On August 3, 2016

Business leaders, Mayor attempt to ease conflict over refugees

By Adam Federman, VTDigger.org

RUTLAND — Business organizations are urging local political and community leaders to resolve their differences on the question of refugee resettlement for the good of the city’s reputation.

The Rutland Economic Development Corp. and the Rutland Region Chamber of Commerce released a joint statement Wednesday, July 27, urging the Board of Aldermen, the mayor and others to find common ground.

The statement comes days after the Board of Aldermen held a private meeting with the city attorney to review legal issues surrounding potential refugee resettlement. Afterward, the Board approved a motion to examine whether the mayor’s actions in offering the city as a destination for Syrian refugees violated the city charter or any laws.

The joint statement reflects on the progress Rutland has made in recent years and suggests that divisions over refugee resettlement could undermine the city’s effort to rebrand itself. In the statement, REDC Executive Director Lyle Jepson and Chamber of Commerce CEO Mary Cohen wrote that much of the debate over refugee resettlement has not been constructive or supportive “of the work that our two organizations are striving to accomplish.”

They asked the mayor and Board to consider the “long-term impact of their statements and positions on the community’s reputation, good will, and the ability to market the region.”

They went on to urge the Board and mayor to “resolve any legitimate communication or procedural concerns that divide us. We urge all community leaders to make community reconciliation their first priority.”

Earlier in the day Mayor Chris Louras released his own statement acknowledging that divisions among his office, the Board and the public over refugee resettlement had left many feeling disillusioned.

“My intent going forward,” he wrote, “is to recognize that the past process has placed the greater portion of Rutlanders in an unfortunate and divisive situation. We must now work our way out of it together, and do so in the positive and collaborative manner that has always defined our community.”

Louras said he would establish a mayoral Resettlement Cabinet “to advise my office on challenges and considerations we could encounter during the resettlement process.” He said the Cabinet would include both supporters of resettlement and critics who had voiced “healthy skepticism of the initiative.”

“The broad-based group will guide interaction with key stakeholders within the city, social services, volunteer organizations, (the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program), and the business and education communities,” he wrote.

In an interview Louras said, “We need to move on from the divisiveness and the level of acrimony that’s impacting us as public policymakers.”

Since he announced the refugee resettlement plan in late April, the mayor has been at odds with some members of the Board of Aldermen who felt they should have been included in discussions about the program. Only Board President William Notte was told of the initiative before it was made public.

Alderman David Allaire, who made the motion seeking outside counsel to examine legal issues surrounding refugee resettlement, said he was “cautiously optimistic” about the mayor’s proposal for a Resettlement Cabinet.

“It certainly would seem the mayor has recognized the legitimate concerns of a large portion of city residents,” he said. “If that’s the case, it’s a step in the right direction.”

Board member Sharon Davis said the panel has already reached out to city departments, including the police and fire chiefs, and plans to work through committee to address questions related to refugee resettlement.

“I think the Board has already stepped up and taken this leadership role,” she said. “I’m glad the mayor’s catching up.”

Louras said he hopes his statement sets the stage for improved dialogue among elected officials and the wider public around the issue of refugee resettlement. The advisory group, he said, would be apolitical and include members of the business community, the education community, and individuals with expertise in the areas of health and housing.

“I’m very appreciative that the mayor reached out to the Board and public to help move us forward,” said Alderman Chris Ettori, who has supported resettlement. “It should be a welcome gesture to the board that we can all work together to make this successful.”

Some remain skeptical of the mayor’s actions. David O’Brien, a member of the group Rutland First and former executive director of REDC, said the Resettlement Cabinet wouldn’t do much to appease critics if it assumes that refugee resettlement is a foregone conclusion. He said there should be an exploratory committee to review all aspects of the process before a conclusion is reached.

“If what he’s proposing is simply some sort of group or entity that is going to follow the process of implementation with the presumption that it’s going forward, it’s not going to work,” O’Brien said.

The State Department is expected to make a decision on refugee placement within a couple of months.

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