The purpose of this blog is not supposed to be political, its a forum to discuss ethics and government in Vermont. If you want politics, you can check out my political blog over at Sugaring Off. With that said, it’s important to discuss the ethical dilemmas (and the associated procedural and policy hurdles) faced by the Burlington City Council last night as it decided who would be the new purchaser for Burlington Telecom. Again for a bit of history on the subject, I’d refer you to Sugaring Off.

With history out of the way, it becomes important to unpack exactly what transpired during the course of the Burlington City Council’s eight hour marathon session.  On November 13, 2017 the die was cast or so we were told by way of this Resolution that set a bidding process in place and brought back bidders who had already been previously excluded by the Council.  Bids called (“letters of intent” or LOI’s) were due “no later than November 20 at 9 a.m.”  Now that’s a pretty specific time on a pretty specific date.

Mayor Weinberger and Councilors

Instead what happened is that the Council opened up with a work session at approximately 5:30 PM in which both of the previous failed bidders, Schurz who teamed up with ZRF, offered commentary not only on their newly submitted bid that was published in time, but then continued to expand on the initial bid, on-the-fly, at the work session. Despite a number of well directed questions from a number of different councilors, there were still many questions left unanswered. One of the big questions left unanswered was raised by Taylor Dobbs, formerly of VPR and soon to be of Seven Days, which is how could the Council agree to sell an asset like BT, where the identities of the investors were unknown? There were a number of breaks that the Council took where councilors broke-up into what appeared to be ad hoc caucuses. Now so long as there was not a quorum (the Council rules define a quorum as a majority of the whole, in the case of a 12 member body 7 or more members) of the Council present. If a quorum isn’t present then the provisions of Vermont’s Open Meeting Law don’t kick in. But remember, laws set the baseline for conduct, not the ceiling. While breaking up into pods may have been legal, as a matter of policy, it was a poor decision. And as a matter of public perception and political intrigue, the optics were horrible, not to mention how future entities seeking to do business with Burlington will construe how Ting and KBTL were treated.

Ting Executives – Michael Goldstein and Monica Webb

If that wasn’t bad enough, what happened next was even worse. Schurz and ZRF came back to the Council, at 11:00 PM, after seemingly having negotiated a new deal out in the hallway and proposed a number of new terms, changed some of the old terms AND changed the lead entity on the bid from ZRF to Schurtz. Remember bids were due on November 20th at 9 AM and here was a new bid, with new terms being proposed at an hour where the Council (and likely a good chunk of the City) is normally in bed and required to the Council to “suspend the rules” (Council meetings end at 10:30 unless 2/3s of the Council votes to suspend the rules).  That bid likely generated this lede from Seven Days – “The Burlington City Council voted 8-2 early Tuesday to select Schurz Communications and ZRF Partners’ bid to buy Burlington Telecom — picking an option that was not on the table at the start of a lengthy and at times testy meeting.” And this one from VT Digger “Burlington Telecom will be sold to Schurz Communications — a last-minute arrangement decided through backdoor political maneuvering at a Burlington City Council meeting. The meeting, which ended in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, was rife with confusion and marked by outbursts.”  Now as a City, a municipal corporation, is that really the kind of publicity you want to be generating if you can avoid it?

Councilor Ali Dieng Questioning the City Attorney

At one point New North End Councilor Dieng referenced an email exchange that he had with the Burlington City Attorney. The essence of his claim was that the City Attorney had informed him that no new bids or altered bids would be allowed after November 20th. I do not know the contents of those emails, but Councilor Dieng’s statements raise a legitimate concern. Look as attorneys we are not perfect. We try to give our clients the best advice possible based on the facts and circumstances at the time that it is given. Advice can change with facts and circumstances. This recent Vermont Supreme Court case out of Winooski held that even if a “charter designates the city attorney as legal advisor to the city manager, it is settled in Vermont and other states that the actual client of the city attorney is the municipality.” The actual client of the city attorney is the city. Now imagine being the city attorney in Burlington. Your client is the City, you are hired and retained by the Mayor and your have 12 partisan Councilors continually asking questions about policy and process. Some decisions are bound to be Solomonic. And to make things even more complicated, any individual councilor can request that their inquiry be kept confidential pursuant to Council Rule 19.

Ultimately the Council didn’t even follow the voting method set forth in their own resolution of that very evening, requiring Councilors to vote for two of the competing entities in the first round of voting. The City Attorney then ruled at the meeting that Councilors couldn’t be forced to vote. Council Rule 16(3) requires – “All requests for resolutions, ordinance and miscellaneous materials, to be prepared by the city attorney must be in the City Attorney’s hands by twelve o’clock noon on the fourth business day (normally Tuesday) preceding a regular, or adjourned regular meeting.” Furthermore, “[t]he city attorney shall deliver to the office of the city clerk all resolutions or ordinances to be submitted no later than twelve o’clock noon of the second business day, (normally Thursday) preceding a regular, or adjourned regular meeting.” Which of course begs the question, how come if the resolution had to be submitted in advance, the issue of voting was not clarified earlier?

