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Mayor’s participation in march raises councilman’s hackles

Burlington’s mayor Ian Baltutis may not have been one of the 23 people who wound up in the klink during the chaotic aftermath of Saturday’s “march to the polls” in Graham.
But Baltutis, who had been one of the march’s more prominent participants, hasn’t gotten off entirely scot-free since his return from this ill-fated event.

During a brief meeting of Burlington’s city council on Tuesday, the mayor’s role in the march drew some harsh words from a local civil rights advocate, whose admonitions were later picked up by one of Baltutis’ colleagues on the five-member council.

The mayor’s verbal drubbing began during a designated public comment period that rounded out the agenda of Tuesday night’s meeting, which took place online due to concerns about coronavirus infections. The only contribution that evening came from Michael Graves of Burlington, whose organization Actively Changing Together has been involved in police reform efforts throughout Alamance County. Graves, who addressed the council by phone, took Baltutis to task for his involvement in Saturday’s march as well as his public support of the event’s organizer – the Rev. Greg Drumwright of Greensboro.

Graves took a rather dim view of Drumwright’s efforts to coordinate his event with local law enforcement officials, who had permitted the march and a subsequent rally under conditions that they later claimed Drumwright had violated. Graves also held the minister accountable for the heavy-handed crowd control measures that sheriff’s deputies and members of Graham’s police force later unleashed on the marchers.

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“I am privy to the knowledge that Rev. Drumwright actually violated his agreement,” he elaborated “and put citizens lives at risk by sneaking in a generator and a gasoline can…So the mayor stood on a stage with a person who violated an agreement and, who in my opinion, caused the situation.”

Graves went on to reprimand Baltutis for the way he presented himself during the march, which he said left the impression that he had endorsed the event in this official capacity as mayor.

“The mayor wears a button that says ‘mayor of Burlington,’” Graves added. “So, is he representing the city of Burlington when he gives these speeches?…If he is representing himself I don’t think he should be recognized as the mayor of Burlington, and I don’t think that he should have a pendant that says ‘mayor of Burlington.’”

Graves was able to share these remarks with the council despite Baltutis reluctance to allow the resident to speak because he wouldn’t provide his full address as per the council’s longstanding policy for public comments. Graves only identified himself as a resident of Burlington due to threats that he said he has received in the past. Baltutis was nevertheless unwilling to bend the rules, which prompted Burlington’s city attorney David Huffman to propose a compromise to break the impasse. Huffman suggested that Graves could provide his address to the city clerk on Wednesday rather than publicly broadcast the information during Tuesday’s live-streamed proceedings. Baltutis initially made no move to accept this suggestion until councilman Jim Butler intervened to get the ball rolling.

Butler, who ran against Baltutis for the mayor’s seat in 2015, spoke up again after the comment period to add his own misgivings to those that Graves had expressed about the mayor’s extracurricular activities. The councilman reminded his colleagues that he has previously objected to Baltutis’ involvement in other political causes without the endorsement of the council at large.

“To my knowledge, this council has taken no action or bestowed any authority to our mayor to represent the city of Burlington at any function outside of normal council or city of Burlington addressed items,” Butler continued. “And Mayor,” he added, as he addressed Baltutis directly, “I will caution you once again to be really careful about that because we all do have a stake in this and we all need to be able to communicate and collaborate.”
Baltutis, meanwhile, wasn’t inclined to accept this unsolicited advice from his former rival for the mayor’s seat.

“Your comments are generally vague in [their] scope,” he told Butler. “If you wish the continue this [debate] that the council should have a weigh in on where the mayor speaks, then I believe we will need to further evaluate the criteria by which our staff are able to respond to these invitations. And I do not believe you wish to have a council vote on every invitation the mayor receives to speak.

“Councilmember,” Baltutis continued, “if you have further comments down the road, I would invite you to encourage that conversation in the appropriate manner.”

“This is the appropriate manner, Mr. Mayor,” Butler replied. “This is very much the appropriate manner. And maybe we do need to have a vote…I would suggest that we put this on the next work session agenda because we need to bring this thing to a head. I’m tired of it.”

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