More than 100 people crowd a Rutland Board of Aldermen meeting.
Critics of a plan to bring 100 Syrian refugees to Rutland lambasted city officials and resettlement experts during a heated Board of Aldermen meeting on Wednesday night.
Many aldermen complained that they were shut out of deliberations on the plan, which was hatched by Mayor Chris Louras and the nonprofit Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program.
“I have a big concern about how this has played out … behind the backs of the city of Rutland,” Alderman David Allaire said before a standing-room-only crowd of more than 100 people in the Godnick Adult Center. “How can you come to our city and decide for our citizens what information is to be released and when? How can you ever regain the trust of the citizens of Rutland?”
The plan, which Louras and other supporters say will bring economic and cultural vitality to a city suffering from population loss and abandoned houses, has sparked heated reactions since it was announced in April.
Officials from the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program attended the meeting to answer questions from the aldermen and the public.
Aldermen devoted their time to criticizing refugee officials for not seeking their input before naming Rutland as a refugee location.
“If you’re not truthful from the onset … you’re on very, very thin ice,” Alderman Ed Larson said. “There was a veil of secrecy [involving] your agency, the mayor and his confidants. Out of the loop were the elected officials from the city of Rutland and the [legislative] delegation, who were totally blindsided.”
Most of the members of the public who spoke Wednesday night were opposed to the plan.
“Once it’s embedded in the community it’s kind of like drugs — you can’t get rid of them,” Maurice Fredette said.
One woman said she feared the refugees would impose Sharia law in Rutland. Many in the crowd applauded her.
The Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program places most refugees who arrive in the state in Burlington and Winooski, but its leaders have long wanted to establish a second hub. The organization chose Rutland over a half dozen other communities — Woodstock, Middlebury, Brattleboro, Bennington, Warren and Waitsfield — that expressed interest in hosting the Syrians. The refugees, who are currently living in camps in Jordan after fleeing their war-torn country, are scheduled to begin arriving in October.
Resettlement program director Amila Merdzanovic said the organization has long hoped to add a new refugee hub in the state.
While Board of Aldermen approval is not required to bring the refugees to Rutland, Merdzanovic said her organization values community support.
More than 1,000 people have signed onto a Facebook page supporting the refugees, and more than 170 people crowded a church meeting earlier this month offering their help. But the crowd Wednesday night was in no mood to offer support.
“I object to your agency and people in the public saying, ‘They’re like our ancestors,’” said David Trapeni, who has drafted a petition opposing the refugees. “They’re not like my ancestors, who came here with no promises [and] no safety net, and I object to it, thank you.”