One final thought. There was an instance where Councilor Hartnett interrupted Councilor Shannon several times during debate and claimed she was “out of control and going down the wrong path” and later that she was expounding “bullshit.”  This type of engagement has no place in a civil democratic process. There are rules of procedure, but it is up to the Council President or Presiding Officer (in this case the Chief Administrative Officer Beth Anderson was presiding over the meeting because President Knodell wanted to participate in debate) to maintain order and decorum. For an interesting read, take a look at this memorandum written several years ago by the City Attorney’s Office on the way decorum can be kept at Council meetings.

Like politics – – policy and procedure is a complicated game and ethics just adds to the difficulty of keeping the balls in the air. Although this isn’t the blog where I usually expound on pop-culture, it’s clear that the current game the City is playing is a strange one and that the only winning move is….. not to play……

 

Right now the Burlington City Council is deciding whether it should sell Burlington’s homegrown telecom to either an experienced and highly-regarded Canadian corporation (which has offered $30.5 million) or a well-intentioned, but inexperienced and underfunded local group (which has offered $12 million). My VPR Commentary on the merits of the proceedings, can be found here, but the purpose of this post is of course to look at an ethical issue that just popped up during an unexpected turn in the proceedings.

City Councilor Karen Paul has been actively involved in the new owner search to date, right up to voting to select the two finalists. Councilor Paul then evidently discovered that she had a conflict, on the eve of the final vote. VT Digger quoted her as saying “I have a professional conflict of interest that came to light over the weekend,”….“I’m not able to speak directly to this conflict, but I would like to state that my conflict has nothing whatsoever to do with the parties seeking to buy Burlington Telecom.” If you look at the comments to the Digger article, it is evident that there are a number of folks out there who took umbrage with the seemingly late disclosure; that Councilor Paul did not disclose the details of the conflict; and that the content of the disclosure was somewhat nebulous.  After all, it certainly piques one’s curiosity as to what the conflict could be if it “has nothing whatsoever to do with the parties seeking to buy Burlington Telecom.” It is also notable that the only way to get out of voting on the Burlington City Council, is either not to show up at a meeting (which is against the rules) or to declare a conflict of interest.

Burlington’s conflict of interest policy, happens to be more then just policy, it is in fact special state law. It is special state law because it is enshrined in the City Charter and every municipal charter is a special state law, applicable only to the municipality in question. Section 133 of the Charter states that “[n]o City officer shall participate in any fashion or cast a vote on any matter in which either a direct or indirect conflict of interest is present. Nor shall a City officer participate or vote on any question in which such participation or vote would reasonably create in the mind of an objective person the appearance of a direct or indirect conflict of interest. The presence of a circumstance as above enumerated shall be regarded as a conflict of interest situation. In the event a conflict of interest situation arises, the affected City officer shall at the first opportunity formally declare the existence of the conflict of interest situation. Thereafter, such officer shall not participate in any fashion at any level, formally or informally, in the discussion of the matter, nor cast a vote of any kind at any level with respect to the matter to which the conflict of interest situation applies.” (Emphasis mine).  The Charter goes on to further define direct and indirect conflicts of interest.

It is clear that the Charter does not require a City officer to do anything other then declare a conflict of interest. While it would be interesting to know exactly what the conflict entails, the Charter does not require details. Nor should the person declaring a conflict have do disclose details. It is likely that any conflict will be intertwined in an official’s personal and professional affairs. Elected officials, especially those essentially donating their time, should not be required to reveal their private affairs. In addition, it is certainly possible that someone could in fact owe a professional duty that prohibits disclosure of the conflict details.  Indeed in this instance both VT Digger and the Free Press reported that the conflict was a professional one for Councilor Paul.  She is a CPA so it may well be related to her professional obligations in that capacity.

In 2008 when Deb Markowitz was Secretary of State, her office published a useful guidance on drafting a conflict of interest policy for municipalities called , “Drawing Clear Lines: Adopting Conflict of Interest Ordinances for Local Officials.” Not a bad place to start when looking at drafting an ordinance or even a charter change. Of even more interest is an article that Secretary Markowitz wrote in 1991 for the Vermont Bar Journal entitled “A Crisis in Confidence – Local Boards Under Fire.” I wish I could provide a link, but I couldn’t find a copy online that wasn’t behind a paywall. A few notable quotes include: “Questions regarding the ethical conduct of municipal officials is causing a crisis of confidence in local government.” “High ethical standards must be required for local government officials in order to ensure that governmental activities are conduced in the public’s interest.” “In Vermont, the general lack of guidance as to the specific ethical obligations of local government officials has left a void which is filled, haphazardly, by some local governments, and has left the public (and some local government officials) feeling as though local boards and officials may function without concern for ethical propriety beyond the basic legality of their actions.”

And that was all written pre-internet/social media and certainly did not factor into the equation today’s highly politicized environment. Throw those into the mix and you have, well Burlington……