MONTPELIER — The mayor of Rutland said Thursday that he's confident the city will win federal approval to host Syrian refugees despite the City Board of Aldermen's misgivings.
The Board of Aldermen voted 7-3 last week to send a letter to the U.S. State Department saying a significant part of the community has grown anxious about the refugee resettlement program and that the board could not support the proposal due to a lack of information to address questions and concerns.
It's tearing the community apart, said board member Gary Donahue, who said he has no problem with refugees settling in the community but also has neighbors yelling at him about his position.
"I think there's a lot of fear that goes on, on both sides. Fear that these people will bring problems that we can't solve here and a fear that we're going to be looked on as a pack of bigots and that's not the case at all," he said.
Mayor Christopher Louras announced in April that he and others had been working with the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program to prepare the city to accept 25-30 families or 100 refugees, the first arriving in October. He said Thursday that if there had been a citywide vote, he's confident a majority would have supported refugee resettlement.
Some board members think Louras acted secretively and outside his authority as mayor in making the decision to pursue Rutland as a resettlement site without consulting with and getting the approval of the board first. Others want answers to questions from local residents.
In a close vote, the board also had nixed the possibility of a citywide vote on the issue.
The U.S. Department of State said Thursday that it expects to make a decision about the Rutland proposal and others from around the country within two to three months.
The potential resettlement could possibly continue in future years until Rutland reaches its capacity of housing, jobs and English language learning at schools, Louras said. He hopes that means more than 25 families move to the city.
Alderman Tom DePoy doesn't think Rutland has the infrastructure or ability for it.
But the president of the board of alderman thinks sending the letter to the U.S. Department of State was a big mistake that will backfire on a city that is trying to attract jobs, retain its young people, and attract new people.
"Given all the challenges that we face, the last thing we want to do is end up labeling ourselves the most unwelcoming community in Vermont," Notte said. "And I believe the board's letter is in danger of doing just that to us."