By Elizabeth Hewitt/VTDigger
Mayor Chris Louras
By Adam Federman, VTDigger.org
Rutland’s Board of Aldermen held a closed-door executive session with the City’s attorney last week to discuss legal issues surrounding the refugee resettlement process. In a rare move, the board excluded Mayor Chris Louras from the meeting.
The board approved three motions:
The first directs the city attorney to request the full abstract and application for Rutland’s resettlement program from the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) and its affiliate, the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program (VRRP).
The second asks the attorney to conduct a review of the mayor’s actions and whether those actions comply with the city charter and any other applicable law.
The third recommends that the Charter and Ordinance Committee review subchapter 9 of the charter which lays out the mayor’s executive powers.
In an interview outside the boardroom Mayor Louras said this was the first time he’d been excluded from an executive session.
“I think this is the board acting out in a relatively juvenile manner,” he said.
The executive session was called after David Allaire made a motion at the July 5 Board of Aldermen meeting seeking outside counsel on the issue of refugee resettlement. The motion was ruled out of order because the Board cannot retain outside counsel without first issuing a request for proposals.
At the July 5 meeting Allaire said he’d already spoken with an attorney from outside the city who could serve in a more neutral capacity. The City Attorney Charles Romeo, who acts as corporate counsel for both the mayor and the Board, is appointed to a two-year term by the mayor and approved by the Board.
Allaire, who has served on the Board for 19 years and has run for mayor against Louras twice, said he wanted to know if the mayor “operated by the rules” and if he “went above and beyond his authority according to the charter.”
He also said he wanted to know if there was a “contract or paper trail between the mayor’s office and VRRP.”
The mayor has stated on numerous occasions that refugee resettlement is a federally administered program involving no contracts or agreements with the City. The only paper trail, beyond correspondence with the various agencies involved, Louras says, is the letter of support he wrote to the State Department as part of the application process. Louras says he writes similar letters for grant applications on a regular basis without Board approval.
At a tense Board meeting on May 25, one month after the announcement was made that Rutland was being considered as a possible location for Syrian refugees, members of the Board were provided with hard copies of the three-page abstract pertaining to Rutland and submitted to the State Department by USCRI.
That section, which is filled out for every city being proposed for resettlement, contains information on health care access, community engagement and financial resources. The rest of the 100-plus page application is a nationwide proposal that includes general background information on USCRI, its budget, and overall approach to resettlement.
According to Stacie Blake, director of government and community relations at USCRI, the Board has been provided with all material pertaining to Rutland. “It is a competitive process,” she said, “and as a normal course of business we don’t share our full complete proposals.”
The application itself was written by USCRI/VRRP and initially submitted to the State Department on May 20. In mid-June the Rutland abstract was sent to the state refugee coordinator, Denise Lamoureux, for a final review.
“Whenever we review an application, we are looking at it to ensure that the agency will be able to provide our fullest contribution to the resettlement process,” said Dean Mudgett, a spokesperson for the Vermont Agency of Human Services. “That is what we did in this instance and the agency supports the application submitted.”
The State Department is expected to make a decision on refugee placement before the end of September.
The executive session meeting apparently dropped the request for outside counsel but Mayor Louras said the fact that the Board raised it in the first place was an affront to the professionalism of the city attorney.
“I can stomach all the hand grenades tossed into my lap during this process,” Louras said, “but it angers me that the Board maligned the integrity and professional ethics of Charles Romeo. I find that plain offensive.”
In an interview two days before the meeting Allaire said his motivation in seeking outside counsel was to have a “different set of eyes” review the legal issues surrounding refugee resettlement and to take a “totally independent look at the words in the charter.”
“Attorney Romeo does a wonderful job,” Allaire said. “This is not a slight on him in any way shape or form.”
Refugee resettlement has exposed a deepening rift between the mayor and some members of the Board. In addition to excluding the mayor from the executive session, Board member Ed Larson filed a public records request with the governor’s office seeking communications with the mayor regarding any benefits to the mayor’s office or VRRP in exchange for support of refugee resettlement. The request came up empty.
Asked if the city charter could be amended as a result of the Board’s dissatisfaction over the handling of the resettlement process Allaire said it is unlikely but “certainly not off the table.”
Mayor Louras, who left City Hall before the Board came out of chambers, pointed out that Rutland is one of only two cities in Vermont with a full-time mayor, the other being Burlington.
“The charter recognizes the primacy of the mayor,” he said. “It’s a strong mayor form of government.”