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Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger reflects on his 12 years in office

A man in a light blue shirt and dark blue suit jacket.
Elodie Reed
Vermont Public file
Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger will step down in April.

On April 1, Vermont's largest city will undergo a major transition. Mayor Miro Weinberger, a Democrat, will leave the position he's held for the past 12 years after deciding last fall not to seek a fifth term. Burlington will inaugurate Progressive state Rep. Emma Mulvaney-Stanak, who will become the first woman and openly queer person to serve as mayor in the city's history.

Weinberger joined Vermont Edition host Mikaela Lefrak for a conversation about his legacy in the Queen City. He discussed some of the city's largest challenges, from the drug crisis to affordable housing, his proudest achievements and what he might do next. The following transcript has been lightly edited and condensed.

What do you want to be remembered for?

When I was running for mayor for the first time [in 2011], I kind of got asked a version of that question. What I said at the time was, I hope to be remembered as someone who came into office at a challenging time for the community, and helped us navigate through the crisis and get to a better place. What I was talking about, of course, was the financial crisis that we faced when I first came into office. But what I didn't know is we would end up facing so many crises after that, whether it was the crisis of the Trump administration, or whether it was the first global pandemic in 100 years, and then the economic crisis that followed that, or the homelessness crisis and policing challenges that we have faced in recent years. I still think the answer at the end of this is the same.

How should Burlington and the state address the rise in homelessness?

We are now the state with the second highest homelessness rate in the country. It's been that way for the last couple of years. It's going to be a while until we get to a place where there's enough permanent housing to properly house everybody. We are making progress. But those permanent homes are years away. We have a choice right now: Either we need to acknowledge that we have a problem with homelessness and dramatically expand our shelter system, or we are going to continue to see what we've seen the last couple of summers, which is around the state people sleeping outside and in tents in public areas. The right answer is expanding our shelter capacity. We've done that here in Burlington since 2020. We've created three new emergency shelters, but it's not enough. And it shouldn't be Burlington alone that is responding to this homelessness crisis. We need the state to step up and expand shelter capacity as well.

Construction on the CityPlace apartments is going strong. But why did the project have so many delays?

Development projects are hard, challenging. You're dealing with uncertainty and unpredictability and factors that are outside of the project's control. We knew that when we started this, and we actually negotiated very protective agreements for the city, such that those delays that you mentioned, never, never hit the taxpayers. The city was financially protected.

If I had this project to do over, I would have talked more at the beginning about the uncertainty and the unpredictability of development projects and the possibility of delays and setbacks. I prepared for that, and we negotiated very protective agreements, but we didn't have as much upfront communication about that. And I think it did surprise and upset the community when we encountered those delays. But you know, at the end of the day, the tallest building in the state of Vermont is now standing there. And that is a symbol of the amount of economic activity and the amount of revenue that is going to generate in the years ahead.

What is one strategy the city is taking to address the drug crisis that you would like to see continue?

This has been one of my top areas of focus. We created this monthly working group that we call "community stat" that has all of the decision makers working on this problem. We sit at this table, and we try to look at the data and make changes in real time. Some of the changes that came out of that, for example, were the hospital changing its prescribing practices. Today, they prescribe about 70% fewer opioids by some measures than they did when that review began. When we started this work, there had been a chronic waiting list for treatment for many years. We were able to do away with that waiting list in just six months after this group started meeting.

In 2018 and 2019, it appeared that those changes and some of the others that had come out of that period were working, and we actually saw opioid deaths, overdose deaths drop by 50%. It has been the most heartbreaking setback of my time in office to go from there in 2019 to where we are today in 2024, which is that the problem is essentially worse than ever — basically three times the amount of death taking place in Chittenden County as we had before the pandemic.

