MONTPELIER — The City Council was told to get off the pot when it comes to resolving a restroom crisis that has been exacerbated by COVID-19.
Resident Stephen Whitaker delivered that not-so-subtle message to councilors who took up a topic he said he has repeatedly brought to their attention over the past 18 months.
Long before the pandemic eliminated many publicly available restrooms – a development that prompted Councilor Dan Richardson to suggest the council discuss how it might address that issue – Whitaker said he saw a need.
That was before City Hall and Kellogg-Hubbard Library both closed due to COVID-19 and later reopened with scaled back schedules. It was also when businesses were more willing to allow the public use of their restroom facilities.
Whitaker said there was a problem then, it’s more acute now and Richardson’s suggestion the council consider including money in next year’s budget to develop an “architecturally interesting” building that would house “essential facilities” sounded like a long time to wait for people with no place to go.
“While I don’t dispute the value of that there are urgent needs,” Whitaker said, after Richardson teed up the conversation by suggesting the council had the opportunity to develop a high-profile civic project that could be both functional and something of a local attraction.
Richardson did his research and noted Tokyo has created small, glass facilities that frost over when the doors are locked and light up like “restroom-sized lanterns.” Something distinct like that – perhaps on the small city-owned parcel across from the Mobil station at the four-way intersection where Main, Northfield and Berlin streets and Memorial Drive converge – would turn heads and solve a problem, according to Richardson.
“This is an idea whose time has come and is worth considering,” he said.
Whitaker said Richardson was at least half right, and while he didn’t object to the out-of-the-box idea, he questioned the location and had a real problem with the maybe-next-year time frame.
“Nobody is going to walk from the State House lawn over to the Mobil station to pee,” he said. “This is a … health emergency. You’ve got piles of human waste in many places around the city and you all keep ignoring that.”
Whitaker said it didn’t help that portable toilets near Taylor Street are locked and used exclusively by construction workers and suggested the composting toilets up at Hubbard Park weren’t the answer, either.
“Two outhouses just don’t cut it,” he said.
Whitaker said the city’s homeless population – not to mention visitors – need accessible options and there are some reasonably simple solutions. One, he said, would involve equipping the rear door of City Hall with a camera and “electric locks” that would allow police dispatchers to permit access on the three days a week when the building isn’t otherwise open to the public.
“You need to prioritize this and take some immediate action,” he said.
Councilors – including Richardson – acknowledged the immediate need.
“There is a need for this in the downtown right now,” Richardson said.
Mayor Anne Watson agreed, and was among those who indicated taking up the project proposed by Richardson in the context of budget deliberations wouldn’t preclude a more immediate response. She said City Hall was one option and another could involve reworking the city’s arrangement with the Montpelier Transit Center.
Though the council took no formal vote, members asked City Manager Bill Fraser to explore short-term solutions and report back with costs associated with supplies and ongoing maintenance of restroom facilities.
It’s where the council was headed before some last-minute prodding from Whitaker, who noted they had the luxury of taking a bathroom break in the middle of their virtual meeting.
“You need to get real serious about this,” he said. “This is a human rights issue, this is a racism issue, this is a quality of life issue, and you’re treating it like it’s an optional ‘icing on the cake’ project.”