Several Burlington city councilors took the unusual step this week of publicly chastising the citizens serving on the Parks, Recreation and Waterfront Commission. The councilors were affronted by a harshly worded letter that the volunteer board had mailed to them over the weekend, decrying their recent decision not to ban smoking in public parks.
Normally relations between the council and the commissions that it appoints — which oversee everything from the airport to the police department — are congenial. But late Monday evening, after the council had completed its agenda and most of the crowd had departed from city hall, Republican Kurt Wright brought up the matter. Calling the letter "really unfortunate," Wright said he was "very disappointed" with the commission.
For months, the commission, in an effort spearheaded by member John Bossange, had doggedly lobbied the council in favor of a smoking ban in public parks, casting it as a public health imperative. Smoking bans are commonplace in many cities and have long been discussed in Burlington.
In its letter, the parks commission wrote, “We believe you have made a very poor decision based on unsound logic and irrational assumptions." The letter also notes, “We were stunned by the last minute change of support from individual Councilors.”
Wright wasn’t the only councilor rankled. Independent Dave Hartnett, the smoking ban’s most vociferous opponent, called the letter “unprofessional” and a “waste of my time.”
The commission's letter insinuates that the argument, championed by Hartnett, that a ban would “target” lower-income people is paternalistic. Referring to the smokers in question, the letter states, “... they too would be insulted by your assumption that they wish to continue with their addiction and that you know what is good for them ...”
Hartnett, in turn, accused the commission of elitism. “This is not a citizen initiative. This is a commission initiative. This is an elitist group of people talking about how we should operate in our parks.”
Max Tracy, a Progressive, deemed the letter "completely out of line" and "absolutely ridiculous" and said, "I feel like I’m being bullied as a councilor." Tracy also noted that the letter was initialed, not signed, by the five commission members, a move he called "cowardly."
The letter concludes by asking the council to rescind its vote. “As Commissioners, we are embarrassed by your actions and we are finding it very difficult to represent a City Council that does not support an Ordinance which bans smoking in our treasured parklands."
Commission member Carolyn Hanson stands by the letter and says there was no intention to obfuscate its signatories. Calling the ban a "no-brainer," she added that she expects the commission will continue to advocate for it.
However, one commission member, Jeetan Khadka, expressed misgivings about signing the letter. Reached by phone Tuesday, he told Seven Days he was also having second thoughts about supporting the smoking ban itself.
Bossange and commission chair Nancy Kaplan did not respond to calls for comment.