by Kevin Joseph Ryan
This report doesn’t tell you great things about the political right. It won’t talk about multi-million dollar projects, and it sure won’t decide who wins the Governor’s race. Read it anyway. There’s still people out there who think government aught to conduct itself correctly. Terry Jeroloman is one of them.
Little known in Vermont, and only less slightly known in the Queen City of Burlington, is the system of , Neighborhood Planning Assemblies. Probably so, because the system of the five neighborhood boards in Burlington are little paid attention to, being only advisory boards, unable to take decisive actions. They meet, however, diligently each month, and a small group of citizens listen to department heads and City Councilors explain the various plans and projects the city has to offer. Sometimes, the little details show us where to look for the small examples of when governments play fast and loose.
The Neighborhood Planning Assemblies, originally a plan backed by then City Councilman, now State Representative Bill Aswad (D- Burlington) in 1982, were an effort to launch a network of citizen committees to communicate city projects and increase citizen participation in government. Since that time, they have been overseen by first the local Planning Department and then the Office of Community Economic Development. While CEDO operates on an annual budget of approximately $5.8 million dollars, the NPA’s frequently have to operate on annual sums of a few thousand dollars or less, an almost microscopic sum in the scope of government programs.
This past June 14, the Ward II/Ward III combined NPA meeting was held at the McClure Multigenerational Center in Burlington, where the agenda was to include a presentation from Burlington Public Works Director Steve Goodkind as well as a report on Smart Meters. However, a more interesting topic came to light during the evening.
The City Council resolution which encouraged the development of NPA’s calls for each one to set up by-laws which govern their own meetings and the Ward II/Ward III group has set up a steering committee, the membership of which is murky. While meeting facilitator and steering committee member Charlie Gianonni spoke of three members, the City of Burlington’s website lists a total of five. In either case, Mr. Gianonni had made the unilateral decision to ask the city to disburse $970 in funds which had been awarded to the NPA to himself directly, which would then be awarded, before the close of the fiscal year.
Of those funds, Mr. Gianonni had awarded $370 dollars to the McClure Center, $300 to the leader of volunteers who prepare a dinner before the meeting, Janet Capano and $300, to himself. “I basically made an executive decision…and said we need to disburse those funds so we don’t lose them.” Said Mr. Gianonni at the meeting. His claim was that outgoing Burlington CEDO staffer Laura Hale had informed him that the funds would no longer be available with the close of the fiscal year, June 30. “We don’t know if well ever get another dollar from the city.”, Mr. Gianonni said. An unusual claim, seeing as the city has granted the NPA programs modest amounts for 30 years since their inception.
So, On May 30, on the afternoon Ms. Hale left the City’s employ, Mr. Gianonni “directed the CEDO office”, as he put it, to award him the funds, which they did “with full compliance”. He said his intent was to “retain 50 dollars of it, and I was actually going to hold the rest, to wait for another year to pass before I awarded it to the community dinner or something else that we’d choose at that time.” At the June 16 NPA meeting, fellow Steering Committee member Terry Jeroloman, never having been informed of this action by Gianonni, until after the fact, was having none of it.
“The email from Laura (Hale), stated the money would not be lost before the 30th of June, so there was plenty of time for this to be brought up to the Steering Committee and to be brought before the meeting here.” Jeroloman told the NPA members. “It’s totally inappropriate for him to put this money, for him to put 300 dollars in his pocket.” Gianonni disagreed. “Obviously, there is one steering committee member who is violently opposed to what I did. Everyone else I’ve spoken to, every other human being that I have mentioned this to, has supported me 100%.” Gianonni said.
Apparently, that was not the case, as a meeting took place in the offices of outgoing CEDO Director Larry Kupferman Tuesday afternoon, June 26, where Mr. Gianonni, agreed to sign over the funds to the Chittenden Community Food Shelf as a donation, that he had attempted to collect for his own purposes without the sanction of the NPA Steering Committee. This demand came from Jeroloman.
So why is this story important? After all, it was only a tiny amount of money, a few hundred dollars. Charlie Gianonni had stated his intent to was to offer most of the money to charitable causes at a later time. In the big scheme of Vermont government, such an appropriation is almost completely beneath notice. The reason is because the money came from CEDO federal funds, your tax dollars, not a dollar of which should be inappropriately spent, with either good or ill intent. An outgoing employee of any city should never have offered these funds to any government program on their last day in office, and Gianonni, who has no authority to act on his own, should never have asked for them.
If this sort of ethically questionable conduct is going on at the tiny level of Burlington’s NPA system, almost buried in CEDO’s six million dollar budget, it is almost certainly going on at higher levels, with larger amounts. How many tax dollars should be handled in such a way, by an organization which at present, doesn’t even have any by-laws? Should we let the little fish go? Terry Jeroloman didn’t think so, he thought the issue was big enough to bring to the attention of Burlington Police and the Department Head of CEDO. We can only hope there’s more Terry Jerolomans out there, looking out for the folks.
A lot more.