BARRE TOWN — Three candidates running for different offices in the Democratic primary held a “popsicles in the park” meet-and-greet at Trow Hill Playground on Sunday. The chair of the special committee, in turn, says he has received complaints from local residents and the board now wants an ordinance banning political events and advertising in the city’s playgrounds.
The candidates said they would exercise their right to freedom of expression and assemble peacefully. They questioned whether such a regulation would violate these rights.
At Tuesday’s regular board meeting, Chairman Paul White said he wanted to discuss the rules governing the city’s playgrounds. White said three candidates, one of whom is a city resident, planned to make themselves available to share popsicles and talk about their candidacy at a city playground.
The event took place at Trow Hill Playground on Sunday afternoon. The candidates were Barre Town’s Melissa Battah, who is running for Vermont House; Anne Watson, Mayor of Montpelier, running for State Senate; and Michelle Donnelly of Barre City, who is running for Washington County Attorney. All three are running for the Democratic nomination in the August 9 primary.
“Some questions have been raised, I think you could go as far as saying grievances, about political activity going on at our neighborhood playgrounds,” White said.
He said city manager Carl Rogers contacted Battah and told her political activity was not allowed on the city’s property. White said Battah then called him and assured him there would be no signs or banners; They would just make themselves available and approach no one.
“Ultimately, the event happened because of objections from some townspeople,” White said, later adding that he learned magnetic political signs were placed on vehicles and promotional materials were distributed at the event.
The chairman said without a rule saying such activities aren’t allowed, he wouldn’t tell anyone they couldn’t run the event.
White said the rules governing the city’s playgrounds are fairly minimal. He suggested the city create clear rules for dealing with such incidents in the future by having the Recreational Authority take up the matter.
Board Member Bob Nelson said: “Residents should be able to take their children (to a playground) and let them play on the playground swings and everything else without having to hear from a politician or be pressured into using a snow blower or whatever to buy that someone might decide to try to sell.”
Board member Justin Bolduc agreed.
“I don’t think that’s the purpose of these parks,” Bolduc said.
He said parks are for families, residents and their guests to enjoy themselves.
The event was advertised on the Facebook pages of all three candidates. Board member Norma Malone said if there is a publicly advertised event in a municipal playground, it should require some level of approval, if allowed at all.
Malone also expressed concern about food being allowed to be given to children in a playground.
“It’s very problematic,” she said.
Malone said some kids have food allergies. She said she was not suggesting that anyone involved in the event was up to anything nefarious, but that someone might have nefarious intentions in the future that could hold the city liable.
Rogers shared with board members what they were proposing, adding playground rules that would bar political events and publicity, which would be done by regulation. He said the recovery panel could come back with recommendations, but it was the Select Board’s decision what the regulation would say.
Battah said in an interview on Wednesday that because the candidates are mothers with young children, they can’t go out and court as easily as men. She said this event allows her children to play while the contestants spoke to residents.
Battah said when it comes to public spaces, residents are protected because they have the right to free speech and the right to peaceful assembly.
“It was not a political rally,” she said. “We have not announced our candidacy or anything like that. It was three mothers who had our children who gathered in a park, which is what we would normally do anyway, hoping to meet other parents and talk about why we’re running for office and hear their concerns.”
Battah questioned whether such an ordinance as the city is proposing would even be legal. She said the ordinance was a clear violation of First Amendment rights.
“Whether or not you agree with three moms running for office meetings in the park to speak to constituents, if you don’t agree with that, don’t go to the park. Don’t talk to people,” she said.
Regarding Malone’s concerns about feeding kids, Battah questioned why the city is offering ice cream socials in parks and allowing Easter egg hunts and birthday parties. She said parents are empowered to make their own decisions about whether their child will accept a popsicle from someone.
Battah said the city doesn’t have many public spaces for people to have conversations with their community.
“I know I don’t always like it when people come up to me and talk to me, but I also want to get to know candidates. And so this was just a non-threatening way for people to come and meet us if they want to meet us,” she said.
Donnelly said Wednesday the aim of the event is to meet residents where they are. She said that during campaign season, candidates can often hold listening sessions in cafes or have local residents share a beer with a candidate at an evening event. She said it is difficult to hold such events when a candidate like her has young children.
“They absolutely wouldn’t sit still if I wanted to go to a coffee shop on a Sunday morning to talk to a candidate about my concerns,” Donnelly said.
She said playgrounds are public spaces. She said people could choose whether or not to connect with others in these places.
“I don’t think we impacted the ability of children or families to have fun that day,” she said.
Donnelly, a professor at Vermont Law School, said there could be concerns that the city’s proposed ordinance could violate people’s rights.
“I mean, there is freedom of assembly. It’s a public space,” she said.
Watson said on Wednesday whatever rules the city has, it will follow them. But she too questioned whether the proposed regulation would infringe rights.
Watson said she sees nothing fundamentally wrong with holding a political event in a playground or park. She said she was surprised to hear the Select Board’s reaction to the event. Watson said she made her campaign announcement on the steps of Montpelier town hall.
“There is a long history of political events in public places,” she said.
Watson said in Montpelier that those wanting to hold events can reserve a space with the city. She said the city would not prevent political activity by denying someone the ability to reserve housing.
“It doesn’t make sense to me to put a restriction like that there,” she said.
The city is taking reservations for its picnic hut at the recreation area, but not for its playgrounds. Without such a system, Watson said she sees no problem congregating in parks and playgrounds as long as it doesn’t interfere with others’ ability to enjoy the space.
Turnout at the event was lower than expected, with about seven local residents in attendance, as Battah and Donnelly said a few other local residents, including one who lived right next to the playground, had parked vehicles in the playground’s small parking lot, which appeared to be a was efforts to take up spaces to discourage people from attending.