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April 30, 2012

Councilors Question Carleton as Burlington City Attorney Pick

CarletonCould Miro Weinberger’s honeymoon be over so soon?

When Burlington’s new mayor nominated friend and political adviser Ian Carleton to the post of city attorney two weeks ago, he called on the city council to vote on the appointment this Monday.

But instead of getting a new job Monday night, Carleton got a grilling from skeptical city councilors. While formal consideration of the nomination was postponed, councilors raised tough questions during an informal session with Carleton prior to the regular council meeting.

“I’m trying to figure out if I can trust you,” said Councilor Sharon Bushor (I-Ward 1), arguing that Carleton’s past chairmanship of the Vermont Democratic Party raised questions about whether he could act in a nonpartisan manner.

Bushor was one of seven councilors to express concerns about Carleton’s nomination Monday during the question-and-answer session and in interviews outside of it. Eight of the council’s 14 members must approve the appointment.

“I think at this point, there’s enough concern to say if we had voted tonight, I don’t think he would have been appointed,” Councilor Dave Hartnett (D-Ward 4) said earlier in the day.

Like several other councilors, Hartnett expressed reservations about Carleton’s close friendship with Weinberger and his partisan past.

“I was optimistic that Miro’s administration would be a fresh start, but, to be honest with you, it’s laden with cronyism, in my view,” said Councilor Paul Decelles (R-Ward 7), pointing to the new mayor’s previous appointment of two campaign aides to city posts. “I want to be able to look across at the city attorney and not for one second question his motivations. With Ian, I don’t think that’s gonna be possible.”

Councilor Vince Brennan (P-Ward 3) said he, too, was leaning against voting for Carleton — principally because of the nominee’s relationship with Weinberger and his role as party chairman.

“He’s supposed to be the attorney for the city and it’s just going to raise too many questions,” Brennan said.

Carleton patiently beat back those and other issues during the informal meeting, which was attended by seven members of the council. He said he fully recognized that, as city attorney, his duty would be to represent the city first and foremost.

“I had some very candid conversations with Miro in particular that if I’m taking this position, there can be no mistaking that I’m not Miro’s or the mayor’s attorney,” he said, noting that it is “most critical” that the job be “politics free.”

At one point, Carleton turned the question around on the councilors, asking Bushor and Councilor Max Tracy (P-Ward 2) whether they would let their political leanings affect how they treat others at their jobs at, respectively, Fletcher Allen Health Care and the University of Vermont.

“Just because you have particular political views, you wouldn’t think of treating anybody differently in your day job,” he said. “I believe people generally are motivated by the right things, and day jobs are not the place for political activism.”

Tracy, who says he has had “second thoughts” about the nomination, questioned why, as a newcomer to city service, Carleton should earn a $112,000 salary — roughly $4000 more than Ken Schatz, who is stepping down from the post.

“I graduated from the best law school in the country. It was ranked number one when I was there and is still ranked number one,” the Yale Law School grad responded. “I come from a very successful private practice right now. The proposal is to leave a practice where I make a great deal more than I would with this city. I’m taking this job out of a dedication to public service.”

Carleton said he and Weinberger considered asking the council for an even higher salary, but ultimately decided “it was something we did not find appropriate.”

“We decided, ‘why pick that battle if you don’t have to fight it?’” he said.

Councilor Rachel Siegel (P-Ward 3) questioned why Carleton, a Huntington resident, should be granted an exemption from an ordinance requiring department heads to live in the city, noting, “I have some discomfort with it.”

Carleton said his family had made “a lifestyle choice” to move to a more rural area long before he considered working for the city. He said he is unwilling to pull his children out of the Huntington schools. Schatz, who also attended the meeting, spoke up and said that he, too, lives outside the city — in South Burlington.

Aside from Hartnett, most of the brewing opposition to Carleton’s appointment appeared to come from the council’s Republican and Progressive wings. Councilor Bryan Aubin (D-Ward 4), the only Democrat to attend the question-and-answer session, said that while he’s reserving judgment, “I have yet to see a reason why he wouldn’t be fit … Miro is certainly putting forward quality people.”

Council President Joan Shannon (D-Ward 5) agreed.

“I think the mayor’s appointments need to be the mayor’s appointments, and as long as an appointee is qualified, he should be approved,” she said. “And Ian is highly qualified for the job.”

For his part, Weinberger, who did not attend the session, said he has full confidence in his nominee. He said the only councilor to raise questions with him directly was Decelles.

“I didn’t agree with the concerns he raised,” Weinberger said.

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