2018-08-16 / Front Page

Town, sanctuary group still at odds on wording


While town officials remain lukewarm about adopting a sanctuary ordinance, they have drafted a policy that “welcomes all people of good will” to Jamestown.

“Regardless of what comes out of this, it’s going to be a strong affirmation of our values,” Councilman Gene Mihaly said. “I’m encouraged that the end product is going to be something we can be proud of.”

A joint working group between the town and Conanicut Sanctuary convened last week for the first time since it was established in mid-July. The goal is to create a measure that would combat President Donald Trump’s aggressive immigration policies.

Conanicut Sanctuary, a group of roughly 190 residents, was founded to lobby for a municipal ordinance that would make it illegal for local police to perform immigration enforcement. When the group proposed this law, however, town solicitor Peter Ruggiero said adopting an ordinance that conflicts with federal law would expose the community to liability issues. The working group was formed to find common ground.

“Immigration enforcement is not something the police department should be involved in,” said Carl Kruger, the attorney for Conanicut Sanctuary. “It’s not their expertise. It’s the federal government’s responsibility.”

Cue from Chicago

During last week’s meeting, members of Conanicut Sanctuary presented a proposal similar to Chicago’s so-called Welcoming City Ordinance, which Kruger said was affirmed by a federal judge. The group previously lobbied for an ordinance drafted by the American Civil Liberties Union, which was passed in South Kingstown. Police Chief Ed Mello, however, believed the language in that law would hamstring his department. Unlike that law, the measure copied from Chicago includes a clause allowing local police to talk with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to determine whether allegations are civil or criminal.

“It gives you some wiggle room,” said Schooner Avenue’s Helen O’Grady, a Conanicut Sanctuary member.

Because they were seeing it for the first time, Ruggiero and Mello said they needed time to review the Chicago ordinance. Ruggiero also wanted to see the federal decision that upheld the law.

“I’d like to read that case,” he said.

While Conanicut Sanctuary members pushed for an ordinance, the town, specifically Mihaly and Councilwoman Mary Meagher, unveiled an alternative route. The two Democrats offered a two-part approach that included a “statement of value” from the council. It also would direct the administration to codify operational policies for all municipal employees.

According to the statement, “Jamestown wishes to make it known that it welcomes all people of good will and that its governing and administrative bodies, especially police and schools, will treat all (equally) without consideration of citizenship status, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability or any other personal characteristic.”

It continued, “The Jamestown Town Council directs the town administrator to ensure the codification of these principles in the operational codes and practices of all departments.”

According to Town Administrator Andy Nota, the town has an outdated personnel code he’s been revising since 2014. This policy proposed by Mihaly and Meagher would task Nota with overhauling it.

Enforcement questions

O’Grady equated this statement to an empty gesture.

“This is a positive affirmation that we uphold the Constitution,” she said. “I wouldn’t think we need to put that in writing.”

She also questioned whether this would be enforceable.

“What kind of teeth does this have in comparison to an ordinance?” she asked.

“This policy has no legal effect,” Ruggiero replied.

Without having the ability to enforce sanctuary measures, O’Grady said, the primary problem still exists.

“It still doesn’t address a federal agency coming into our police department,” she said. “We want to make sure our police aren’t deputized.”

In response, Ruggiero said Mello and his staff are under no pressure to cooperate with immigration enforcement because federal agents have no jurisdiction over local departments.

“They have no legal authority to act,” he said. “It is illegal for a federal agency to commandeer them.”

Conceding this point, Kruger said members of Conanicut Sanctuary believe “there is a positive benefit to announcing it publicly.”

“The idea of this is to do away with the fear that the community has,” he said. “It’s to encourage people to come forward if they witness a crime. South Kingstown has already passed an ordinance. If you guys do it, it’s going to snowball. That’s what we’re trying to do here. We want to get the ball rolling. There’s tens of thousands of illegal immigrants in Rhode Island. By driving them underground, it’s not benefiting anybody.”

In response, Ruggiero said it is not his job to recommend symbolic measures.

“These aren’t my personal views,” he said. “I’m acting in my capacity as town solicitor. I advise the town of my legal standpoint. I don’t want to sound like Eeyore, but I have to be careful for the community’s sake.”

Ruggiero said his goal is to “stay in the safe harbor,” which might be possible with the Chicago ordinance. The original proposal, however, is off-limits in his opinion.

“It crosses the line,” he said. “I’m very confident where I am legally. The council will make the decision, but I won’t move from that position.”

The working group will meet again at 3:30 p.m. Sept. 6 at Town Hall. In the interim, the two sides will scrutinize each other’s proposals. Ultimately, Mihaly said, the community might have to “digest both approaches.”

Along with O’Grady, Clinton Avenue’s Milene Cormier and Capstan Street’s Keith Stavely represent Conanicut Sanctuary on the working group.

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