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Burlington mayor under fire after commissioning probe of racial equity department

Two women wearing blac tee shirts are holding hands and protesting in front of a brick city hall building.
Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Public
Ferene Paris Meyer, left, and Kiah Morris, led a rally in support of Tyeastia Green outside Burlington City Hall on Monday. Some local residents say Green, the former director of the Burlington Department of Racial Equity, Inclusion and Belong, has been unfairly targeted by Mayor Miro Weinberger.

This story and the headline were updated at 12:40 p.m. Thursday to clarify the focus of the audit, the initial budget for Burlington's 2022 Juneteenth celebration and the timing of Tyeastia Green's departure.

An audit that was intended to scrutinize the financial practices of Burlington’s former director of racial equity, inclusion and belonging has instead focused attention — and anger — on the Democratic mayor who commissioned the probe.

Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger last week unveiled the findings of an investigation into financial management of the city’s Juneteenth celebrations in 2021 and 2022, under former Racial Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Director Tyeastia Green.

The city-commissioned lawyers who conducted the probe found no evidence of embezzlement, theft or fraud.

“However, there does appear to have been mismanagement or carelessness prior to Juneteenth 2022,” their report said.

Green has denied any wrongdoing; she told Vermont Public that she departed her city position before the 2022 event in question, and was not responsible for its coordination.

“Mr. Mayor, you need to apologize for how you handled this. You need to apologize for running Tyeastia (Green) out of city government. You need to apologize for decimating the REIB Department.”
Burlington City Councilor Zoraya Hightower

At a Burlington City Council meeting on Monday night, however, residents were far less concerned with the results of the probe than the motivations behind its commissioning.

“This feels like a modern-day lynching,” Burlington resident and storyteller Ferene Paris Meyer said at a rally in support of Green outside City Hall on Monday afternoon.

Paris Meyer said that Green’s race, gender, and willingness to speak out against institutional racism in city government drew the wrath of the city’s top elected official. She said Weinberger, in turn, sought to sully Green’s reputation by spending $41,000 in taxpayer money on a “witch hunt” disguised as a government accountability endeavor.

It’s a conclusion shared by Burlington City Councilor Zoraya Hightower, who said the audit of Green’s former department was the latest in a series of decisions by the mayor that “negatively impacts BIPOC people.”

Burlington City Councilor Zoraya Hightower
Zoraya Hightower, courtesy
Burlington City Councilor Zoraya Hightower

“The reason this [audit] is in front of us is because [Green’s] relationship with the mayor, much like mine, eroded when her comments went from advice to just pointing out the inherent and systemic racism in the mayor’s decisions,” Hightower said.

Weinberger’s office said he was unavailable for an interview Tuesday about the criticism lobbed his way at Monday’s council meeting.

Weinberger said he ordered the probe in mid-March after officials in Minneapolis accused Green of financial mismanagement while serving as director of the REIB Department in that city.

The city of Minneapolis spent more than $200,000 on an investigation into an event that Green organized during her tenure there. That review found most of the funds for an event, which was meant to promote local Black businesses, went to companies from outside the state, and concluded there wasn’t a detailed plan for the event, according to the report, which was released in late June.

"Following the events in Minneapolis, it would have been professional malfeasance for Burlington not to commission this financial review,” Samantha Sheehan, Weinberger’s director of communications, said in a written statement last week.

The review, conducted by a local law firm called Sheehey, Furlong and Behm, largely focused on the budget for the 2022 Juneteenth celebration, which ended up totaling more than $400,000. The city budgeted $180,000 for the event, with private donations and sponsorships expected to cover the rest. But only about $103,000 came in as private donations and the city ended up paying $131,000 to cover the difference. According to the report, Green said she'd secured between $200,000 and $300,000 in donation commitments before she left the office in March 2022.

"We did not find anything in our searches that substantiated commitments of $200,000 to $300,000 from private donors for Juneteenth 2022 had been made or could be expected,” the report said.

Green said during her final weeks on the job she was trying to get the events coordinator connections to finish fundraising for the Juneteenth celebration.

"I never promised anyone that I had $200,000 or I had $300,000 — that was never a promise that I made," she told Vermont Public.

For many Black women in Burlington, Weinberger’s decision to investigate the city’s first-ever Black female department head fits into a historic pattern of scapegoating leaders of color.

Miro Weinberger at Nectar's in Burlington on the night of Town Meeting Day 2018.
Liam Elder-Connors
VPR File
Miro Weinberger at Nectar's in Burlington on the night of Town Meeting Day 2018.

“Hire the Black woman. Demand more work than what she’s compensated for. Downplay or usurp her accomplishments. Defame her character. And push her out,” Essex Junction resident and former state representative Kiah Morris said.

Morris said the Juneteenth celebrations in Burlington were “some of the most triumphant days that I’ve had since calling Vermont my home.”

“It is foul to cast aspersions on the events and the transformative work that was helmed by former director Green,” Morris said.

The city-commissioned audit focused largely on the work of Green and former REIB event coordinator Casey Ellerby. Morris said media coverage of the probe has caused personal harm and reputational damage to both people. And she demanded Monday that Weinberger account for the harm that his actions have caused for Green, Ellerby and their families.

“Not an apology — a reckoning and accounting for the multiple forms of harm enacted by the city on behalf of the residents,” Morris said.

Members of the Burlington City Council did not run to their mayor’s defense on Monday. Rather, they unanimously approved a motion that seeks to evaluate the impact of the audit on the people it investigated.

The motion directs the city's Human Resources Committee “to consider the full impact of this report on our city, Tyeastia Green, Casey Ellerby and their families.”

The motion further directs the committee to establish a process for independent evaluation and oversight of hiring and retention policies of the city of Burlington, “to combat anti-BIPOC and gender-based discriminatory practices.”

“Mr. Mayor, you need to apologize for how you handled this,” Hightower said. “You need to apologize for running Tyeastia out of city government. You need to apologize for decimating the REIB Department.”

Progressive members of the City Council issued their own point-by-point rebuttal of the audit, and said any issues related to management of Juneteenth celebrations were the product of citywide failings, not malfeasance or incompetence in the REIB Department.

That rebuttal also said that accusations of far worse transgressions by other department heads — from the police chief’s alleged threats against a medical provider to allegations of workplace harassment at the Burlington International Airport — never prompted requests for audits from the mayor’s office.

Former Burlington City Councilor Max Tracy said Monday that Green’s character is unimpeachable.

“I believe Tyeastia, because in all of my work with Tyeastia Green … she in my mind was someone of unquestioned integrity,” Tracy said.

The audit of her performance as a city director, he said, exposes far more about the mayor than it does about Green.

“The treatment that Tyeastia is experiencing is entirely different from what other white department heads have faced, and that is racism,” Tracy said. “That is racist, plain and simple … And it needs to be called out as such.”

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