Refugee resettlement issue draws big field to run in Rutland

rutland city hall
Rutland City Hall. Photo by Andrew Kutches/VTDigger

RUTLAND — Seventeen candidates are vying for just six seats on the board of aldermen in the upcoming election on March 7. That figure is about twice the number of candidates typically in any board election over the last five years, with the exception of 2013 when there were 12 candidates. In most cases board members serve two-year terms, but elections are staggered so that every year, six of the 11 seats are contested.

Aldermen Ed Larson and Vanessa Robertson announced they were not seeking re-election. Tom Depoy, Chris Ettori, Melinda Humphrey, and George Gides, who was appointed to fill a vacant seat last September, are all running for another term.

The challengers are: John Atwood, Daniel Austin, Craig Brozefsky, Timothy Cook, Gail Johnson, Kam Johnston, Charles Larose, Jr., Rebecca Mattis, Lisa Ryan, Robert Schlachter, Matt Whitcomb, and Dan White.

Debate over refugee resettlement in Rutland over the past ten months inspired some candidates to run and will likely be a key issue for many voters. Sharon Davis, who has served on the board for 26 years and attributes the large pool of candidates to interest in refugee resettlement, said the issue is no longer one the board will spend much time addressing.

“It’s not something I really anticipate that the board is going to be involved in,” Davis said.

Matt Whitcomb, a 32-year-old special services manager at Rutland hospital, said there’s been a lot of talk about this election being a referendum on refugee resettlement. Whitcomb, who is running for his first term, sees it somewhat differently.

“The refugee question isn’t so much about whether we should accept people coming from Syria but more about are we really still in this together,” Whitcomb said.

Whitcomb said the election is a referendum on unity, not resettlement. To many that may sound a bit evasive but it gets at one of the questions the March 7 election may begin to answer: how long will refugee resettlement continue to define politics and perhaps sow division in this small city?

Since last April, when Mayor Louras announced that Rutland was being considered as a resettlement site for up to 100 Syrian refugees, the board, which was left largely in the dark during the planning process, has generally opposed the program.

Despite the board’s position vis-a-vis the mayor, outspoken opponents of refugee resettlement were disappointed when the board did not approve a petition for a citywide vote on the issue (the board voted 6-4 in favor of such a measure, but needed a two-thirds majority for it to pass). Still, the board has drafted letters to the US State Department withholding its support for the program and several members, including Tom Depoy, have come out against resettlement.

“I think especially with the mayor’s position and some of the board too, I think you’re going to see the people of the city voice their opinion at the ballot box,” said Depoy, who has served on the board for ten years.

Depoy said he is not convinced that the vetting process for refugees is adequate and said he thinks the Trump administration’s travel ban allows for much needed time to evaluate the program. The executive order on immigration, signed last month, remains in limbo after a federal judge in Seattle overturned it and the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals voted unanimously to uphold that ruling.

The first two Syrian families arrived in Rutland before the ban went into effect but none have followed.

Ettori, who is wrapping up his first term, is less certain that refugee resettlement will be the decisive issue. “I think that we really have no idea,” Ettori said. “I don’t know how big of an issue it is in terms of people making the decision on who they’re voting for and if they are planning to come out to vote.”

Ettori said economic development, demographic decline, and the opiate crisis were also key issues for many voters. “My guess is that the majority of voters are looking more holistically at the issues and refugee resettlement is just one of many,” Ettori said.

Gides, who ran unsuccessfully for a board seat last year, says he’s been a supporter of refugee resettlement but thinks the board’s role in affecting immigration policy is often overstated or simply misunderstood. “In the end, it’s not our decision,” he said.

Several first-time candidates said they were motivated to run because of the refugee resettlement issue. Rebecca Mattis, a member of Rutland Welcomes, a group that has backed the refugee program, said she was shocked by the conduct of some board members during a contentious meeting in late May with Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program executive director Amila Merdzanovic and Stacie Blake, a representative of the US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants. Merdzanovic and Blake were sharply criticized for a lack of transparency surrounding the decision-making process and, what was billed as a question and answer session, turned into what some viewed as a public hazing.

