City weighs smoking law versus policy

VERGENNES — Vergennes aldermen at their meeting last week moved closer to adopting a policy that would ban tobacco use in the area around the city pool and on the city’s central green.
A council subcommittee will look at model policies and ordinances offered last week by a tobacco prevention expert and make a recommendation at the council’s May 28 meeting.
A policy could be a gateway to a law that calls for tickets and fines, depending on how well the policy works.
“A policy would be the best way to start,” said Alderwoman Lynn Donnelly, adding later, “A policy might be a good idea while you’re working on an ordinance.”
At their May 14 meeting, aldermen heard from Melanie Clark, an Open Door Clinic employee who is helping that organization administer a countywide tobacco prevention grant obtained by the Boys and Girls Club of Greater Vergennes.
Clark said there are benefits to adopting a policy as opposed to a law. Many people will obey a policy, she said, and the process of creating a policy is simpler and quicker.
But policies are not enforceable, she said. Clark cited a situation at Mount Abraham Union High School in which she alleged students who are older than 18 are smoking there because the Vermont law banning tobacco use on school grounds lacks enforcement provisions.
“If you really want this to be followed, you need an ordinance,” Clark said.
Clark said if, for example, aldermen wanted to prevent tobacco use at a swim meet, police could only enforce those preferences with a law.
“Do you really want to allow people to smoke at the event? If the answer is no, then you might want an ordinance,” Clark said, saying with a policy, “probably a certain number of people would do it anyway.”
Alderman Renny Perry at least partly disagreed. Perry said he believed “policies are enforceable to a degree” because police could “remove (offenders) from the property.”
Clark suggested aldermen might try a policy to cover the pool area — for which a toddlers’ park has also been proposed — and the city green, and see how it goes.
“You probably go the policy route, and if you see people are not following the requirements, then you could adopt an ordinance,” Clark said.
Clark also offered model laws that could make the council and its smoking subcommittee’s jobs easier.
“There doesn’t really have to be a lot of time put in to making one,” she said.
Aldermen backed the policy route, at least at first, because policies could be put in place more quickly.
“That’s a good starting step,” said Alderman Randy Ouellette.
The ban, whether it is a policy or eventually a law, could also end up applying to events like the city-sponsored Youth Fishing Derby that are held on public property other than the pool and recreation area or the central green.
“You could certainly write into a policy any city-sanctioned event,” said Alderman Joe Klopfenstein.
Clark also said she had spoken to Police Chief George Merkel, who echoed research elsewhere that showed police generally back tobacco bans and do not consider them to be “undue burdens.”
“He said he would definitely support it,” Clark said.
Officials and supporters of the Vergennes Opera House also spoke in favor of the organization’s request for $10,000 in the next city budget. Aldermen budgeted $10,000 last year, but have not done so in the past.
Fiscal problems due to the recession, the failure of sponsored events to generate revenue, and a more costly than expected sprinkler project led the nonprofit organization that operates the theater, the Friends of the Vergennes Opera House (FVOH), to cut the hours of its executive director and lay off its event manager. The director, Eileen Corcoran, will step down at the end of the month.
FVOH president Allison Rimmer said the group will re-evaluate what it will require of an employee and hire someone in the fall with a new job description. She also presented aldermen on May 14 with what she called “a very slimmed down budget” for 2013 that, with the $10,000 from the city, she said will stabilize the theater’s finances.
Theater backer Terry Weihs said the theater was in a “sea change period” during which FVOH would be planning “very carefully” for its future.
Former FVOH president Gerianne Smart said she backed the current board’s efforts, which she called “the next round of restoration, if you will … that have to do with strategy and financial (issues).”
Rimmer told aldermen that about 3,400 people had used the opera house in the first four months of 2013 for “64 community-based events/classes,” 11 theater sponsored or co-sponsored programs, and eight private rentals. Two of the theater events were free, she said, and six others had ticket prices of $10 or less.
Rimmer wrote in a letter to aldermen, “The City could view the Opera House much like the City Pool — an asset to the City that requires support from general funds and income from users to keep it open for all to enjoy. We are indeed at a crossroads both as an organization and as a community space but this is an opportunity to design a sustainable operating plan going forward. With everyone’s help, the FVOH will move forward to support and promote the Opera House as the wonderful community center it is.”
In other business, aldermen:
•  Told Public Service Department attorney Tim Duggan that they were happy with a new map from Vermont Gas Systems that now shows that almost the entire city will be served by the company’s proposed Addison County natural gas pipeline, including the 73-home mobile home park on Panton Road.
•  Moved closer to signing an agreement with Encore Redevelopment for a 150-kilowatt solar array around the city’s sewer plant. When the complicated deal is made final, officials say it will save Vergennes about $4,000 a year on its power bill.
•  Adopted a 2013 fee schedule for the city pool that is unchanged from 2012.
•  Heard from Hawley that residents have until 5:30 p.m. on May 29 to file a grievance about their city property tax assessment.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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