Controversial ties: Progressives, city officials examine ethics in election
by Jacob Holzman and Sarah Olsen
As election day nears, conflicts between political rights and campaign ethics need to be considered, Progressive city councilors and city officials said.
Senior Carmen Scoles and junior Brock Gibian are running as Democrats for Burlington City Council. Scoles is running for the East District, which encompasses Ward 1 and 8, against current Ward 1 city councilor Selene Colburn. Gibian is running for Ward 8 against former UVM student Adam Roof, an independent.
There was an “active attempt” by Burlington community engagement specialist, Kesha Ram, and Mayor Miro Weinberger to recruit candidates for the Democratic Party, Progressive city councilor Max Tracy said.
Ram holds a number of jobs in Vermont politics. She is a Democratic state legislator and a UVM trustee, according to UVM’s website and the Vermont legislature website. She was also hired as the community engagement specialist at the Community and Economic Development Office Nov. 13, 2012, according to a press release from Peter Owens, director of the Community and Economic Development Office.
The Community and Economic Development Office is a department of the city of Burlington that works with local communities to promote economic growth and preserve quality of life, according to their website.
Her role, among others, is to “be the point person for communications between the Administration and community groups, including the Neighborhood Planning Assemblies,” according to the press release.
Organizing nonpartisan Neighborhood Planning Assemblies seems to conflict with Ram’s political activity and her recruiting Democratic candidates is “particularly inappropriate,” Tracy said.
“You’re responsible for organizing a ward NPA, you shouldn’t be trying to organize the candidate to run in that particular area,” he said.
It is normal for people in their private time to engage with political activities and this is not new to city employees, Weinberger said.
“These are important constitutional rights these people have, to engage in the political process, and you know the government should be very careful to get in the way of that,” he said.
“The point is that we’re not suggesting that she broke the law. We’re suggesting that this is a breach of ethics, really,” Tracy said.
Ram has not commented, citing a death in her family.
“I just lost my father and I trust that others in city hall and at the University can adequately answer your questions,” she said.
In a Dec. 11, 2014 email to Owens, Progressive Ward 2 City Councilor Jane Knodell expressed similar concerns to Tracy.
“I have heard, and it may not be good information, that Kesha Ram organized a series of meetings for a Democratic Ward 8 student candidate,” Knodell said in her email.
After meeting with Ram and other city officials, Owens replied to Knodell in a Jan. 30 memo with “clarity to questions raised in the Dec. 11 email,” according to the memo.
“Our inquiry confirms the [Community Engagement Specialist] held several meetings with a prospective candidate in Ward 8 in December on her own time, not as part of her job,” according to the memo.
“The employee understood these meetings to be consistent with the parameters for her political activities agreed to when she started work two years ago—i.e. she would avoid public appearances on behalf of local candidates that might cause confusion with her job duties, but political activity in private, off work hours was OK,” according to the memo.
It went on to state that it is the unique requirements of the Community Engagement Specialist’s job, not a “different standard,” which dictates “specific constraints.”
“Because she has been involved in her official capacity in assisting in the set-up of Ward 8’s election officials, she will refrain from any partisan activities, even private support of candidates, within Ward 8 for this initial election,” according to the memo.
Weinberger said that before the memo, Ram had set up a “couple meetings” for him “on her private time,” as well as spoken in about potential candidates to run in “her private capacity.”
“Like any employee of the city has constitutional First Amendment rights to engage in political activities, which are important rights for everybody,” he said.
Owens said that Ram’s private time falls under her First Amendment right to free speech.
“Otherwise you get into a totalitarian situation. You’re sort of gagged, because of some governmental order, so obviously that’s not what we’re about here in Burlington,” he said.
For Tracy, the issues of free speech under the First Amendment “aren’t really what we’re questioning here.”
“It’s not really a ‘can,’ it’s a ‘should’ question; should someone who’s responsible for this [job] be doing this? Should someone hold themselves to that higher standard? I think the answer is yes,” he said.
Owens said he sees the memo as a “reasonable standard for interaction that tries to balance not confusing what her day job is with what she does on her personal time.”
Weinberger said, that considering Ward 8 is a new ward and there is a “need to organize it,” there is a “special sort of situation that emerged.”
“I think that pushed her into an area that her job doesn’t normally involve and it precipitated questions and it precipitated this memo and I think she needs to follow the term of that memo,” he said.
Because job duties associated with the community engagement specialist position “include providing neutral, non-partisan support for the NPA’s around local elections (City Council and School Board),” there is “more potential to create confusion between the public [versus] private roles” of the community engagement specialist, according to the memo.
The only place where “we were really concerned” was that Ram, the community engagement specialist, “was not strategizing,” Owens said.
