Inside baseball in Montpelier

UPDATED:  Edited to remove the conspiratorial tone of the original. Thanks to JO for the catch.

Jack McCullough 

 

What started out as an uncontroversial, good-government civic project in the Capital City has turned to controversy, due largely to last-minute changes adopted by Montpelier's City Council before the proposal goes to the voters.

The project, launched in October, 2012, was intended to be a modernization, reorganization, and update of Montpelier's city charter, with no changes to the substance of the charter. As described by the Charter Revision Committee in its report to the voters,:

 The Charter Revision Committee was careful to not propose any substantive changes to the charter.  Our proposed revisions are clarifications and updates to the charter text.  The committee recommends deleting obsolete and unnecessary charter text, adding new language, moving and reorganizing some sections, and inserting new sections that accurately describe the current practices and authority of Montpelier city government.

. . .

The document Montpelier Charter Revisions submitted to the council in August 2013 has extensive clarifying edits but no substantial changes.  When the committee met with the council in August and November, a few additional clarifying edits were requested by the council and incorporated into the charter revision document.  

As with similar revisions, the changes to the charter had to go through two public hearings with the City Council before they could be placed on the ballot, and those hearings were held last month.
 
At the second hearing, the Council made two substantive changes, additions to the section on the powers of the mayor and council. They are:
 
 (g) Permit the non-highway use, occupancy or reservation of portions of public streets and thoroughfares, provided that such use, occupancy or reservation is in the public interest and will not impair or interfere with the free and safe flow of vehicular and pedestrian traffic thereon.
(h) Establish fees and benefit charges for city services, permits, licenses, hearings, and uses of city property.  Establish fees for dog licenses.
 
 For what is supposed to be a general organizing document these provisions seem weirdly specific, don't they? 
 
Well, it turns out there's a history to both items, and they harken back to controversies from last year.

The first provision, allowing the Council to premit non-highway use of public streets, arises out of a kerfuffle last year about Montpelier Alive's proposal to let local restaurants and bars use the parking spaces in front of their establishments for “parklets”, or outside seating. In a city where parking as tight as it is in downtown Montpelier you can imagine that this would not be universally popular, but in addition to the lost parking people were complaining about safety and public alcohol consumption issues. Questions were raised by the chair of the local Liquor Board and the state Liquor Control Commission (how I wish Vermont's commission were called the ABC Commission, as in some other states!) and transportation issues were also raised.

Beyond that, some residents were unhappy with the idea of public space, even parking spaces, that could be used as a public resource would essentially be turned over to local businesses. The Times Argus reported:

 Ann Gilbert, a member of the New Directions Coalition, a central Vermont organization promoting healthy lifestyles, said she too was concerned about allowing alcohol to be served at the parklets. 

“I heard some teenagers talking about how excited they were about the parklets and having a place to sit downtown,” she said. “And now with alcohol that’s completely changed the flavor of that. It’s just extended space for a bar and restaurants. Our organization is part of Montpelier Alive, and we support downtown vibrancy. If this had been a movie theater putting in a parklet, that would be more community space.”

 The proposal never went anywhere last summer, but now it pops up as part of the charter revision.

The second item is similar. The fight was over dogs, dog owners, and dog waste in Montpelier. Should Montpelier have a dog park, should dogs be allowed to run off leash at Hubbard Park,  should dog owners be more responsible to take care of dog waste, and who should pay the cost for dog waste receptacles the city wound up buying, dog owners or the general public?

Because people feel strongly about their dogs, and other people feel equally strongly about not have to encounter threatening dogs or dog feces contaminating their daily walks, this led to some very strongly worded arguments on Facebook and elsewhere. (For instance, see Bryan Pfeiffer's blog post “The Crap Around Montpelier“.) 

 I think there are reasonable arguments to be made on both sides of this one. On the one hand, I don't want to deal with feces other people and their dogs distribute around the city, and I think it is reasonable to argue that dog owners should bear the cost of disposal. On the other hand, we don't make tennis players pay a fee for the upkeep of the public tennis courts, we don't make joggers contribute (beyond their taxes) to the city's hiking and running paths, we don't charge people who frequent Hubbard Park a special “park impact fee”, so why should dog owners be any different?

Again, while not explicit, the dog fee has surfaced as part of the Council's changes to the charter revision proposal.

In both of these cases there is a perfectly innocent explanation: in the course of considering ordinances the City was told that the Council didn't currently have authority to do what they wanted to do. The parklet proposal impinged on the authority of the Department of Transportation and the dog fee proposal would have violated state law on the permissible uses of dog licensing fees.

Contacted about this proposal, Mayor John Hollar emphasized that if either of these proposals is going to be implemented it would still have to do through the Council's usual process for enacting new ordinances, including public hearings. 

Former Council member Nancy Sherman, who chaired the charter review commission thinks the charter change proposal goes too far. In a letter in Times Argus she doesn't go so far as to call for the defeat of her own commission's proposal, but raises questions about whether this was a back door deal to sidestep public input. As a consequence, this uncontroversial update may suddenly be getting more attention than anyone expected.

These are substantive changes, and it's hard not to think it would have been better to have them on the ballot as standalone measures, so each could have been debated on its own merits.

8 thoughts on “Inside baseball in Montpelier

  1. And I’m disappointed to hear it parroted here, uncritically.

    As far as the dog thing goes, I was a big driver of that, and Nancy’s characterization is inappropriate, and I’ve said as much to her over email.

    The discussion goes back more than a year (yup – a freakin’ year), in response to a committee spearheaded by Susan Ritz and Lyn Munno working on getting dog poop stations set up in the park, and around town. There was a price discussed and questions as to where the money would come from. When approached as to whether at least some of the cost could be captured from license fees, I asked the questions and reported back – in open council – that adding fees for anything besides rabies mitigation required a charter change.

    The topic came up repeatedly – including at least one occasion when Nacy and other members of the committee were right there… it was, in fact, part of the discussion.

    When I finally did get confirmation that the council wanted to proceed, I moved forward, knowing that the Charter Change Committee had two more meetings before the council, and that they were tasked to come back to hear what other changes the council might want. I sent a proposed change, based on other similar city charters, that I thought was short, sweet, and would give the council the flexibility it wanted. To my surprise, I was greeted with this email from Nancy back on Dec 2:

    Hello John,

    I received your message with proposed new text.  With all due respect, the Charter Revision Committee has finished its work, appeared at council meetings, and submitted its final report.  If the council wants additional revisions, that is its prerogative.

    Nancy Sherman

    I found it (and it’s tone) a bit odd, since they were in fact due back before the council, and I had been under the impression the purpose of that return was to allow time for possible changes.

    So the change was made – fact reduced to a phrase – and would simply grant the council authority to increase fees to cover the poop stations.

    How Nancy (and others) can characterize this as some sort of deception or power grab is beyond me, but I find it very personally disrespectful, as I have been a key part of this very straightforward public conversation over a very simple, benign public policy hiccup-of-a-change, and due diligence was repeatedly performed by myself, the council, and the Susan and Lyn from the Dog Waste committee over a very long period.

    Seriously. This is going pretty far out of one’s way to pick a fight, here.

    If people reeeaaaaallllly want, I can go back to the video meeting records and identify times when the matter came up – including in at least one discussion with Nancy Sherman.

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