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Burlington mayor defends her family’s ‘Meal Train,’ says it does not violate ethics policy

BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) – Burlington’s mayor is defending herself against public criticism over accepting meals from citizens. Reporting by Mike Donoghue Tuesday revealed a “Meal Train” was set up for Burlington Mayor Emma Mulvaney-Stanak and her family to support them as she begins the role of mayor. The mayor Wednesday said the meals do not violate the city’s ethics policy.

Mayor Emma Mulvaney-Stanak and her wife, Megan Moir, are now city employees and together earn more than $200,000 a year. Organizers invited local residents to sign up for a Meal Train designed to reduce the burden of serving as a public official while also raising a family.

However, some in the community were outraged that the help was being given to people who were making well over the median income.

We requested an interview with the mayor but instead received a statement defending the meal assistance. “Women, especially women with small children, are underrepresented in elected positions because of the lack of support that exists to help their families while they run for and serve in office,” the mayor said. “I am … grateful to my friends and community for helping to support my family with home-cooked meals while I am doing the important work of being Mayor.”

The city does have a policy prohibiting employees from accepting gifts over $20 in value. We received screenshots of the fundraiser showing at least one person gifting the mayor’s meal train a $50 Visa gift card.

But in a statement, the city attorney says that is only when the gift giver may be impacted by the employees’ performance and “does not intend to prohibit employees from accepting gifts … where the gift is otherwise motivated by personal relationships and not for reasons impacted by the employee’s public service.”

Jared Carter, a professor at the Vermont Law and Graduate School agrees that Burlington’s policy does not prohibit all gifts, only those that appear to curry favor. “This policy is directed at a specific category of gifts, gifts from people who have some interest, whether they’re an employee of the city, or a business owner who’s transacting business with the city, and I think that’s a really important difference.,” he said.

Only one city councilor agreed to talk about the issue. Councilor Sarah Carpenter, D-Ward 4, is on the HR committee and says they will take up the matter if there’s strong council interest. She says while there may be an optics issue with food insecurity, she isn’t that concerned. “I don’t see this as a big breach of policy. Maybe a little bit poor judgment in an effort to accept friendship from friends. So, we certainly can look at it. I think the city has so many significant issues to be worried about, this is kind of the bottom of my list of issues to look at,” she said.

The Meal Train organizer, Jessica Oski, is a lobbyist and sits on the Burlington Police Commission. She says the purpose was not to provide free meals but was instead a way to show support from a caring community and a way for friends and neighbors to support the mayor as she transitions to the demanding job.

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