“Understand that what people do in their own private time is their business,” he said.
One year ago
Last year, Ram reached out to two students – then SGA president Connor Daley and then chair of SGA’s Committee on Legislative Action Jordan Redell – to talk to them about running in the Ward 1 city council race, Daley said.
At the time when they were contacted, the Ward 1 City Councilor, Democrat Kevin Warden could not keep doing it, Weinberger said. UVM assistant library professor Selene Colburn, a Progressive, was running unopposed in the ward.
“We searched and we searched and absolutely at a certain point, [a student] wasn’t our first choice, especially then when it seemed like it would be hard for a student to win in Ward 1 the way it was configured at the time, but we couldn’t find any long term resident that was willing to run,” Weinberger said.
Daley’s interaction with Weinberger, Ram and the Democratic Party before being asked about running was “limited,” he said.
When Ram reached out to him, Daley said she was “calling on behalf of Miro Weinberger,” and that they were looking for somebody to run as a Democrat in the Ward 1 City Council elections.
“I think I remember telling her, ‘That’s assuming I’m a Democrat, number one, and two, no thank you,’” he said.
When Ram called her about running, Redell said “she preceded our whole conversation by saying, ‘I am calling you because of our personal relationship, and because of my relationship as a UVM trustee, this has nothing to do with my job at CEDO.’”
Redell said she wasn’t prepared for calls from Weinberger, Ram and representatives from the Vermont Democratic Party . She “didn’t have enough time to think about it,” she said.
She would have had to submit the signatures by the end of that weekend to run, she said.
“If I had a week to collect signatures and decide what a campaign would look like, maybe it’d be different, but it’s just a few days,” she said.
Weinberger was “disappointed” when she decided not to run, he said.
“We ended up having no candidate for that race, which was a rather unfortunate situation for the party to be at,” Weinberger said.
A Year Later
In this year’s election for Ward 8 and East District city council, the Democratic candidates that are running, Gibian and Scoles, are the ones that “showed an interest,” Weinberger said.
“I would’ve loved to have been in a situation where there were numerous students or other candidates, non students, who were interested – that wasn’t the situation we were faced [with]. Would I have chosen people with more SGA or political experience? That would’ve been an interesting situation to be in. That wasn’t how this evolved,” he said.
In Ward 8, it was pretty clear that considering the majority of the residents were students, there was a “proactive effort to find a student who would be interested to run,” Weinberger said.
In a Feb. 2 interview, Ward 8 candidate Brock Gibian said “it just all came together” when he first went to the Ward 1 NPA meeting. After the meeting, “the democrats reached out to me and the mayor reached out to me,” he said.
“He thought I would be the best student candidate,” he said. “So I am endorsed by the mayor.”
In a Feb. 23 email, he said that in early December, he initiated a conversation with Ram and Weinberger, to inform them of his candidacy and ask for their support in the Jan. 11 Democratic caucus.
“Kesha has never acted in any official capacity when I have reached out to her for advice or guidance. Her participation in my campaign, however small, has been nothing if not appropriate,” he said in the email.
What Gibian has heard from voters across the ward is their desire to have a city councilor who truly represents their interests, and that he is uniquely positioned to do that, he said in the email.
“I will be beholden to my conscience and constituents alone, should I be elected on March 3,” he said in the email.
Gibian’s opponent in Ward 8, Independent Adam Roof, thinks there is no place for partisan politics in local government, he said.
“From a personal standpoint I think that in Ward 8, especially dealing with the issues of the students and the permanent residents, a true Independent is beholden to nobody,” he said.
In an email sent the same night, Scoles said she attended the Democratic caucus with the intent to support the Mayor’s re-election bid.
“I was inspired by passion the had the Mayor had for making our city a better place, and left wondering what more I could bring to the conversation. I inquired who the candidates were in the East District and decided I would be the best nominee for our party,” she said.
The Democratic Party was on the verge of not having a candidate in the district at all when Scoles was willing to step up and run, Weinberger said.
“I don’t think this was something she was looking to do for a long period of time before that. Once she committed to do that, she has been from my perspective a very strong candidate,” he said.
Roof is running as an Independent because “party lines create distractions,” he said.
“If I give you a ride up to class, you know, ‘Hey, I owe you one.’ If you help someone out then a favor is usually expected in return,” he said. “For me, like I said at the [Feb. 18] debate, it will be really hard for any candidates that have gotten so much organizational support and financial support to say, ‘Hey, I’m gonna make my own independent decisions.’”
East District candidate Selene Colburn declined to comment.
Story by Sarah Olsen and Jacob Holzman. Additionalreporting by Hannah Kearns, John Riedel, Margeux Rioux and Cory Dawson; banner photo by Cory Dawson.