City council debates locations for a potential smoking ban

VERGENNES — A policy asking Vergennes residents and visitors not to use tobacco on the city green or at the city pool and recreation area is on hold.
At the Vergennes City Council’s May 28 meeting, two aldermen were not sure they supported such a policy for the city green, and two other aldermen were absent. As a result, the council tabled until June 11 a policy for both the green and the recreation area near Vergennes Union Elementary School.
Even if the other three council members present — Randy Ouellette, Joe Klopfenstein and Mayor Bill Benton — voted in favor of the draft policy on the table last week, a 3-2 vote would not have been a legal majority of the seven-member board.
“I don’t see four votes,” said Benton.
Alderwomen Lynn Donnelly and Ziggy Comeau said they had reservations about banning smoking on the green, although they joined other council members in backing a tobacco ban for the recreation area.
Comeau said many seniors and veterans are smokers, and the policy for the downtown green would discriminate against them.
“My concern is we have these people, they’re smokers, they’re taxpayers,” she said. “I have never seen a problem.”
Comeau added that if residents could tolerate people walking and cleaning up after their pets, they should be able to tolerate smokers.
“When I see people picking up those bags, it makes me sick to my stomach,” Comeau said. “We put up with these animals, but we don’t put up with these people. We’re treating them like second-class citizens.”
Donnelly said aldermen should try to find a way to accommodate everybody.
“I am not a smoker,” Donnelly said. “But I do think people have rights in the city.”
Donnelly said the aldermen might be able to use the green’s natural divisions, including sidewalks and plantings, to create smoking and non-smoking areas.
“There should be … a way to do this so that everyone is welcome to come to events,” she said.
But Klopfenstein said it would not be too much to ask for smokers to leave the park to enjoy cigarettes.
“I just don’t think it would work on the green. It’s too small there,” Klopfenstein said. “Non-smokers have rights, too.”
Three members of the student group that first suggested the policy, Vergennes Kids Against Tobacco — Caroline Johnson, Emily Stone and Kaitlyn MacIntyre — and their Vergennes Union High School advisor, Jay Stetzel, attended the meeting.
Stetzel spoke in favor of the policy. He said smoking on the green now affects others’ enjoyment of events there as well as their well-being.
“We don’t want the council to make people feel unwelcome,” he said. “(We are concerned about) the safety and health of the majority of our citizens.”
Melanie Clark, an Open Door Clinic employee who is helping that organization administer a countywide tobacco prevention grant, also weighed in.
Clark, while also noting the bad example public smoking sets for youths and the issue of cigarette litter, said asking people not to smoke while they are on public property is not an undue burden. Clark said towns make the same request of drinkers.
“It’s just asking people while they’re at the park not to smoke,” she said.
Resident Tara Brooks asked the council to put a policy in place immediately at the pool, given that all favored that step and that the pool is already open.
But aldermen said they preferred to tackle the smoking policy at one time as a full group at their June 11 meeting. Benton said if any disagreement on park policy remained then, a separate recreation area policy could be adopted.
“If we don’t do it in two weeks, we can take that step,” Benton said. “I would like to hear from the other two members as well.”
The draft policy aldermen are eyeing would also ban tobacco use on Vergennes-owned park property on Otter Creek during the annual city-sponsored youth fishing derby. Aldermen are also debating adding more city-sponsored functions to the policy.
The draft policy also bans tobacco use within 20 feet of city-owned buildings and in or near any city-owned vehicles.
The proposal is for a policy, and not for an ordinance that would carry penalties such as fines. Aldermen have not ruled out a switch in the future to an enforceable law, but want to start with a policy first: They believe most, if not all, will comply with signs and public pressure.
City Manager Mel Hawley said police could take one step to enforce a policy on a non-cooperative smoker.
“You can conceivably remove somebody from the premises,” Hawley said.
Klopfenstein told those in attendance last week that aldermen only after “a long discussion” decided on the policy route.
“Hopefully, people will cooperate,” he said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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