2018-09-13 / Front Page

Local sanctuary committee can’t come to accord

Group to offer ordinance; two councilors disagree
BY TIM RIEL

Local immigration advocates are expected to propose an ordinance Monday that would limit the police department’s ability to cooperate with federal authorities despite objections from the town’s legal team.

The joint working group between the town council and Conanicut Sanctuary reached an impasse at last Thursday’s meeting. When the committee was formed in July, the council set a deadline for Sept. 17. With no compromise reached between the two sides at their final session, the sanctuary group said it will propose a measure similar to the so-called Welcoming City Ordinance of Chicago.

The working group was established to determine which kind of document — resolution, policy or law — should outline the town’s stance against President Donald Trump’s aggressive tactics against illegal immigration. While the advocacy group has been fighting for an ordinance to protect illegal immigrants from federal persecution, Councilors Mary Meagher and Gene Mihaly have suggested a policy to frame the town’s values. Neither side budged from their positions last week.

Alongside Conanicut Sanctuary’s ordinance proposal, Meagher and Mihaly are expected to unveil their plan during Monday’s town council meeting.

The proposed measure by those two councilors would direct the administration to update “operational codes and practices” pertaining to town employees. The language emphasizes Jamestown “welcomes all people of good will” without consideration for “citizenship status, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, disability or any other personal characteristic.”

This direction would not expose the town to liability, which has been a concern for Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero. He said the measures proposed by Conanicut Sanctuary conflict with federal law.

“I’m trying to convince you that an ordinance is not needed,” he said. “The council can pass a resolution announcing every objective you’ve outlined.”

Schooner Avenue’s Helen O’Grady, a member of Conanicut Sanctuary, said the group’s penchant for a law, opposed to a resolution, is steadfast.

“We want an ordinance,” she said. “We still stand by that. It has more teeth. It can be enforced. It’s better for public safety.”

Third time’s a charm

Conanicut Sanctuary, which boasts about 200 members, is proposing its third sanctuary law since Trump took office. Previously, the group presented a measure drafted by the American Civil Liberties Union. They also offered an ordinance similar to the law passed in South Kingstown. These proposals would “ensure community security and due process” by prohibiting local police from stopping, questioning, interrogating, investigating or arresting suspects solely for their immigration status.

Along with Ruggiero’s concerns about contradicting federal statutes, Police Chief Ed Mello said his department would be hamstrung by these laws because it would restrain his interaction with federal immigration authorities. While the third law, conceived in Chicago, is “much more amenable,” according to Meagher, there still are concerns on the town’s side.

According to Conanicut Sanctuary member Keith Stavely, the Chicago ordinance allows Mello “sufficient discretion” if an illegal immigrant commits a violent crime. This was not allowed in the ACLU or South Kingstown measures. Mello, however, said the Chicago version still doesn’t give him the freedom to discuss deadly matters, although nonviolent, with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He used vehicular manslaughter by a drunken driver as an example.

“It continues to limit what we can do,” he said.

Regardless of the opposition from Ruggiero, Mello, Mihaly and Meagher, the sanctuary group said it will ask the town council Monday to advertise a public hearing on the Chicago law.

“My strong sense is that there will not be support,” Mihaly said.

If a hearing is scheduled and the ordinance is voted down, the town charter allows a year for the sanctuary group to solicit a townwide referendum, according to Andy Nota, town administrator. Nota, however, was not sure if that process is triggered if the councilors refuse to advertise for a public hearing.

Concerned citizens

An audience of about 20 residents attended last week’s finale of the working group. Aside from one person, several spoke passionately against the measure.

Walcott Avenue’s Anthony Antine said places where these ordinances have surfaced, like Chicago, San Francisco and Fort Lauderdale, have become a nightmare. If Jamestown were to become a safe haven for illegal immigrants, he said, Shoreby Hill could become “a perfect place to put some tents.”

“How does this make us a better town?” he said. “I can’t even believe this is on the table.”

Paul Cartier, of Pemberton Avenue, said Mello should be able to use his discretion.

“He’s a very capable man,” he said. “He has a very capable department. I don’t want to handicap that in any way. The town council’s responsibility is to the safety of its people.”

Stern Street’s Janice Murphy called it a stunt by Conanicut Sanctuary as “a call to increase our patriotism.”

“I was taught at a young age that every person has dignity and worth,” she said. “It’s almost kind of preachy that we have to reinforce that.”

Maureen Cicchitelli, of Seaview Avenue, criticized the group for using Chicago as a measuring stick. The Windy City has the nation’s highest homicide rate for 2018.

“They can’t have their children outside,” she said. “That’s not Jamestown. That’s a horrible comparison.”

Bryer Avenue’s Rita McIntyre questioned who would be responsible for “feeding, clothing, housing and giving medical care to all these people who come into our beautiful town.”

The lone vocal supporter of Conanicut Sanctuary in the audience, Richard Hitt, reiterated this proposed ordinance isn’t a reflection on the police department’s performance.

“This is not a group against the chief,” he said. “This is a group that worked with the chief.”

Hitt then emphasized that Conanicut Sanctuary secured 500 signatures from residents who support an ordinance to establish Jamestown as a sanctuary city. Antine, however, tried to downgrade that accomplishment.

“I will get more than 500 votes if I have to,” he said.

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