After Lengthy, Contentious Debate, Council Votes to Put CAO on Leave
Perhaps it was sitting through five hours of contentious debate at the Burlington City Council last night, but nonetheless I think I can say with all due respect: Good political theater doesn't make for good government.
After hours of at times spirited and contentious debate, the Burlington City Council voted 8-6 early Tuesday morning urging Mayor Bob Kiss to place his top aide, Chief Administrative Officer Jonathan Leopold, on paid leave.
The council knows, as does the mayor and CAO (pictured right), that the council's request is not binding. Heck, it's not even allowed. The council doesn't have the power or authority to put a mayoral appointee on leave. Only the mayor can do that. And, it's clear Kiss has no intention of putting Leopold on leave.
"This is purely about politics," said Kiss.
He may be onto something. The vote broke down largely upon party lines, with Democrats leading the charge. In the week leading up to last night's vote, a number of councilors stepped forward asking Kiss to put Leopold on some form of leave — either paid or unpaid.
Voting in favor of the resolution were six Democrats: Ed Adrian (Ward 1); David Berezniak (Ward 2); Nancy Kaplan (Ward 4); Mary Kehoe (Ward 6); Bill Keogh (Ward 5); and Joan Shannon (Ward 5). They were joined by the council's two Republicans: Paul Decelles (Ward 7) and Vince Dober (Ward 7).
Voting against the measure were the council's three Progressives: Marissa Caldwell (Ward 3); Clarence Davis (Ward 3); and Emma Mulvaney-Stanak (Ward 2). They were joined by the council's two independents — Sharon Bushor (Ward 1) and Karen Paul (Ward 6) — and a lone Democrat, Russ Ellis (Ward 4).
Earlier in the day Kiss called the proposed actions "random, uncoordinated, even reckless." At the council meeting, the mayor said the focus needs to be on supporting Burlington Telecom and making it stronger so it can thrive, calling it a "great asset of the city."
He urged the council to approve measures calling for a full audit, and said his administration will propose new rules for how "cash pool" funds are utilized in the city. Those rules will include quarterly reports to the city council, and special reports if the amount exceeds a specific dollar threshold.
Before the meeting dragged into the morning hours, the council spent a considerable amount of time crafting a single resolution calling for the following:
The City Council president shall appoint an ad hoc committee to review BT's governance structure and recommend changes; and
The administration shall present refinancing strategies, and other financing options, for BT to pursue. They must present those to the ad hoc committee and the board of finance by no later than November 16.
The ad hoc committee and the board of finance have to report back to the council by the first week of December.
After councilors vented their frustrations with Leopold, and other councilors vented their frustrations with their colleagues, Leopold was given a chance to defend himself.
Clearly angered by the accusations contained in the two-page resolution — which included a series of "whereas" clauses alleging everything from willfully keeping information from the council to trying to influence the outcome of the mayoral election — Leopold called the accusations "offensive and defamatory."
"You are charging me with influencing an election and you have no proof of that," added Leopold. "How do you do this? How do you do this?"
Leopold also said nothing was withheld from the public. The use of city cash to fund BT was right in the budget for everyone to see and question.
“This is a partisan witch hunt. If I wanted to hide something, why would I put it in the budget? I’m not going to be scapegoated because you can’t read a budget," Leopold added.
Councilors took issue with Leopold's assertion that the material was presented clearly or the implications of what the financial statements meant.
"I will submit that even if we did receive information, it was not done clearly," said Councilor Adrian. He also took issue with an admission from the city's legal team that it had advised the administration last November to come forward and disclose the violation to Condition 60. That's the provision that requires BT to repay the city any borrowed money within 60 days.
City officials say the lawyers did provide that advice, and they wanted to disclose the violation to the Public Service Board, but wanted to simultaneously present a remedy.
"When I arrived in May, there was, as of yet, no plan," said Councilor Kaplan, who was elected to the council in March. "That delay is inexcusable."
It's not clear what additional pressure the council may place on Kiss to get him to place Leopold on leave.
Previous blog posts and articles about the Burlington Telecom controversy.
Secret Lives, Public Officials ("Fair Game" column, examining the political implications of keeping BT finances secret. Posted October 21)
Kiss Administration Grilled by Council on Telecom Finances (posted October 21)
Councilor Wants City CAO Placed on Leave (posted October 20)
Mayor to Propose Burlington Telecom Fixes (posted October 20)
State Tells City: Stop Loaning Cash to Burlington Telecom (posted October 17)
City to Host Special Meetings on Burlington Telecom (posted October 16)
Telecom Tangle ("Fair Game" column in which PSD commish David O'Brien lashes out at BT. Posted October 14)
Where the Hell's My Money? ("Fair Game" column, in which CAO Leopold defends use of pooled cash. Posted October 7)
On the Public's Dime ("Fair Game" column originally breaking the $17 million loan from taxpayers to BT. Posted September 30)