City panel to oversee park displays

VERGENNES — Aldermen moved closer on Tuesday to creating a final policy that will establish a three-member committee to handle, on a year-round basis, applications for displays on the city green — including the popular, decades-old Christian nativity scene.
The committee that is called for in that policy — a final draft of which remains to be written and approved — will consist of City Clerk Joan Devine and one member each of the city’s planning commission and recreation committee.
Critically, it does not include a member of the city council, thus allowing aldermen to hear an appeal of a decision to deny a display.
The fact that aldermen agreed to allow the committee to handle applications on a year-round basis also answers critics of earlier policy drafts, which stated that Devine would handle the winter months and aldermen would deal with applications in the busier summer months.
Some residents have said the split arrangement could have led to an appearance of favoritism because some religions’ holidays fall outside the months that Devine would have handled.
Mayor Michael Daniels pointed to the section of the existing policy that called for the division of labor, and said aldermen could make it moot by removing it and handing over all responsibility to the proposed committee.
“If you want one process that covers 365 days, you can eliminate (section) five,” he said.
Aldermen agreed, including Bill Benton, who along with Daniels and City Manager Mel Hawley has written most of the several draft policies to date as the council has carefully, with residents’ input, worked through the issue.
“I think it makes it clean,” Benton said.
Aldermen also pinned down several other details, some coming out of a May 4 meeting attended by Daniels, Hawley and Benton.
They suggested the city provide a standard-sized sign to attach to displays with standard language that a sponsoring group could use after filling in its name.
A key to continuing to use the park for displays, especially those of a religious nature such as the crèche, is that it must be made clear through signs that the city does not support or endorse the display. A municipality must also have a clear and impartial application process such as aldermen are creating.
Aldermen agreed such signs could be letter-sized — 8.5 by 11 inches — and kept at City Hall and handed out to successful applicants. The sponsoring individual or group must place its sign on or visibly near the display. Aldermen had earlier agreed to place a larger sign on the downtown green’s information booth describing the city’s display policy.
The council also agreed to place a 45-day limit on displays, and to accept applications up to 90 days before a display date, giving applicants time to appeal denials. Applications will also be deemed approved if not acted upon in 30 days.
A half-dozen residents attended the Tuesday meeting to listen to the policy discussion, four wearing yellow “Keep the Crèche on the Green” stickers. Several asked questions about the draft policy.
Bernie Perron wondered if another applicant filed an application before the Lions Club, which handles the crèche, that the crèche’s traditional timing and location would be put in danger.
“If someone comes in and trumps that, how will you handle that?” Perron said.
Daniels noted there was room in the park.
“There will be more than one display at a time,” he said.
And Hawley said the committee could use some common sense.
“I don’t think it says first-come, first-serve on displays,” he said. “Any time the board gets and application, it should ask, ‘What’s going on in the park?’”
Mary Harris made a plea for the crèche to be considered one of the traditional city-sponsored events — such as Vergennes and French Heritage days — that does not require an application.
But aldermen said they could not do so due to the need to treat all groups equally and to the central difference between a symbolic display and a city-sponsored activity.
“You’re looking at events and displays, and there’s a difference between the two,” Benton said.
Aldermen plan to write a final draft soon and review it individually, and have city attorney Jim Ouimette determine whether it is, at least, defensible. Daniels said a draft will also soon be available online at vergennes.org.
“Once we can massage this together … it will definitely hit the streets,” he said.
Aldermen believe they are in the home stretch of crafting a policy that will keep the much-loved crèche on the green and create a fair way of treating all who wish to put up displays there.
“We’ve spent a fair amount of time on this,” Benton said. “And we’re getting really, really close.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at andyk@addisonindependent

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