Unclear If Rutland Officials Will Allow A Nonbinding Vote On Refugee Resettlement
In Rutland, residents and city officials are divided over whether to allow voters to weigh in on a proposal to bring in 100 Syrian refugees.
A petition drive has succeeded in getting the requisite number of signatures (5 percent of registered voters, which in Rutland is about 500) and its creator believes a vote will show locals don’t support the refugee initiative.
Others argue there is more support for resettlement than opposition and a vote would show that.
But there’s also concern that regardless of the outcome, a vote would hurt the city's image.
Dave Trapeni, the Rutland resident who filed the petition, thinks bringing Muslim refugees from Syria to Rutland is a bad idea. So he’s been going door-to-door to see who in the city agrees with him.
He knocks softy on Guy Rinebolt’s door. Rinebolt invites Trapeni into his small kitchen and listens as Trapeni reads his petition.
“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?”
Rinebolt, a Vietnam veteran, nods and signs his name. “My question,” he says to Trapeni, “is we’ve got people who are homeless. How are we going to house these 100 Syrians? Why Rutland? Why here?”
The men talk for another 10 minutes before Trapeni thanks him and leaves.
Trapeni says he’s gathered more than 1,200 signatures, which he hopes will send a powerful message to Vermont’s Refugee Resettlement Program. “We are the smallest community they have ever tried this with. And it’s a very difficult time to receive, in my opinion, 100 refugees.”
Adds Trapeni: “One hundred is not going to be it. It’s going be hundreds.”
But while Trapeni has been working to fight the refugee resettlement, dozens of local volunteers have been meeting to help the program succeed.
Rutland resident Jennie Gartner was one of two dozen volunteers who met recently at Grace Congregational Church. Their goal that night was to organize efforts to inform the community about how the refugee plan would work.
“We would like to get the names of people who are interested in manning the booth at the farmers market,” Gartner told the group, passing a note pad and pen.
Gartner is one of nearly 1,300 members of Rutland Welcomes, a group that initially formed on Facebook and is now holding committee meetings at various churches.
Michael Morfit and his wife Christine, of nearby Langrove, spent years working in international development and joined the group to help.
“This part of Vermont which has struggled for decades is now pulling itself up through its own hard work,” says Michael. “And we feel it’s not only the right thing for us to do as Americans to welcome people, but we think it’s an exciting opportunity for our community.”
Pat Hunter, one of the founders of Rutland Welcomes, says she spoke about the group’s efforts earlier in the day to members of Rutland’s Project Vision, and she says city organizations, volunteers and nonprofits seem eager to help.
"I'm very sad by some of the fear and the pain of those who are afraid of this program. But the outpouring of support just makes me so proud." - Pat Hunter, Rutland Welcomes co-founder
“I’m just so proud of Rutland,” she says. Her eyes fill with tears and her voice catches, “I’m very sad by some of the fear and the pain of those who are afraid of this program. But the outpouring of support just makes me so proud.”
But even some of those who support the refugee plan — like Rutland resident Jeff Manney — say residents should have the opportunity to vote on it. “No question there. That’s how democracy works,” he says.
Rutland Mayor Christopher Louras, however, disagrees. He says voting on refugee resettlement has nothing to do with city or charter policy and so has no legal bearing. “From my perspective on a personal and professional level, it’s offensive to me that we would, as a community, even put it on a ballot to vote who gets to live in Rutland.”
But the city’s Board of Aldermen can override the mayor if seven of the 11 members choose to do so.
Longtime board member David Allaire says at this point, the board seems split on the issue. But because 5 percent of the voters successfully petitioned the city, he feels the question should be put before voters.
Sharon Davis, another longtime member of the board, agrees, and says even though the vote would be nonbinding, she too believes residents deserve the right to weigh in.
“As a member of the Board of Aldermen it is my responsibility to represent the community as a whole, not those who I agree with or disagree with,” says Davis. “And I think the board has been put in a difficult position because the mayor did this so poorly.”
"I think the board has been put in a difficult position because the mayor did this so poorly." - Sharon Davis, Rutland Board of Aldermen
She says the mayor worked in secret on the refugee plan for months before announcing it, and she says city officials have not had enough time to adequately address people’s questions and concerns.
William Notte, president of the Board of Aldermen, admits the situation could have been handled better. But he believes the city will gain much from becoming a refugee resettlement community and he worries a vote — even a nonbinding one — could jeopardize that.
“If refugee resettlement in Rutland is derailed, there are communities who will be very eager to take these refugees instead,” says Notte. "There are communities who will be delighted to show how much more open they are than Rutland.”
"From my perspective ... it's offensive to me that we would, as a community, even put it on a ballot to vote who gets to live in Rutland." - Rutland Mayor Christopher Louras
Notte is even more worried about the message a vote like this would send.
“People who are in support of this petition need to understand that we will be harming Rutland,” says Notte. “We will be labeling Rutland as the only community in Vermont who did not welcome refugees and it will be a brush we’re painted with that will affect us negatively for years to come.”
The Board of Aldermen is scheduled to take up the petition issue at their next meeting on July 5.