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.”

david.delcore @timesargus.com

(1) comment

T-Road

How long will it be before protesters, homeless, drunks, drug addicts, and sympathetic councilors demand a place to stay, and have meals served so they can stay overnight, or longer to protest, or take advantage of a good thing ? This is ridiculous, and that at least one Montpelier City counselor is buying into this crapulosity is just proof of that "city's" further decline into left leaning lunacy. I would hope that Mr. Whitaker and the Councilors are not suggesting public rest areas on State property. Why not just put a door on the west wing of the Capitol to access the "Marble Palace"? If historical pictures are to be believed, when it was not acceptable for people to camp out on, and defecate on the State House lawn, it was once surrounded by a wrought iron fence, and gates. Maybe it's time for the Department of Buildings and General Services to revisit the "good ole days" and put a fence around the State House again, and close and lock the grounds for unapproved events before things get way out of hand. The State House grounds and Montpelier Complex, are not a state park, a play ground, or a rest area.

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