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May 03, 2012

Bittersweet Day for Weinberger: Burlington Mayor Balances Budget, Loses City Attorney Nominee

From Miro Weinberger today, there was good news — and some not-so-good news.

At a City Hall press conference Thursday afternoon, the Burlington mayor announced that his fledgling administration managed to plug the city’s gaping budget hole without raising property taxes. It was a big victory for a mayor who campaigned on the promise of holding the line on taxes without cutting public safety.

Then, after a moment’s pause, he dropped this bombshell:

“The next piece of news I have is more difficult to share,” he began.

Just two and a half weeks after putting forward close friend and political adviser Ian Carleton for the job of city attorney, Weinberger said his nominee had withdrawn his name from consideration.

“I’ve accepted that because I made a mistake here,” the crestfallen mayor said. “I did not give enough thought to the council’s reaction to an individual who was a close friend of mine and who has served as the party chair of one of our major parties. I did not fully understand the degree to which this position, the city attorney’s position, is a position that has a special relationship with the council.”

Carleton’s nomination appeared to hit a snag Monday night as a number of city councilors grilled him during an informal question-and-answer session at City Hall. Several more indicated outside the meeting they had reservations about the appointment.

Their concerns? Some felt Carleton, as a close friend of the mayor’s, would be unable to give impartial advice and guidance to the council. Others took issue with his former leadership of the Vermont Democratic Party, his residence outside Burlington and his proposed salary.

Carleton likely didn’t help his case Monday when, asked why he should earn $4000 more than incumbent city attorney Ken Schatz, he began a rather long and nuanced answer with the explanation that he had attended Yale Law School, which he said was top-ranked when he graduated and top-ranked now. The Burlington Free Press led its story with the unfortunate response.

In an open letter to Weinberger sent Thursday, Carleton apologized for what he said were, “deeply regrettable statements I made on Monday about my education as a partial explanation for my proposed salary.” He noted that his response had also included reference to his professional and public service experience, but conceded that his explanation came out badly.

“Nonetheless, the remarks about where I attended law school were poorly articulated and, frankly, sounded terrible. Taken in isolation, they left the impression of my being an elitist who believes I am entitled to increased compensation merely by virtue of the school I attended,” Carleton wrote. “While that interpretation of my remarks was understandable, it does not nearly reflect my true feelings. That said, I take full responsibility for those remarks, and I am embarrassed by them. We all make mistakes. I made one here, and again, I am sorry.”

Noting several other concerns councilors had raised, Carleton said in his letter that he did not want to distract from Weinberger’s agenda — or the mayor's ability to work constructively with the council — and would therefore remain in private practice at Sheehey Furlong & Behm.

During Thursday’s press conference, Weinberger hastened to say he believed Carleton “may well have been approved” by the council. Nevertheless, he said, a divided vote on the council would have strained his relationship with the body, imperiling his goal of unifying the city after the strains of the Kiss administration.

“I said that I would be a mayor that acknowledges mistakes when they were made and took the consequences, and I indicated many times over the course of the campaign that a key part about rebuilding the public’s confidence in the mayor’s office was repairing the fractured relationship between the mayor’s office and the city council,” he said.

Visibly upset about Carleton’s decision, which he said came shortly before the press conference, Weinberger defended a man he called, “a dear friend of mine, an excellent lawyer and a wonderful father.” Asked if his relationship with Carleton complicated the matter, Weinberger said that friendship can be a good basis for putting together a team that can work well together.

Weinberger said Schatz had agreed to remain in the city attorney post as the mayor reconsidered his options for a new appointment.

Republican Councilor Paul Decelles (Ward 7), a vocal critic of Carleton’s appointment, said he welcomed the news and wished the former nominee well. He said he respected Weinberger’s decision to accept Carleton’s withdrawal.

“Having gone to so many of the mayoral debates, I truly believe all of [the candidates] when they said they wanted to break the walls down that the last administration built up,” Decelles said. “To me, right now, this is the beginning of a good sign for Miro. Had he dug his heels in, it might have been different. But not fighting this out shows me a lot about Miro, so I respect him for that.”

Democratic Councilor Ed Adrian (Ward 1) said that, as a friend of Carleton’s himself, he was saddened by the situation.

“I think it really boiled down more than anything else that Ian made an unfortunate comment that took on a life of its own and everything else became secondary to that,” Adrian said.

While he believes Carleton may ultimately have won confirmation to the post, he respected the decision to move past the controversy.

“I have to think both Ian and the mayor had to think the task at hand was being lost and it was best for everyone to move on,” he said.

The news about Carleton overshadowed what should have been a positive day for the new mayor. His announcement that his administration managed to close a $1.2 million budget gap was as much of a surprise as Carleton’s withdrawal, given the financial challenges facing the city. As recently as Monday, Weinberger had discussed with the Board of Finance the possibility of having to ask voters to approve a property tax hike.

In a three-page memo from interim chief administrative officer Paul Sisson, the administration outlined how it found the savings. Highlights from the proposed budget, which must be approved by the council, include:

  • $350,000 from a decrease in the expected cost-of-living-adjustment for city employees.
  • $300,000 from the Department of Public Works budget, partially from an expected increase in building permit fees generated by accelerated construction activity.
  • $60,000 from shifting Burlington Electric Department worker’s compensation costs to ratepayers.
  • $50,000 from reduced funding to the Community and Economic Development Office.

“I do not want to suggest that we have solved with this all of Burlington’s financial issues,” Weinberger said. “There are certainly challenges we’ll face in the months and years ahead around financial matters and we will need to have future gatherings about this. But we will not need to increase taxes further in fiscal year 2013.”

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