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News & Issues July 2016


Opponents push for vote on refugees

Rutland petition calls for referendum on Syrian resettlement

Lawn signs promote the new civic group Rutland Welcomes, which supports the planned resettlement of 100 Syrian refugees in the city. C.B. Hall photoBy C.B. HALL
Contributing writer



Lawn signs promote the new civic group Rutland Welcomes, which supports the planned resettlement of 100 Syrian refugees in the city. C.B. Hall photo

With the prospect of 100 Syrian refugees arriving in Rutland this fall, some local activists are pushing for a citywide vote that would show whether Rutlanders really support the refugee resettlement effort.

The political debate over whether to welcome the new arrivals – or tell them to go elsewhere – has been unfolding since Mayor Christopher Louras announced in late April that he had agreed to have the city accept 100 refugees from the Syrian civil war. Louras had developed this plan over several months in virtually secret discussions with a national aid organization and its Vermont affiliate.

On June 16, Rutland activists opposed to the resettlement submitted a petition signed by more than 5 percent of the city’s registered voter calling for a referendum on whether the city should decline to host the refugees.

The city Board of Aldermen did not take up the petition request when it met June 20, as the petition’s 1,260 signatures still were being checked for validity. Many of the signatures were rejected, mainly because they came from people who live outside the city limits.

But on the day after the aldermen’s meeting, City Clerk Henry Heck announced that more than 498 signatures had been found valid. That figure represents the 5 percent of the city’s registered voters that is required for certain citizen initiatives.

Reaching that threshold, however, does not guarantee that a referendum will be held.
As of late June, the aldermen expected to consider the petition at their next regular meeting on July 5, although board President William Notte cautioned in an interview that the question might then be referred to a committee for further discussion.

The petitioners are seeking a vote on or before Sept. 20 on the question they have worded as follows: “Shall the City of Rutland decline to participate in a refugee resettlement program at this time, and so advise the Director of the Office of Refugee Resettlement in accordance with federal law or policies associated with the program?”


Support and criticism
Among many Rutlanders, the plan developed by the mayor and the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program has drawn heartfelt support for the refugees and their plight. Scores of local people are active in the new community group Rutland Welcomes, which has set up multiple committees to help the refugees locate apartments, learn English and otherwise find their way in their new community.

Supporters point out that the 100 refugees coming to Rutland represent just a tiny sliver of the more than 5 million people who’ve fled the violence and destruction of the Syrian conflict. President Obama pledged last year to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees in the United States, but only 2,500 have been admitted so far.

Rutland’s resettlement effort, meanwhile, has run into a hornet’s nest of criticism from citizens upset by the secrecy with which the mayor and Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, based in the Burlington suburb of Colchester, developed their plan. Some opponents contend the refugees will wind up adding to the city’s economic burdens – a claim Louras and other supporters dispute.

The new petition cites a section of the city charter that leaves the holding of a special election to the mayor’s discretion. Louras has indicated that he opposes putting the question to a vote at this time.

The mayor has repeatedly argued that there is no tradition in the United States of telling people where they can and cannot live. In a June 23 interview on Vermont Public Radio, he called the notion of a public vote on the issue “offensive.”

But the situation involves a thicket of legal issues. Another section of the city charter allows the Board of Aldermen, by a two-thirds vote, to force the mayor to call a special election, while a third provision states that the mayor must call a special election “when petitioned to do so by not less than 5 percent of the legal voters of the municipality, but only for any legal purpose beyond the jurisdiction of the Board of Aldermen.”

The petition submitted by opponents of the refugee program does not mention either of these provisions of the city charter, however.

The legal issues – and the absence of the vacationing city attorney, Charles Romeo -- gave aldermen all the more reason to put off consideration of the petition when it was presented to them June 20.


Stalling for time?
David Trapeni, a retired businessman and former mayoral candidate who has led the petition campaign, raised numerous objections to the city’s handling of the issue, including the city attorney’s role.

“They can’t rely on the city attorney anymore,” Trapeni said in an interview, explaining that the mayor has essentially been Romeo’s client, raising questions about the lawyer’s impartiality. “The aldermen are empowered to hire a lawyer.”

