Editorial: City council should approve toddler park in Vergennes

In Vergennes, the city council will take a vote next Tuesday on whether to support a recreation committee’s recommendation to build a toddler park on city-owned land that is also near the city’s swimming pool and elementary school. The city has a $21,000 state grant to fund half of the project’s $42,000 cost, with the other $21,000 slated to be taken from the city’s water/sewer fund — thus no property tax dollars would be spent on the project.
The recreation committee made the recommendation partly as a way to follow-up on a citywide survey in 2012 that indicated a wide majority of city residents wanted to see more parks and recreation facilities in the community, with a third of the 120 responses suggesting that a “toddler playground” was something the city needed. Because the city owned a small lot adjacent to the swimming pool, it made sense to the committee, city council members and others to construct a small park there for all the most obvious reasons.
In the best democratic tradition, a few opposing voices raised predictable objections — focused on increased noise, traffic and added activity in the neighborhood.
In an initial petition against the proposal, 21 residents of East Street said they were “not in favor of the proposed toddler park to be built on the lot in front of the city pool.” In a second petition several weeks later, another 34 city residents signed a petition that added to the first statement: “We also believe that any further projects of this nature need to be discussed openly at a reasonable time and place in order to promote transparency. Thanks.”
Two facts are indisputable in this upcoming vote:
• the proposed toddler park is slated to have three pieces of playground equipment, the largest of which would be a boat replica on which toddlers could climb; a picnic table would be included and four parking spaces would be built into the park — it is not, in other words, a mammoth park that will draw hundreds on any given day;
• the issue has been discussed for several months, plus it has been the topic of conversation, council votes and city surveys for the past two or more years.
What’s troubling about the community conversation at this stage of the game is that some residents are insinuating that there has been a lack of transparency, or honesty about the issue and are using that argument as a major reason to postpone a decision or reject it all together. Neither point is valid.
What’s true is that the informal recreation committee comprised to move this issue forward did hold several initial meetings without warning them publicly and without taking minutes. When the committee and city realized they were violating open meeting laws by not doing so (they didn’t realize an informal ad hoc committee had to comply with the same open meeting laws as the city council), they immediately began warning meetings and keeping minutes for the public to review. It is also true that the grant application to the state (the source of half the project cost) contained an error in that it cited public support for a toddler playground as 66 percent, according to the 2012 survey. That number was actually for support of citywide recreational services, not the toddler playground specifically. When the city discovered the mistake after the grant was approved and told the state about it, the state assured city officials the error was immaterial and the grant remained in place.
What’s also true is that the city and the recreational committee has reported on the progress of the playground search extensively, as noted in a recent Addison Independent story published last Thursday, Dec. 4. That story noted statements in the annual report in 2013, public hearings on the proposal in the fall of 2013 to which East Street residents received a written invitation and regular reports in several digital and online forums, plus reports on the proposed toddler park in 11 articles in the Addison Independent between 2013 and 2014.
Allegations of a lack of transparency, in short, just don’t add up.
What does add up is that a few residents on East Street don’t want a few more kids playing at what is already a busy public park. We don’t discount that sentiment, but rather leave it as it is without any extraneous attempts to confuse the issue.
What that leaves is this: City council members will vote Dec. 16 on whether it is in the best interests of the city’s 2,600 residents to locate a toddler park on the proposed site.
City council members have only one real question to ask of themselves: Is their role as city council members to listen to residents’ concerns and try to work though each of them so no one is unhappy, or is it to make decisions on behalf of all residents to serve the greater good of the city?
In a representative democracy, the latter is the obvious answer. Those who are uncomfortable with that role should reconsider whether they are suitable for the task. And that task is rarely easy: It means saying yes, at times, when some friends and neighbors would want you to say no. It means listening to opposing sides and picking the one that serves the majority interest, even though it may mean a vocal minority of residents are upset.
In this instance, the facts weigh heavily in favor of building a toddler playground on the proposed site. It is 50 percent funded by a state grant and the remainder would be funded without raising property taxes, it’s part of an existing city park in a central area to all residents and it’s an agreed-upon need in the community. Could it be sited at another location with less opposition with equal benefits? No. Other sites have been considered and none were found to be as good.
Council members should feel comfortable that the issue has been thoroughly researched, discussed with transparency and is a project that provides a lasting city amenity at a good value. Their job is to cast a vote that serves the city at large.
Angelo S. Lynn

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