Burlington's City Council to Mull Ways to Oust Mayor, Themselves
The councilors will consider two resolutions: One would allow the council to impeach the mayor, as well as city councilors, while the other would allow voters to recall the city's chief executive, or councilors, through a new election.
Ever since last fall, when revelations about the use of taxpayer money to finance Burlington Telecom first surfaced, there has been a steady drumbeat of criticism, and calls for Mayor Bob Kiss to be impeached, or for him to resign. But Kiss administration critics say this isn't about him.
"These resolutions are not targeted at the current mayor," said Councilor Kurt Wright (R-Ward 4). "This is about looking forward and we have nothing in our charter if we ever needed it. The impeachment resolution would be removal by the council and recall would call for new election by a petition of the people."
Currently, there is no way for a city councilor, or mayor, to be recalled from office. Even if convicted of a crime, a councilor or mayor could remain in office.
The impeachment resolution claims the measure, if approved, would, "protect the people of Burlington from a situation where either a Mayor or a City Councilor commits an illegal act and only relinquishes office if the individual chooses to resign, thus leaving the outcome entirely up to an individual who would have already betrayed the public trust."
Last fall, city councilors voted to put Chief Administrative Officer Jonathan Leopold on paid leave while his actions, and the actions of Burlington Telecom's leadership team, were being investigated. Councilors said this was a way to reinstate a sense of trust in the administration, given that Leopold said it was his decision, and his decision alone, to loan BT money from the city's so-called "cash pool."
Mayor Bob Kiss vetoed the measure, and the council could not muster a two-thirds vote to override his veto.
Wright is the lead sponsor of the recall resolution, and a co-sponsor of the impeachment resolution.
Both measures ask the council's Charter Change Committee to hammer out the specific details of how each would work.
The lead sponsor of the impeachment resolution is Councilor Vince Dober (R-Ward 7), joined by Councilors Paul Decelles (R-Ward 7), Nancy Kaplan (D-Ward 4), Joan Shannon (D-Ward 5) and Wright.
In the resolution, it claims grounds for impeachment could include "conviction of a crime involving moral turpitude along with malfeasance, misfeasance and nonfeasance — terms embracing acts which an officeholder has no right to perform."
Wright is joined solely by Shannon in his recall resolution. Wright had said in the run-up to the March election that he would introduce such a measure.
"There are some issues they need to look at, and I wouldn't support my own resolution if there aren't some restrictions in place for how it can be used and what would trigger it," said Wright. "We shouldn't be able to recall or impeach a mayor for any old reason."
A Seven Days survey of town charters around Vermont found at least 14 towns that have recall provisions: Bennington, Brattleboro, Colchester, Enosburgh Falls, Hardwick, Jericho, Middlebury, Milton, Poultney, Shelburne, Springfield, Waterbury and Windsor.
Each town has a slightly different approach, but most require a petition of at least 15 percent of the registered voters to invoke a recall election. As well, there are time limits to how long a petition can be in circulation to collect the signatures, with many allowing only 30 to 45 days. Some also have limitations on how often a petition can be circulated — some allow only one per calendar year, others only allow one per elected officials' term. Finally, most of the towns require a two-thirds "super majority" among voters to successfully recall an elected official.
Wright said there may also be a need to limit how soon a recall petition can be circulated after an election, perhaps the first year.
"I think there needs to be limitations on it so it would be used in a rare circumstance," said Wright.
In his resolution, Wright says a recall provision would "provide an additional powerful tool to citizens for ensuring the accountability of their elected officials."
The impeachment resolution would ask the Charter Change Committee to consider the following questions:
• Under what grounds should an impeachment or forfeiture action be brought?
• Who may bring forward an impeachment or forfeiture action?
• Who shall judge an impeachment or forfeiture action?
• What shall be the procedures and burden of proof for an evidentiary hearing?
Questions posed to the Charter Change Committee in the recall resolution include:
• What should be considered legitimate cause for initiating a recall petition?
• What percent of the legal voters of the city should have to sign a recall petition before it is deemed valid?
• How soon should a recall election be held upon verification of a valid petition?
• Should approval of recall be by a simple majority or a super majority of the ballots cast in a recall election?
• What shall be the process for filling a vacancy in an elected office resulting from a recall?
• When may a recall petition be brought against an individual during his/her term?
Both resolutions ask the committee to come back to the full council in July with a proposal to debate further.