanding), the city’s attitude towards alcoholism has been anything but compassionate. Research shows there’s no reason to treat one harmful addiction significantly different than another, as both require compassion, on-demand treatment, and patience.
And yet, after the recent downtown stabbings and assault, which I will talk about in another post as a larger issue of mental health services and not just alcohol consumption or ticketing, del Pozo took a decidedly different tack.
The lack of consequences is a root cause of what is an unfair burden on the rest of the community,” del Pozo said. Criminalization would allow police to bring a repeat offender before a judge and could result in jail time.
Instead of advocating for stronger mental health services, which del Pozo has done repeatedly regarding heroin abuse, del Pozo focused on criminalizing ticket-able offences, advocating for in essence a debtor’s prison. It’s important to note, too, that in this instance one of the cosponsors of the bill, Republican city councilor Kurt Wright, has made it clear that his desire is to rid the city of 10 to 25 individuals, and that they “won’t be deterred through more funding and services, as critics of the proposal contend”. This flies directly in the face of our police chief and mayor’s stated values.
His Way or the Highway
Del Pozo’s ‘my way or the highway’ approach, especially in the face of criticism, came creeping up again in June of this year. In a VTDigger article about the police chief’s Compstat and Substat meetings, we saw a rare glimpse of professionals not only making decisions for a woman who was not in the room, but also trying to double her prison sentence even though she had already agreed to 18 months.
“If she’s got an 18-month minimum, as much as you want her to stay in there, the doors might open, and she might walk out. So just be aware of that,” Thibault said…
George, the prosecutor, said that even if the SubStat team goes to great lengths and is able to get a spot for the woman in a secure out-of-state treatment facility, she might refuse to go, preferring instead to complete her sentence.
The chief asked whether the judge would be receptive if George pushed for a 36-month sentence. The prospect of a longer jail term could make treatment a more attractive option, he said.
Research shows that involuntary treatment rarely works, and when I tweeted about this and expressed my concerns about taking away a woman’s agency, del Pozo, in a since-deleted tweet, said that the concern was all on his end, and in a later response gave the impression that he and others at the table were there to single-handedly save this woman who had been addicted to heroin, detoxed in prison, yet still refused treatment. It cannot feel good to spend so much effort to try to help someone who has no interest in being saved, and yet changing the goal posts of an agreed upon sentence is legally and ethically questionable at best.
A Culture of Defense
Lastly, we come to del Pozo’s unwillingness to admit mistakes, which will be explored in more detail in another blog post about the seemingly empty promises of combating racism made by our mayor and police chief. While the chief deserves credit this past year for immediately firing an officer who lied under oath, he is often quick to defend actions of his officers, even in the face of damning evidence and public outcry.
When police were sued and lost for illegally stopping and frisking a black man, del Pozo defended them. When the police department was sued for wrongly using data to label certain properties and targeting specific tenants, pressuring landlords to lower calls to the department, del Pozo defended the use of that data. He downplayed data that showed officers searching black residents at much higher rates than white resident, and while a lukewarm proponent of police body cameras, he defended the department’s policy to turn off body cameras so as not to record conversations between officers, making it difficult to determine whether a partner had been complicit in falsifying evidence. He also defended a lack of body camera footage in a 2015 shooting in Colchester, and he defended the unfortunate police shooting of local resident Phil Grenon.
I don’t write these words because I enjoy pointing out what I see as a growing trend of brash, uncompromising, and unapologetic behavior by our police chief. While the chief and I often disagree, I take no pleasure in writing this – I want our city to always use compassion to help our most vulnerable citizens. Yet I write this for a few reasons: 1) It is often incredibly difficult, as a regular citizen, to sit down and speak with del Pozo or communicate with him effectively. 2) It is concerning to me how often our police chief seems to miss that he is the second most powerful person in the city, and how much privilege and sometimes intimidation he exerts (especially when it comes to folks who have a history of police targeting them). 3) I believe that to best combat our opioid and alcohol public health issues, we need to not only be open and honest about our city’s troubles, but also be fair and consistent, which seems to be missing from our police chief and mayor’s actions.
Hopefully this piece will shine a light on these inconsistencies and open up more dialogue so that we can move towards a more just and collaborative city and police department.