Vergennes looks at drug paraphernalia law

VERGENNES — Vergennes aldermen on Tuesday tabled until at least their next meeting a proposal to create a city law that would allow Vergennes police to issue city tickets for possession of drug paraphernalia.
Mayor Michael Daniels said there were enough questions from city council members that they decided to wait until Vergennes Police Chief George Merkel could attend a meeting in person to make the case for an ordinance he is proposing.
Merkel is recommending Vergennes adopt a law modeled after Fair Haven’s brief “Drug Paraphernalia Ordinance,” which simply bans the sale, use or possession of paraphernalia intended “for the administration of a regulated drug.” It calls for a $200 fine.
Those fines are paid directly to the municipality, Merkel said in an interview earlier on Tuesday, without court dates for offenders or police, or permanent criminal records for offenders.
“They can be cited and given a city ordinance ticket vs. a citation to appear in court,” Merkel said.
But the chief did not attend the Tuesday meeting, possibly because of a Monday court date followed by Monday night duty.
Daniels said there were enough concerns about exactly how such a new law might be enforced that aldermen preferred to wait for more input before asking Merkel and City Manager Mel Hawley — who said in his notes to the council he supports the concept — to write a Vergennes ordinance.
“We didn’t feel we had enough information,” Daniels said. “The law we had (from Fair Haven) was vague.”
At least some aldermen were leaning toward supporting the proposal, however, the mayor said, and the chief is a firm believer.
Merkel said such a law — which he said would replace a de facto policy of confiscation and destruction of paraphernalia — would be not only another tool in the force’s battle against habitual users and dealers, but also a good way to send a message to first-time offenders and casual users.
“The nice thing about this is someone gets a municipal ticket and gets whatever fine it is, and as long as they pay their fine, they go on their way,” Merkel said.
At the same time, the law would broadcast the city’s anti-drug stance, he said.
“Fair Haven has done well with it, and we would do well with it,” Merkel said. “That’s the message we want to get across, that we have a zero tolerance police in the city for the use of marijuana or any type of drug.”
At the same meeting, aldermen slowed their move toward giving senior citizens a rate break for municipal sewer use. Aldermen had tentatively agreed to try to do something next fall, once a clearer picture of the sewer system’s finances can emerge. But Daniels said they now are increasingly concerned about legal and fairness issues.
One problem is the cost of operating the sewer system is essentially fixed at about $600,000 a year, and giving one set of users a break necessarily means higher rates for others, Daniels said.
Even with a legal opinion in hand that a municipality can adjust its rates if it deems doing so meets a public good, Daniels said aldermen, the council sewer subcommittee and Hawley — who said in his notes he was “not feeling comfortable” with the concept at this point — are all concerned about being even-handed.
“When you reduce in one area, you need to make up in other areas. That’s why Mel is very cautious,” Daniels said.
Meanwhile, Northlands Job Corps, one of the large users who pay on a metered basis, has cut its sewer use by better controlling water runoff problems. A lower bill for Northlands would already mean increased bills for many other users.
Daniels said aldermen would still like to do something for Vergennes senior citizens, but will be studying the question carefully.
“We want to slow the process down, but keep it on the agenda,” Daniels said. “But not discriminate against anyone in the process.”
In other business, Daniels said aldermen:
• Discussed the possibility of getting grant funding to replace the city’s streetlights with LED units. Daniels said LED lights would be more energy efficient and pay for themselves in a short term if the city were to receive support for buying them.
• Heard an update from the city’s representative to the Addison County Solid Waste Management District, Cheryl Brinkman. Daniels said a link to ACSWMD would be added to the city’s newly redesigned and re-launched website,
• At Hawley’s recommendation promoted Chris Gebo from second deputy fire chief to first deputy fire chief. Gebo replaces Jim Larrow, who stepped down as first deputy fire chief but remained with the department.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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