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Aldermen stand behind playground after city vote

 
VERGENNES — Vergennes aldermen on Tuesday confirmed their support for an East Street preschool playground, an action taken despite a Town Meeting Day vote against the project.
All five aldermen at the meeting said the 303-202 tally on March 3 on the $42,000 project was not representative because the petitioned language on the article failed to make clear that residents would not pay to build the playground.
Aldermen first voted to support the project in December after a year of debate, but only after its footprint was scaled back by about 40 percent in a compromise with opponents.
Alderman Renny Perry said his continued support of the playground might be different “had the referendum been clear, and not as misleading as it was. Under normal circumstances we should be going by what the will of the people was.”
Instead, he said, the result was “a big misunderstanding.”
The petitioned article stated the playground, to be installed between the city pool and East Street, would be done so “at a cost of $42,000, half of which would come from the city Water Tower Fund.”
City officials note what it did not say — that remaining funding will come from a $21,000 Vermont Department of Buildings and General Services grant, and the Water Tower Fund is fed by cell phone companies who lease space on the city’s former water tower to hang broadcast equipment.
Some project labor will also be donated. Playground designer David Raphael, who also teaches at the University of Vermont, said one of his classes will work on the effort and begin soon.
In a March 5 email to a department official Chrissy Gilhuly informing officials of the vote, City Manager Mel Hawley wrote he was “very critical of the wording of the petition as I felt it was misleading by purposely not mentioning that the other half of the project would be paid by a state grant.”
On Monday, Gilhuly reaffirmed the awarding committee’s support of the project despite the March 3 vote in Vergennes: “I’ve consulted with the committee and they are standing by their commitment to the toddler park.”
Also on Monday, the Vergennes Development Review board made formal its zoning approval of the playground.
On Tuesday, a majority of the council and the three residents who spoke endorsed the project.
Two council members disagreed. Benton read letters from absent members Lynn Donnelly and Michael Daniels, both of whom wrote the city should abandon the project.
Donnelly said the playground would “duplicate many of the facilities” the city already owns, and urged the council to return the grant even though “confusion haunts this outcome” of the vote because of the petition wording.
Daniels said the council would risk its relationship with state officials by returning the money, but would “lose the confidence” of voters by not honoring the Town Meeting Day referendum.
“I feel the voters have spoken,” he wrote. 
Resident Abigail Diehl-Noble, who pointed out her three children between the ages of 5 and 9 will be too old for the new playground, said there is now no good choice for preschoolers — the existing playgrounds are for older children or are off-limits during the school hours.
“It is just not true that it duplicates what we have here,” Diehl-Noble said.
She said not building the playground would be a failure to take advantage of the “incredible resources we have available,” citing Raphael’s UVM class as well as the grant.
Planning commission chairman Shannon Haggett also cited the lack of facilities for younger children — and their potential to lure young families.
“I think it is something that is needed,” Haggett said. “From the planning commission point of view, it is something that would be good to have.”
Recreation committee member Jennifer Johnson said the playground would serve a group that is not heard at the polls or at meetings.
“One-to-four-year-olds are not going to sit here and argue this with you,” Johnson said.
Perry added he was concerned returning the grant funding would jeopardize the city’s chances of earning future state grants.
New council member Jeff Fritz said he “absolutely agreed with Renny that it was not the will of the people,” while Aldermen Joe Klopfenstein and Lowell Bertrand said the council had made up its mind in December.
“I think our decision is already made,” Bertrand said.
Benton opened the council discussion by saying that if two council members present had agreed with Donnelly and Daniels, he would in good faith postpone a vote on the issue until the next meeting to allow the will of the full council to prevail.
He closed discussion by joining the majority and stating the December vote would simply stand.
Benton said he saw support for the “scaled-down park” during discussions with neighbors, and that refusing to build the park would send the wrong message to potential residents as well as state officials, even to the point of the city becoming “a laughingstock.”
“We’re trying to bring young families into Vergennes,” Benton said. “If we took a new vote and sent the money back, I could see members of the media taking us to task.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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