Chalk statement sparks VTrans policy change

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JAMAICA — Windham County Sheriff Mark Anderson said a rookie deputy was wrong when he told two people in Jamaica to stop chalking a bridge with statements supporting Black Lives Matter.

"Our primary concern is safety," said Anderson, who noted that particular bridge in the village doesn't have the best site lines. "The deputy spoke with two people, one sitting on the bridge while the other was on the shoulder of the road using chalk."

Deputy Greg Keilig told them they had to stop marking the bridge and asked them to move to the side of the road with a sidewalk for their safety.

Vermont law states, "Where public sidewalks are provided no person may walk along or upon an adjacent roadway."

"However, he incorrectly directed them to stop writing on the bridge, encouraging them to write on the sidewalk instead," said Anderson, who considers this a teachable moment for Keilig and the rest of his deputies.

"Chalk is not vandalism nor do we limit free speech," said Anderson, noting no criminal or civil action was taken. "We all make mistakes. We all need to learn from them."

As far as who made the complaint to the Windham County Sheriff's Office, that's not clear. Anderson said he has reviewed the deputy's body camera footage and hears dispatch mention "calls by some Select Board members."

"We received a complaint about vandalism," said Anderson. "I'm not positive it was from the Select Board, a board member as a citizen, a former board member or what."

Select Board Chairman Greg Meulemans said the board talked about the incident at its Monday meeting.

"It was nobody on the current Select Board," he said. "Nobody on the board made the call asking for it to stop."

According to the meeting minutes, "The board does not have an opinion on this if nothing illegal is being done."

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Meulemans said this was an appropriate response because while each board member may have his or her own opinion on the matter, the board's job is to focus on Jamaica.

"Our objective is to carry on the operations of the town," said Meulemans.

He also said he understands the board and the sheriff have to decide "where does the line get drawn as far as what is deemed acceptable when it comes to painting and chalking."

Meulemans said people should be able to express themselves as long as they are staying safe and not using spray paint or damaging public property.

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"They have a right to do that," he said.

The incident also sparked a change in policy on the state level. Shortly after the statements were chalked on the bridge, employees from the Vermont Department of Transportation showed up to clean it off.

Amy Tatko, VTrans spokeswoman, wrote in a departmental email that after receiving a call from someone in Jamaica concerned about the removal of the statements, she brought it to the attention of the governor's office.

"After discussions with the governor's office, the policy is changed, effective immediately," wrote Tatko. If the message is not "profane or grotesque," and does not advocate illegal activity or violence, VTrans employees were instructed to leave it be. The only other exception allowing removal is when it's on a sign or inhibits roadway safety, she wrote.

"This would be a good time to exercise some discretion," wrote Tatko. "These voices need to be heard. Use this as an opportunity to advance the discussion, rather than censoring it."

Now, VTrans employees have been asked to "evaluate the content and situation of any mural or sign in the highway right-of-way before deciding to remove or paint over them," according to an email sent by Wayne Symonds, VTrans' highway division director and chief engineer.

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Street art that could "negatively affect roadway safety," states the email, and any message or drawing that is "profane, grotesque, advocates illegal activity or violence" should be removed, but that everything else "should be allowed to remain."

"I appreciate the work you have been doing to carry out previous guidance for the removal of unauthorized 'murals' (graffiti, messages and tagging) and illegal signs," wrote Symonds. "You and your staff have done exactly what was required and asked. However, we are in ever changing times and we must recognize that and adapt. So effective immediately, I ask you now to evaluate the content and situation of any mural or sign in the highway right of way before deciding to remove or paint over them."

Symonds instructed road crews to consult with him if there is any confusion over whether something should be removed and advised they take pictures of any statements they find.

Gov. Phil Scott addressed the issue during his Friday morning COVID news conference.

"This not a perfect solution," he said. "And it may not be forever."

He noted that all viewpoints will be allowed as long as they're not offensive or inflammatory.

"We want to make sure we use common sense and sensitivity to the times we are living in," he said.

Meulemans and Anderson both agree that the discussion over justice and equity needs to continue, and having a chalk statement on a bridge is one part of the conversation. Anderson said they also have to listen to folks who opposed to such a manner of expression.

"We have to be responsive to everyone," he said. But, he added, "We need to insure there is an understanding of the First Amendment right to free speech."

Bob Audette can be contacted at raudette@reformer.com.


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