Rutland area legislators blast mayor for secrecy on refugees
RUTLAND >> A day after Rutland Mayor Chris Louras announced that up to 100 refugees from Syria would be coming to his city over the next year, Rutland County legislators scolded him for not telling them earlier or seeking any public input on the plans.
Louras did not inform members of the delegation or the Board of Aldermen about the resettlement until hours before the announcement. He said the work between state and federal actors required confidentiality, and he promised the resettlement would bring only good to a city in need of a boost.
"I do apologize that you feel blindsided," Louras told legislators in an early morning meeting Wednesday in the Statehouse. "But if I had to do it again I'd make the same decision."
Legislators said they felt hurt by the level of secrecy, and many said they learned of the plans from posts on Facebook. Louras said he had hoped to fully inform leaders individually the night before Tuesday's official announcement, but that his plans were complicated after one of the first aldermen he contacted leaked the news on social media.
"We got our legs kicked out from underneath us," said Rep. Butch Shaw, R-Pittsford.
"We need a measure of trust from you and from the city and from the county," Shaw continued. "And if we don't get that, it's damaging to us here in this building."
Legislators needled Louras with questions in the Ethan Allen Room for nearly an hour, expressing security concerns and questioning how much money the refugee program would cost the state and the city.
Louras went into detail about the process for screening refugees and said he had spoken with two high-ranking federal officials about the process: Barbara Strack of the Department of Homeland Security and Lawrence Bartlett of the State Department.
"I need to be able to stand up in front of my constituents, in front of the residents, in front of my kids and my wife, and say, 'I'm not putting you at risk,'" Louras told Rep. Thomas Terenzini, R-Rutland, who expressed deep skepticism over the screening process. "And I'm saying that to you as well."
Louras said the group of refugees would consist of roughly 30 families, who would begin arriving every other week or so starting in October.
He said the city had capacity to house the Syrians, as well as the appropriate programs in area schools for children to learn English. Louras also said he had spoken to administrators at Rutland Regional Medical Center and Killington resort who said they were in need of employees.
Sen. Peg Flory, R-Rutland, and others questioned whether the refugees would take advantage of already overburdened assistance programs like Medicaid or heating bill aid offered through the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program.
Louras could not promise that no state dollars would be spent. But he pointed out that the new residents will receive an initial stipend from the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement, a part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Government officials will also help them find housing, employment, schooling and other necessities.
"They do not want to go on assistance," Louras said. "They want to be successful, they want to elevate their stature. They are not a blank slate — they come here with skills and full lives."
While legislators questioned the effects of the resettlement, the most pointed remarks were about the mayor's lack of transparency, not the program itself.
"I think you knew there was going to be opposition, but you didn't have the fortitude to stand in front of the community and trust the people that elected you," said Rep. Thomas Burditt, R-West Rutland.
Louras told legislators that if the first 100 refugees did not dry up the city's capacity, he hoped to welcome more in. The mayor also said he would be more transparent in the future, then offered a tease about another plan in the works for Rutland.
"There will probably be another initiative coming up that I just thought about today, and so it's not quite ready for primetime," Louras said. "But I will guarantee, you people will hear about it first."
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