“Some of the board members were completely inappropriate,” Mattis said. However Mattis said she was equally impressed by the role the board played in listening to members of the community throughout the debate over resettlement.

Craig Brezofsky, who moved to Rutland from Chicago two and a half years ago, said the May meeting was pivotal in his decision to run. “The way they treated those two women was absolutely appalling,” Brezofsky said. “Overall, the council handled it very poorly.”

Tim Cook, a local physician and outspoken opponent of refugee resettlement, said he had no intention of running but was overwhelmed by people asking him to serve. Cook led the charge against the resettlement program and was one of the organizers of Rutland First, which maintains an active Facebook page.

Cook says refugee resettlement is emblematic of a larger problem: an ever-expanding entitlement system that he says is crippling the city.

The notion that refugees would somehow provide a boost to the local economy is laughable, Cook says.

“The idea that we need to go down some multicultural path to make this place attractive to bring young people back makes no sense to me,” Cook said.

Yet John Atwood a 34-year-old computer programmer who moved to Vermont from Montana after finishing college, says the refugee issue is just a small part of a larger effort to revitalize the city. Atwood and his wife moved to Rutland from South Royalton in August. He decided to run for a board seat after being approached by members of the community.

Atwood says he supports the marketing initiative spearheaded by the Chamber of Commerce and Rutland Economic Development Corporation and attempts to rebrand the region.

“There’s a broad consensus that Rutland needs more residents,” Atwood said. “The refugee resettlement issue really showed that there’s a lot of energy within the community to welcome new people.”

Even candidates who have been reluctant to take a position on refugee resettlement have addressed the issue indirectly. Gail Johnson, a graduate of George Mason University’s School of Public Policy, who moved to Rutland in 2014, suggested on her website and in op-eds that the city needs to take care of its own before welcoming new arrivals.

In a January press release inspired by a front page New York Times story on refugee resettlement in Rutland she wrote, “Rutland can successfully accomplish economic recovery and give humanitarian support, but perhaps the logic behind having an economic problem solved by a humanitarian solution needs to be examined more closely.”

Daniel Austin, who grew up in Rutland and is the communications training officer for the Rutland County Sheriff’s department, said he was initially supportive of refugee resettlement but had a change of heart when he learned more about the issue and the potential impact it might have on the city’s tax rate. However he said he can sympathize with both supporters and opponents of resettlement.

Austin, like many of the first time candidates this year, is in his mid 30s. Last March Vanessa Robertson, at 21, was the youngest member to be elected to the board. Whitcomb cited more young people getting involved in politics as a good sign for the city’s future. Whatever the outcome he hopes people will stay engaged.

“I think many of the candidates who are running for the first time are looking at this as probably a multi-year project,” said Atwood. “We’ve all ordered our signs with no dates on them. We’re preparing to run multiple times until we actually get on.”

Sharon Davis said serving on the board is a significant time commitment, sometimes up to 20 hours a week. “If you’re going to put your hat in the ring, you need to step up and serve,” Davis said.

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  • Richard Ley

    It is proven that we as a country can not vette the refugees that enter America properly…

    You were deceived by Mayor Louras and I don’t think there is anyone that votes in Rutland that should be thinking about reelecting this man.

    The voters of Rutland should never be deceived by anyone elected to represent them.

    Although you cannot vette refugees properly you do have the opportunity to question each and every one of these candidates prior to election to see where they stand on the issues that affect Rutland Vermont.

    Don’t just accept the lame answers they give you dig into things and their background so you know exactly what you are electing into office..

    Don’t sell the city of Rutland down the drain.

    • George Cross

      All of the refugees scheduled to come to Rutland have been vetted for an extensive period of time as all refugees are. Mayor Louras deserves to be reelected. The refugee resettlement program in Rutland will one day prove to be a great positive for the city.