Over the course of 2022 and 2023 we did launch many new initiatives, some of which we have some hope are succeeding. We have a new effort by the Fire Department to go out and proactively engage people who are on the streets and provide Naloxone and wound kits and referrals to treatment. We call this the Community Response Team. We have redoubled our interdiction efforts, trying to cut down the trafficking from other major cities on the East Coast. We have tried new treatment efforts such as using city funds to support the Vermonters for Criminal Justice Reform efforts in downtown. At the end of all that, I am hopeful and encouraged to be leaving office being able to say that for the last six months, we actually have seen a dramatic drop in public safety responses to overdoses. It is my hope that we have seen the crest of this crisis and can now see the numbers moving in the right direction again. But there's no doubt that a lot more work needs to be done.

Is there anything concerning law enforcement that you would have done differently?

I'm proud of my record on law enforcement. I am proud of the fact that in my time here we transformed the police department. And in many ways, we dramatically expanded accountability measures. Burlington, on my watch, became one of the first police departments in New England where all officers had body cameras deployed. We, over the last 12 years, have moved enormously in the direction of transparency. And we have a transparency portal. The Burlington Police Department really leads the way in making metrics and statistics about policing this community available for scrutiny and analysis. And that's part of why you see them in the news so much. It's because we put our work out there to be reviewed. ... I believe sometimes the best way to do this job is to take strong stances and look directly at the challenges we face. I did that in 2020. I knew that resolutionwas a mistake as soon as I saw it the Friday before the vote. Good policing requires more resources. And I thought it was a mistake to try to cut spending and reallocate it to other areas.

What do I regret? I regret that we didn't win that debate. And then it took me 18 months to get that decision reversed, which was far longer than I ever imagined it would take. But I did ultimately get it reversed. I did get a permanent police chief appointed, which is critical. I did both through a veto and by leading a public campaign to stop an unprecedented and, I believe, destructive, overzealous community policing charter change. And I really think what was hanging in the balance in all those decisions was whether or not we were going to continue to have a police department.

How is your administration working with Emma Mulvaney-Stanak and her team on the transition?

The night that Emma Mulvaney-Stanek was elected, I called her and congratulated her and offered our full assistance during this transition. We created a budget — I think for the first time — for the transition team to have so that they could have some employees during this transition period and cover routine expenses. I've met a couple times now with the mayor-elect and plan to meet a couple more times. We are reviewing what is going on in every department. We are reviewing the major agreements that are in place and really doing everything that I can think of to help ensure her success. We do have partisan elections in here in Burlington. We do we like our politics. It's a healthy, great part about living in this city that people care about local government so much. One thing I have always appreciated about it is when we get to the other side of the elections, we work together to try to get big things done for the people of Burlington. I absolutely want Emma Mulvaney-Stanek to succeed in this role, and anything I can do to help her succeed, I will do.

Will Gov. Phil Scott's plans influence your own decisions about running for higher office?

I'm very focused right now on getting a bunch of things done before April 1 and supporting the mayor-elect as best I can. After April 1, I'll be sitting down with my wife, my daughters, and we will be figuring out what's next. And I truly don't know what that is going to be. Now what I will say, though, is I am excited for the community. I'm excited for the city. I think it is an exciting time to have a new team coming in to have Burlington is first woman first openly queer person serving in this role. And I'm excited for whatever lies ahead for me. I don't know what it's going to be at this point. But for the first time in 12 years, I am thinking about new things, establishing new goals, talking to new people, and I'm looking forward to what's ahead.

Broadcast on Wednesday, March 27, 2024, at noon; rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

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Mikaela Lefrak is the host and senior producer of Vermont Edition. Her stories have aired nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Weekend Edition, Marketplace, The World and Here & Now. A seasoned local reporter, Mikaela has won two regional Edward R. Murrow awards and a Public Media Journalists Association award for her work.
Tedra joined Vermont Public as a producer for Vermont Edition in January 2022 and now serves as the Managing Editor and Senior Producer. Before moving to Vermont, she was a journalist in New York City for 20 years. She has a master’s degree in journalism from New York University.