MONTPELIER — The city council went on record this week supporting the decriminalization of consensual sex work, while setting the stage for the repeal of a local ordinance that prohibits prostitution.

The decision Wednesday night capped a spirited discussion that spanned more than two hours and featured wildly differing — but equally passionate — opinions about the subject, with a couple notable exceptions.

Virtually everyone who spoke — those in the room, those online, those on the council and those it employs — agreed human trafficking and child exploitation should not be tolerated. They also agreed that the language of an ordinance that was drafted in 1970 hasn’t weathered well.

“It’s extraordinarily dated and offensive,” said Police Chief Brian Peete, who pitched a repeal-and-replace proposal that was squarely at odds with the repeal recommendation of the city’s Police Review Committee.

On a night when councilors heard testimony from residents of Montpelier and far beyond, the review committee’s nine-month-old recommendations — including that the council endorse legislation that would decriminalize consensual sex work — eventually were approved.

Councilor Cary Brown cast the lone “no” vote; and Mayor Anne Watson didn’t vote at all.

Though Brown supported repealing the existing ordinance, she balked at a broader motion offered by Councilor Dona Bate that was ultimately approved by the council.

“It’s absolutely intolerable the way it’s written,” Brown said of the existing ordinance.

Brown went on to say she wasn’t persuaded replacement language proposed by Peete, which largely mirrors existing state statutes, was necessary. She suggested adoption of that language would be redundant.

However, Brown said repealing an archaic city ordinance that prohibits activities typically treated as misdemeanors under existing state law was very different from calling for those state laws to be changed.

“I’m not feeling like I can vote for the city to advocate for decriminalization (of prostitution) at the state level,” she said. “That’s a much bigger question.”

Brown said she was similarly troubled with an aspect of Bate’s motion that essentially instructed police to “continue to de-prioritize the investigation of consensual sex work.”

“It doesn’t feel important to me to direct them (police) to do what they’re doing,” Brown said, suggesting she could vote for a pared down motion offered as an alternative by Councilor Jack McCullough.

However, Bate declined to withdraw her own motion, and it passed with Brown voting against it because she said she could only support one of its three parts.

The decision sets the stage for two yet-to-be-scheduled public hearings, which, based on Wednesday night’s discussion, should be well attended.

On Wednesday, councilors heard from Peete, from members of the Police Review Committee, and from a long line of people, who passionately advocated polar opposite positions while claiming research was on their side.

Some suggested the council take the time to digest that research and weigh competing claims, while carefully considering how to proceed.

Peete was one of them, arguing the issue wasn’t nearly as simple as striking a couple of objectionable paragraphs from a decades-old ordinance.

“I beg to the council if we are going to have this conversation that we take the opportunity to have the conversation, and that we do it in a way that we … find ways to help people who need it the most,” he said.

Peete told councilors that, in his professional opinion, the push to decriminalize prostitution would make it much harder for police to identify cases where sexual interactions were “coercive” not “consensual,” while providing cover to those engaged in human trafficking and child exploitation.

Peete stressed that wasn’t the intent of the Police Review Committee, and he said he didn’t believe it motivated any of those who spoke in favor of the change later in the meeting. Still, he warned councilors they were at the top of “a slippery slope” that could lead to a harder guard gateway — creating cover for crimes everyone who subsequently participated in the discussion said they found objectionable.

Peete’s presentation included two sobering videos, a repeated assertion the issue was far more complex than it seemed on the surface, and a fear the council’s decision could fuel a narrative that would be used by those seeking to change state laws.

Justin Dreschler and other members of the Police Review Committee, stood by their recommendations — calling for the ordinance to be repealed, and objecting to Peete’s suggestion it be replaced with language that tracks state law and, in some cases, broadens it.

Dreschler defended what he characterized as a “data-driven decision” by the committee.

“There’s a lot of data suggesting that decriminalizing sex work is actually safer for victims of human trafficking,” he said. “It makes them more likely to go forward. It makes them less likely to be involved with violence. It makes them more likely to be cooperative with police … That was a big, big part of our decision in (recommending) repealing this ordinance.”

Repealing the local ordinance doesn’t change state law, but the committee recommended the council endorse a legislative change that would — a move applauded by some and characterized by others as part of a national attempt to normalize and decriminalize prostitution.

The discussion attracted participants from local, regional and national advocacy groups on both sides of the issue. Many were participants in the discussion of a charter change Burlington voters overwhelmingly approved in March. That change, which received legislative approval and has since been signed into law, struck similarly dated language involving prostitution.

Councilors heard from local sex workers who supported the repeal of city ordinance that stigmatizes their profession, and from out-of-state survivors of sexual exploitation who echoed Peete’s warnings that the ordinance could have unintended consequences.

Before it was over, more than some suggested police — not sex workers — were the problem, and one individual called for the abolition of the local department along with the repeal of the objectionable ordinance.

Those comments were outliers in a mostly respectful discussion during which many who spoke simply disagreed.

One of them was Henri Bynx, who runs the Ishtar Collective, an anti-trafficking organization based in central Vermont.

Bynx, who described herself as “a consensual sex worker and survivor of sexual abuse,” told councilors repealing the objectionable ordinance was the right move.

“If you want to protect us, we need to be listened to, not stigmatized,” she said.

Montpelier resident Sonya Clark said she wasn’t concerned about people like Bynx.

“I see a broader question here, and that is, if sex for money is decriminalized, or legitimized, in society … won’t that encourage young people to think: ‘OK, the (city) council (or) the government thinks it’s fine, let’s just go ahead and do it. It’s a legitimate trade?”

Clark, a 68-year-old mother and grandmother, suggested that should be cause for pause.

“You are the line,” she told councilors. “You are the boundary between what’s right and wrong.”

Clark and her son, Aaron, a local pastor, were among the only local voices who urged the council to heed Peete’s recommendation and repeal and replace the ordinance.

Others from Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island to New York City, Oregon and Florida, expressed similar views and their shared concern the push to decriminalize prostitution would provide cover to “sex buyers, pimps and brothel owners,” not just sex workers. That group included Jessica Benke and other survivors of sexual exploitation.

Benke, who lives in Portland, Oregon, urged councilors to resist the “just-repeal-the-awful-language” pitch she said worked in Burlington and discount the request of Bynx and others who described themselves as consensual sex workers who just want to be left alone.

“When we only look at the interest of the few who identify as ‘choosing’ and do not consider the harms to those who have no choice, we are cherry-picking the most privileged within the sex trade and ignoring people who are spending their days negotiating their rapes,” Benke said.

The council, which postponed some of its scheduled business due to the length of the discussion, agreed to proceed to the repeal of the ordinance and to endorse the decriminalization of consensual sex work at the state level as recommended by members of the Police Review Committee last year.

david.delcore @timesargus.com

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