By Adam Federman, VTDigger.org
RUTLAND — The Board of Aldermen came up just short Tuesday, July 5, of granting a controversial citywide special election on whether to participate in a refugee resettlement program, but then endorsed a statement withholding the Board’s support for taking in refugees, at least until more information is available.
A petition calling for a non-binding referendum on whether the city should “decline to participate” in the resettlement of Syrian refugees had been signed by more than 5 percent of local voters.
The Board’s vote was 6 to 4 in favor of the referendum — one vote shy of the two-thirds majority needed. Members David Allaire, Scott Tommola, Gary Donahue, Edward Larson, Tom DePoy and Sharon Davis voted in favor of placing the measure on a ballot. Melinda Humphrey, Vanessa Robertson, Christopher Ettori and Matt Bloomer were opposed.
However, the Board then approved a letter to the State Department’s Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration.
According to the letter, which was drafted by Bloomer and read aloud at the meeting, “The fact remains … that we are still learning about the program and still trying to identify and address concerns to which the lack of information and outreach has contributed. Therefore, as the governing entity of the city, we do not feel we are currently in a position to be able to provide a letter of support for the proposal to establish a new reception and placement program in Rutland.”
After heated discussion and comments from residents, many of whom condemned the letter, the Board voted 7 to 3 in favor of sending it. Only Humphrey, Robertson and Ettori voted against.
“It’s about the board asserting the authority that was stolen from them,” said City Treasurer Wendy Wilton, echoing the sentiment of some residents who feel the decision to resettle refugees in Rutland was made in an undemocratic way.
Mayor Chris Louras announced in late April that Rutland was one of several cities and towns being considered by the State Department as a haven for refugees fleeing war in Syria and Iraq. If the State Department approves the plan, Rutland could see families beginning to arrive in October.
Among the Board of Aldermen only President William Notte had advance notice of the decision. A handful of local business leaders and other members of the community were also notified in advance.
Davis said the refugee resettlement issue has been “one of the most difficult topics the city has had to address in years.” It has also galvanized residents on both sides of the issue, as the packed room in City Hall demonstrated Tuesday.
Bloomer and several other Board members characterized the letter withholding support of the resettlement process as a compromise and one that would help heal a divided community.
Larson, who supported the proposed referendum, said sending the letter would “open the door to reconciliation.”
A number of residents who spoke during the comment period, however, expressed outrage at the proposed letter and urged the Board to reconsider. They argued it would send the wrong message and could jeopardize Rutland’s chances of ever receiving refugees in the future.
Joe Kraus, who has worked in the city for 32 years, most recently as chairman of Project VISION, said the “world will not view this as a compromise. They will view it as tacit approval of the letter sent by Rutland First.” Kraus was referring to a 171-page brief submitted to the State Department by Dr. Timothy Cook, a family physician in Rutland and member of the group Rutland First, which opposes refugee resettlement in Rutland. The brief, sent in late June, paints a stark picture of Rutland as a city with severe social and economic problems. According to a letter accompanying the brief, resettling refugees in Rutland would be unwise because of the challenges the city currently faces.
Kraus sought to counter that image, pointing to improvements made in Rutland over the last 10 years, and said the letter the Board was considering sending would “forever place a scarlet letter on our chest.”
The Rev. Hannah Rogers, pastor of Rutland’s United Methodist Church, also urged the Board not to send the letter, saying all eyes are on Rutland. She referred to an article Tuesday morning in Bloomberg News that examined the refugee debate in Rutland against the backdrop of Donald Trump’s promise to ban all Muslim immigrants from entering the United States.
“You individuals,” she told the Board of Aldermen, “are on the world stage.” She added: “If you send this letter, you have signed and sealed Rutland’s fate as a place where businesses will not come.”
Louras said Wednesday he “vehemently disagrees” that the board’s letter is a compromise. “The action of the Board is a clear attempt to scuttle refugee resettlement in Rutland,” the mayor said.
The State Department continues to review applications for placement of Syrian refugees and will likely make its decision later this month or in August, according to a spokesperson.
Local reaction is one factor taken into consideration. In Rutland’s case people on both sides of the issue are vocal.