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Listening to Constituents with Open Ears

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By Glen Coburn Hutcheson

Since being elected to City Council in 2018, Open Ears at Bagitos has been my “office hour,” 8:30–9:30 am every Thursday morning. Nowadays, many topics are on the minds of locals, particularly the following.

Walking Bridge

Lately, I’m hearing often about the new multi-use bridge over the North Branch, next to the train trestle by Shaw’s. I don’t drive, so having a safe, car-free path across the center of town has been both convenient and fun. Unfortunately, the delayed completion of the downtown section of path on the east side of the river by Shaw’s, along with early ice and snow, persuaded the city to close the bridge until it’s safer. That closure has disappointed residents and drawn further attention to the unfinished state of the lot by The Drawing Board. With luck and work, we’ll be able to enjoy the bridge again soon.

Scribner Street

A perennial issue of land use and rights-of-way at the end of Scribner Street, a small road off River Street, remains imperfectly resolved despite a good many hours of conversation about it since before I was elected. That’s a pity, and a healthy reminder of the limits of my abilities and the intractability of certain problems. Despite my best hopes, not everything can be solved by listening and talking, at least not yet.

Parking Garage / Downtown Parking

It likely won’t surprise people that the proposed new hotel and city-owned parking garage have been a favorite topic at Open Ears. Public opinion remains divided on the merits of the plan and on the stalled process, including the ongoing legal appeal. Downtown parking comes up more generally, too, including disputes with meter-readers, the tension between parking for retail customers and for workers, and the long view of whether we should base so much infrastructure on private vehicles.

Alternative Transportation

Most weeks only one or two people show up to talk with me, but one morning in October we had a crowd of four, all interested in transportation beyond cars. We discussed the passenger rail stopping at the New Transit Center, using DB Budd cars. My friend Mary Messier pitched her idea of a “two-and-three” schedule for commuters who want to drive less but depend on their car to run errands and pick up groceries: with individual planning, commuters might choose to ride GMT buses or carpool two days a week, leaving errands for the other three working days when they’d drive their own car. And I heard about (and later got to test-drive!) the PEBL, a covered three-wheeler with electric assist that might provide a cleaner and lighter option between walking and driving. I’m told the PEBL can make it up Cliff Street, although I haven’t witnessed it myself.

Housing

I’ve only heard about housing a few times at Open Ears, which might be surprising given how many of us campaigned on it in the past few years. What strikes me is how differently people approach the question. I have friends who are actively working to build new housing and renovate existing buildings to make them more habitable and energy-efficient. They tell me it’s hard to build as much as they’d like around here, and that they see the most demand from middle-income families who might work in town, but can’t find a suitable house for sale here. Other friends and acquaintances are sleeping outdoors or in the Bethany Church winter shelter, and clearly see a need for year-round shelter and less expensive apartments.

Police

Some of the most difficult and necessary Open Ears conversations have been about Mark Johnson and Nathan Giffin, both of whom were killed by police in Montpelier. I haven’t heard any real way to resolve those deaths, other than to work to prevent such dangerous, tragic situations in the future. These are scars that we’ll have as long as we remember them.

Bird-Watching

I confess, Open Ears isn’t always restricted to issues of city government. Some of my favorite sessions have been about watching a bald eagle fly over State Street in front of the capitol dome, or pausing among pine grosbeaks eating berries off the trees in the Hunger Mountain Co-op parking lot. I imagine conversations like that have been happening here since there were people around to talk and listen.

Join me to talk about birds, or anything else, at Bagitos every Thursday morning from 8:30 to 9:30 am.

Glen Coburn Hutcheson is a member of Montpelier City Council representing District 3.