Burlington city councilor advised Sears Lane campers in lawsuit against city

Councilor Gene Bergman, P-Ward 2, listens as Mayor Miro Weinberger delivers his State of the City address to the Burlington City Council on Monday, April 4, 2022. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

For months, two former residents of the dismantled Sears Lane encampment have — without hiring an attorney — carried out a lawsuit against the city of Burlington.

But even as they advocated for themselves “pro se,” Grey Barreda and Alexus Grundy sought the support of three Vermont lawyers. Among them: Gene Bergman, a former assistant city attorney for Burlington who was sworn in this week as the Ward 2 city councilor.

Since taking the councilor’s oath, Bergman said he has not advised Barreda or Grundy on their lawsuit against the city. But it remains unclear whether the Progressive should recuse himself from council matters related to the lawsuit because of a possible conflict of interest or the appearance of one.

City councilors are regularly briefed during executive sessions, which are closed to the public, about the status of lawsuits involving the city. The council also votes on any settlements — and would do so if one arises from the camper’s suit. 

Bergman told VTDigger he would likely speak with City Attorney Dan Richardson before the councilors addressed the lawsuit in any way.

“I’m not seeing the conflict, but that’s why we have other eyes and ears and brains to work through that stuff,” Bergman said.

Burlington’s conflict of interest policy, which is penned into its charter, mainly deals with conflicts that arise when a city official’s finances mix with their professional duties. 

But included at the end of the policy is a broader subsection which “requests” that officials recuse themselves from issues “where as a result of close personal friendship with an applicant or for any other reason unrelated to the merits of the matter, the City officer is not able to consider the matter at issue without being influenced and guided by such friendship or other reason.”

Unlike other portions of the policy, the last subsection has no formal punishment associated with it, Richardson told VTDigger. Yet other councilors could take more general actions against an official who did not disclose a conflict that fits under the “request” section, such as rendering a vote of no confidence. 

Councilor Ben Traverse, D-Ward 5 — another lawyer sitting on the council — said he doesn’t see Bergman’s involvement with the lawsuit as a conflict of interest, and trusts his colleague to make an appropriate decision on recusing himself if the lawsuit comes up at a council meeting.

“When it comes to conflict of interest issues, these are ultimately decisions councilors need to make for themselves,” Traverse said. 

Bergman has been an outspoken critic of Democratic Mayor Miro Weinberger’s decision last year to clear the Sears Lane camp of its remaining residents, months after the city told residents to move out and erected ‘no trespassing’ signs around the site.

The new Ward 2 councilor — who previously served on the body during the tenure of venerated Progressive mayors Bernie Sanders and Peter Clavelle — said removing the campers was cruel and should have been handled better. Weinberger and his allies, meanwhile, said the move was necessary because campers were living in unsafe dwellings that could have caused a fire. 

Bergman pointed to his well-known stance on the issue — a position shared by his Progressive colleagues — as one reason why he shouldn’t have to recuse himself.

“I do not think that this conflicts me out any more than somebody who took a silent acquiescence position on it,” he said. 

Bergman and Barreda both told VTDigger that they spoke by phone this week, after the council’s “Organization Day.”

Bergman declined to discuss what the pair talked about (“It’s not appropriate. … The words of a city official can be used against the city, and so I am not inclined to be in that position,” he said), but said that Barreda may have asked him about the lawsuit.

“I think he might have asked me if I could help him and I believe I said ‘no,’” Bergman told VTDigger. “I don’t recall the details of that.”

Barreda didn’t recall Bergman mentioning any changes in his involvement with the campers’ lawsuit. He said that he planned on having another conversation with Bergman.

“We’ll be talking again soon,” Barreda said. “He’s been very supportive.”

Barreda and Grundy are racing to meet an April 10 deadline to reframe their lawsuit for further consideration in Chittenden Superior Court. While they previously asked Judge Samuel Hoar to prevent the city from removing the encampment, Hoar ruled last month that he couldn’t offer them relief, since the camp was already gone.

Instead, Hoar offered the campers a chance to seek other forms of relief from the city for damages it might have caused them. 

Barreda told VTDigger Friday that he is working with former state representative Sandy Baird to amend the duo’s initial complaint. He previously said the campers worked with Barry Kade, another lawyer.

Barreda also said that, once he was finished working on the amended complaint, he would send it to Bergman. 

When asked about the nature of his relationship with Bergman, though, Barreda described him as less of a lawyer and more of a counselor. 

“We’ve been processing what’s happened,” Barreda said. “He’s been an incredible listener.”

Bergman said he’s never tried to assist the campers in actually litigating their case, since he’s not qualified to do that. Still, he said he’s willing to step aside on any council action regarding the lawsuit if others see fit.

“My ideal is always to do the ethical thing,” Bergman said. “If the ethical thing would be to recuse myself, then that would be what I would do.”

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