Vergennes narrowly OKs smoking ban

VERGENNES — A new policy in Vergennes asks residents and visitors not to smoke or chew tobacco on the city’s downtown green or at the city pool or surrounding recreation area.
By a 4-3 vote on Tuesday, Vergennes aldermen approved a policy that will also ask people not to use tobacco during city-sponsored events in the Vergennes parks in the Otter Creek basin, including at the annual Youth Fishing Derby.
The policy does not include penalties for failure to comply, such as a city ordinance would, although police may be allowed to remove repeat offenders from the scene. Officials said they hope most smokers would comply out of good will, and they will place signs at the green and recreation area banning tobacco use.
All aldermen said they supported a no-tobacco policy for the pool and surrounding tennis and basketball courts, outdoor skating rink and skateboard park.
But council members split on whether to allow smoking on the city green when there were no special events, and also looked at a draft policy that would have allowed event organizers to designate a smoking area.
Aldermen Renny Perry opened discussion by addressing the question of whether smokers were being discriminated against.
“The fact of the matter is they are singled out … There are innumerable places where smoking is prohibited,” Perry said.
Alderwoman Ziggy Comeau again said she believed smokers were being treated unfairly, citing the fact that dog owners are free to allow their pets to act upon the call of nature on the city green.
“If you don’t want smoking there, I don’t know why you allow dogs there,” Comeau said.
But Perry said he believed the analogy didn’t stand up.
“It may be distasteful,” Perry said, “but it’s not harmful to somebody’s health, and smoking is.”
The issue of whether to allow smoking on the green on a routine basis resulted in the 4-3 vote, although the special events question sparked more discussion.
Aldermen settled the special events issue by agreeing designated areas would not work — Alderman Joe Klopfenstein said, for example, shifting winds could too easily carry unwelcome smoke to non-smokers in small areas like the city green.
Then the 4-3 vote strengthened the policy.
On the table was a draft policy that would ban smoking at the pool and during special events on the green and in the basin parks. Klopfenstein offered an amendment that would also ban smoking on the green, and Perry — who earlier said he was “not sure there are votes here” to do so — seconded it.
Council members Lynn Donnelly, Comeau and Randy Ouellette voted against the amendment; Comeau and Donnelly had noted at the May 28 council meeting that smoking taxpayers had rights.
But Alderman Lowell Bertrand and Mayor Bill Benton joined Klopfenstein and Perry in voting to extend the ban to the city green, and it prevailed by the one-vote margin. All seven council members then supported the final policy.
On Tuesday, aldermen also met from 6 to 7 p.m. to discuss the 2013-2014 budget. At the end of that hour they were discussing a smaller increase in the municipal portion of the new tax rate than originally projected, from about 62 cents to 64 or 65 cents rather than almost 68 cents.
Benton said it looked like the fund balance at the end of the fiscal year now appears to be larger than originally projected, and City Manager Mel Hawley referenced a “modified police budget.”
Hawley’s initial draft for the 2013-2014 budget called for police spending to increase more than any other department’s, in part because of Chief George Merkel’s request for an all-wheel-drive vehicle.
Benton also briefly addressed requests from the Vergennes Partnership and Friends of the Vergennes Opera House for city funding, saying those requests could either be addressed this month or “delayed if the funding source is different.” Aldermen could tap the Water Tower Fund, fed by cellphone firms who pay to hang broadcast equipment on the city’s former water tower, to support those organizations.
Aldermen will probably make final 2013-2014 spending and set the new tax rate at their June 25 meeting; per the city charter, they must do so by the end of the month.  
Aldermen also agreed after a short executive session to buy a one-half interest in a small lot on the east side of the Otter Creek basin. Aldermen will take $10,000 from the Water Tower Fund to buy the half interest in the parcel from Wilfred Pollender.
The estate of former state representative and alderman Greg Clark owns the other half interest. Hawley said he has not discussed the parcel with Clark family members.
The land lies two parcels south of the city docks, and Hawley said the city had leased the land from Pollender and Clark for many years. A walking path crosses the land and links the docks with the new stairway down from Main Street to the basin area.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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