Councilors and Citizens Call for Burlington CAO to be Put on Leave
More Burlington city councilors are asking Mayor Bob Kiss to put Chief Administrative Officer Jonathan Leopold on leave while an audit is conducted of Burlington Telecom's finances.
As of today, six of the council's 14 members are calling on Kiss to place Leopold on some form of leave — either paid or unpaid — due to his role in loaning $17 million from the city's "cash pool" (i.e. checkbook) to Burlington Telecom.
That loan has accumulated over a period of almost two years, and is in violation of BT's license to do business — its certificate of public good (CPG) — issued by the Public Service Board. Any borrowed money had to be repaid within 60 days.
Leopold has claimed responsibility for making the loan happen, though he remains steadfast in his claim that state and city officials were briefed about BT finances and the use of the "cash pool" financing. However, he admits in hindsight that he should have been more forthright with the council and the board of finance about the violation.
Ed Adrian (D-Ward 1) was the first councilor to call for Leopold's removal. He sent a letter to Kiss on Tuesday before a special city council meeting called by the mayor. At that meeting, the mayor laid out a multi-step plan to clear the air around Burlington Telecom. Councilors also grilled the administration for more than two hours, trying to find out why the administration had failed to tell them, or the city's board of finance, about the violation for more than six months.
Now, five other councilors have joined Adrian's cause: Ward 7 Republicans Vince Dober and Paul Decelles, along with Democrats Nancy Kaplan (Ward 4), Mary Kehoe (Ward 6) and David Berezniak (Ward 2).
The additional calls for the CAO to step aside while BT finances are investigated come on the heels of a two-hour public forum Thursday night at which numerous residents asked Kiss and the council to give Leopold the boot. Many residents said they enjoy BT services, but are upset about the $17 million loan.
Several speakers added that the council shares the blame for not asking more questions and reading the budgets more carefully.
For more public comments, check out my Twitter feed and scroll down to last night's meeting. I tried to post the names of as many residents as possible, and capture the sentiment of each speaker.
In his letter to the mayor, Decelles said he could not recall a time when the public's trust had been broken so dramatically by the administration or the council.
"We as part-time councilors need to wholly be able to receive information, guidance and in some cases direction from the executive branch that we can rely is factual, timely and in its entirety," wrote Decelles. "I do not feel that has been done in these last few months."
In her letter, Kaplan echoed Decelles' concern about the violation of public trust.
"The willful violation of the CPG and the subsequent lack of disclosure is a serious offense and almost worse in my mind has eroded the public trust in our great city," she wrote. "The constituents whom I represent deserve a thorough and careful audit and assessment of past actions and they also deserve quick decision and movement to the future."
In his letter, Berezniak took particular issue with Leopold's failure to take advice from the city's legal counsel and disclose the repayment violation last fall when it was first discovered.
"Until recently I was not aware that his action of willfully failing to disclose, not only to the City Council but also to the PSB, a violation of our CPG, (the document with out which Burlington’s asset, BT, does not exist), was contrary to advice given to him at the time by legal council representing our city," wrote Berezniak in his note to the mayor.
The admission that legal advice was given to city officials to disclose the violation to the PSB — but subsequently ignored — came from Joe McNeil, who made that revelation to councilors at their special meeting Tuesday night.
Contacted by Seven Days today, McNeil confirmed that was, in fact, the case. "What we advised them was that the matter should be reported to the PSB," McNeil said. "In instances like this, it's always better to do it yourself rather than have them discover it and question you about it."
Council President Bill Keogh said he was not joining the chorus in calling for Leopold's ouster — yet.
"I am not ready yet to do that yet," wrote Keogh in an email to Seven Days. "The mayor isn't going to do anything anyway (it took Kiss a year and a half to get rid of Wayne Gross).
That said, Keogh added, "I don't condone what Jonathan did."
Keogh has one thing right: Kiss is not about to put Leopold on leave, or ask him to step aside from his role as the chief financial overseer of the city or Burlington Telecom.
"I don't think he needs to step aside. I think he has worked effectively as CAO, but I do think we should bring in someone to conduct an annual audit — like we do with Burlington Electric Department — and that it would help to allay concerns," said Kiss.
The anger directed at Kiss and Leopold for violating the public trust is another issue Kiss said he expects to tackle in the coming weeks.
"I don't think we set out to deceive anyone," he said. "But, I do take the concerns seriously, in the same way I take seriously the need to make BT a success. I think part of the reason I was elected was based on the fact that I've always said to tell the truth and put people first."
Kiss said he hopes the council on Monday will take positive steps to ensure BT's success moving forward, and believes the focus should be on prevailing in its case pending before the Public Service Board.