Voters in Rutland will not get the chance to weigh in on whether to bring in 100 Syrian refugees. A 6-4 vote by members of the Rutland City Board of Aldermen fell one short of the seven needed to put it on the ballot.
Nearly 100 people attended Tuesday night’s Board of Aldermen meeting to weigh in on that issue.
Several board members expressed frustration that Mayor Christopher Louras had orchestrated the refugee resettlement effort without their input. They complained the secrecy and lack of information early on had put them in a difficult position and created unease among many local residents.
Aldermen Matt Bloomer says he felt torn. On the one hand, he supported bringing refugees to Rutland and he voted against putting the issue on the ballot.
“But I also felt like it would be difficult to ignore the petition and just throw it in the trash and say, 'We disagree with the public vote,' and we’re not going to do anything to address the concerns of what I feel is a fairly decent size part of the community," Bloomer says.
So Bloomer came up with what he described as a compromise. He drafted a letter to the U.S. State Department, stating the aldermen couldn’t currently support refugee resettlement because they need more time to learn about the program and address the concerns of local residents.
“Given all the community support, the Rutland Welcomes and the volunteer efforts and the fact that a good portion of the community is very excited for the program, it kind of breaks my heart that the board is put in a position to say yea or nay,” said Bloomer. “But we haven’t been involved in the process and we don’t really have enough information to go on.”
Bloomer’s letter angered many at the meeting who argued it was just another way to derail the refugee program.
Jennie Gartner urged the board not to send it. “I understand that some of you say you are concerned about the process. Please let go of the process,” she said. “This is about saving people’s lives. We can save people's lives if you put your ego aside. As my father said to me today, he’s very happy that the city of Rutland did not wait to decide if it was ready to accept his father when he came from Nazi Germany.”
For three hours, local residents lined up at the microphone on both sides of the refugee issue.
Matt Howland said he appreciated Bloomer’s efforts and reminded the crowd there is nothing wrong with taking extra time to ask questions.
“We’re not saying we don’t want refugees in this state. Were not saying we don’t want refugees in this region," Howland said. "We’re saying if we can do this program right ... great. And if we can’t do it right, and there’s other places that can, you can take your resources and all your hard work and help them there.”
When the board finally voted, they approved the letter 7 to 3.
Board of Aldermen member Melinda Humphrey voted against it and said she didn’t see it as a compromise.
“I’m disappointed looking around the room seeing how divided we all are,” she said. “I know in my Rutland, in my community, I’m surrounded by people who welcome new neighbors. And to be in a situation right now where we’re not all agreeing on this, and we are not welcoming new neighbors, this is not the Rutland that I’m familiar with. And it’s disappointing and uncomfortable.”
How the board of aldermen’s letter will be received by U.S. refugee officials remains unclear. The State Department is expected to decide on Rutland’s application later this month.
In a written statement, Lavinia Limon, the president of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, the organization that oversees Vermont’s Refugee Resettlement Program, said, “The Department of State welcomes input from local communities regarding refugee resettlement. USCRI also believes ongoing dialogue with all interested parties helps to make the program stronger and results in a better experience for refugees.”
Rutland Mayor Christopher Louras admits he’s concerned by the board’s letter and another written by Timothy Cook, a local physician who’s been an outspoken critic of refugee resettlement in Rutland.
But Louras says the state department has already received a number of letters in support of the refugees – from him, local school and business leaders, the governor and Vermont’s Congressional delegation. “So now we just have to wait on a decision,” he says.