Any legal opinion from Romeo, he insisted, “is going to be suspect.”

Trapeni also protested what he saw as a deliberate delay in validating the petition signatures until the day after the aldermen’s meeting.

“When you try to hide something, you slow-walk everything,” he said. “When they don’t like a petition, they tend to have a tough time counting.”

He also objected to an April 28 letter Louras sent to the U.S. State Department, which will make the final decision on the refugees’ placement, probably in July. The letter used city stationery and the pronoun “we” in expressing enthusiasm for resettling the refugees in Rutland.

At the time, most city aldermen were unaware of the resettlement program, Alderman Ed Larson and others have said. Notte, the board chairman, was involved in discussions of the resettlement effort, however.

Trapeni said the mayor sent his letter on behalf of the city “without the governing body engaged in the process, so it’s against the charter.”

Louras could not immediately be reached for comment on Trapeni’s claims as this issue was preparing for press. The mayor was traveling outside the area and did not have cell-phone reception.

Notte, who has supported bringing the refugees to Rutland, expressed little enthusiasm about the prospect of a referendum.

“Any vote will be non-binding,” he pointed out. “Once these people are accepted into the refugee program, they have the full rights of U.S. citizens. There are no means to keep them out of Rutland.”

Although it would have no legal force, however, a citywide vote against the refugee resettlement program would not lack for impact. It is difficult to imagine the State Department placing refugees in a city that has gone on record as not wanting them. A vote supporting the resettlement, on the other hand, would provide a major political boost to a mayor who has been chastised repeatedly for his behind-the-scenes approach to inviting the refugees.


Sending a message
While some argue that holding a citywide vote would satisfy a need to hear the voice of the people, others say putting the issue to a vote – regardless of the outcome – would cast the city in a bad light.

“I fear that having the vote will send a message that Rutland is intolerant,” Notte said. “And that message will hurt us for years to come … in attracting businesses to locate here, in retaining our youth to stay here, and attracting new people to live here.”

Even so, Notte that if a referendum is held, it would yield a 2-1 margin in favor of welcoming the refugees.

Erica Wallstrom, the co-chairwoman of Rutland Welcomes’ Committee on Education and Outreach, said she also sees “overwhelming support” for the refugee resettlement in the city. But when asked about the possible outcome of a citywide vote, she said her group’s focus “is not on the politics piece.”

“We just want to be ready to welcome people,” Wallstrom said. “We are not taking political positions as a group.”

But with a decision on the petition looming, the political lines appeared to be forming in late June. Rutland Welcomes has printed up 250 pro-resettlement lawn signs for distribution around the city and its environs.

Carol Tashie, a local farmer who is active with the group, said she saw the possibility for “easily … a hundred-plus people attending every Board of Aldermen’s meeting to express their support and enthusiasm for our new neighbors.”

And after the petition was presented on June 20, the group’s slack.com site, a sort of online bulletin board, contained an announcement that “on July 5th, the petition to hold a vote about the resettlement will be on the agenda. It is very important that we show up to demonstrate our positive energy and support.”

Meanwhile, opponents of the resettlement program have sponsored a separate, online petition on the Web site change.org. That petition demands that Congress intervene to stop the mayor “from allowing hundreds of Syrian refugees from coming to our home city.” The petition also refers to the refugees as “the same people or many of the same who danced in the street celebrating 9/11, the same people who hate us.”

The Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program has received at least one threat of armed violence. And Notte said a Facebook posting referred to him as “Rutland’s little Goebbels.”
“There’s been name-calling on both sides,” Notte said.

In recent weeks the issue has been everywhere in this city of 16,000, playing out in a series of public meetings and news headlines. In a Rutland garden center, a man on a cell phone could be overheard saying, “A hundred families! A third of the city without work, and they say we need more labor force.”

In fact, the resettlement plan involves 100 individuals, not 100 families, and Rutland’s unemployment rate stands at 3.6 percent. But emotions are driving the discussion and setting the mood.

“It’s like a hot humid day -- you can feel it,” Larson said.

The alderman indicated he would support putting the petition question to a vote.
“I’d like to see it on the ballot,” Larson said. “The question is: Can we legally force that to happen?”