The Montpelier City Council returns from its summer hiatus this week with a full plate, including discussion of a new policy designed to set parameters for the approval of mural painting on city streets.
The issue came to a head at the Council’s last meeting on July 8 when it rejected a request by a group led by Republican gubernatorial primary hopeful John Klar of Brookfield. Klar sought permission to tack the words “Liberty and Justice for All” onto the end of the “Black Lives Matter” mural that was painted on State Street in June in support of racial justice after the killing of unarmed African-American George Floyd by Minneapolis police.
The Council unanimously denied Klar’s request to paint the words he borrowed from the Pledge of Allegiance, prompting the attempt to adopt guidelines for such proposals in the future. The Council in June unanimously supported the painting of the “Black Lives Matter” mural, which led Klar to call the decision on his proposal “unfair.” At the time of the denial, the Council indicated that street painting is not a First Amendment issue but rather one of “governmental speech.”
The draft policy that council members will take up lays out a review process for street painting requests and, among other things, requires that anyone who proposes to paint a mural on city streets have the support of at least one councilor, or one who is willing to introduce the idea.
The draft also suggests that approved murals be allowed to remain up to 12 months unless extended by the Council and says that the organizers of an approved mural are responsible for its maintenance. Also, murals proposed on state highways, such as routes U.S. 2 and Vermont 12, require review by VTrans.
Mayor Anne Watson, who was recently married to Rep. Zachariah Ralph Watson, (P-Hartland), said the Council should take a prominent role in whatever messages are conveyed on city streets. Her husband has moved to Montpelier and is not seeking re-election to the House.
“If painting the street is considered government speech, then it makes sense for someone on the City Council to be interested in making whatever statement is proposed,” she said. “It’s good to just clarify the process so that everyone knows what to expect.”
The street painting policy also comes a week after police determined who defaced the “Black Lives Matter” mural on June 14, the day after it was painted. The suspect, Fred Seavey, 56, died in a single-car crash on I-89 on June 30. Seavey, a transient, was identified through DNA found on a can of red spray paint and through eyewitness and surveillance evidence.
“On the one hand I’m glad they figured out who perpetrated it, and on the other hand it’s terribly sad that the fellow died and I’m thinking of his family as well,” Watson said.
Furloughs, Trash, and Parking
The Council is also expected to decide whether to reinstate downtown parking fees, which have not been collected since the COVID-19 pandemic virtually shut down commerce. If approved, the fees would be reinstated August 17 and would likely apply only to on-street parking at first.
Watson said she expected the Council would reinstate the fees but that it wasn’t a slam dunk. “Early in the pandemic it felt very vacant downtown and it no longer feels vacant,” she said. “But it’s not obvious that it will be approved. I’m sure there will be a discussion.”
The City lost $211,218 in parking revenue through June 30, and projections show a loss of $265,220 if fees were not collected for the remainder of the year, Assistant City Manager Cameron Niedermayer said. The City also anticipates a $105,000 shortfall in its 1 percent rooms, meals, and alcohol local option tax receipts for FY20, which closed June 30.
Meanwhile, Niedermayer said 26 of the 27 employees who volunteered for furlough in March are back on the job, which should stimulate mowing and street repair, among other services such as summer day camp. The other worker is expected to return in September, she said.
Although not directly related to the furloughs, complaints about overflowing trash cans and dog waste stations should ease now that a deal to replace the city’s trash hauler is in place, Niedermayer said.
The previous contract expired June 30 and city officials decided the price of renewal was too high. Trash accumulated in the interim but the city now has a contract with T&T Trucking to pick up the waste through November.
The proliferation of trash was amplified, in part, by the pandemic, Niedermayer said.
“We think it has a lot to do with that there is more takeout from local restaurants and we were also seeing more household trash being dumped in city bins,” which might be a sign of the pandemic economy, she said.
The city is also moving some trash cans to high-foot-traffic areas so that disposal options are closer to likely users, she said.