Amherst TM approves sanctuary community bylaw

  • Derek Shea, of Amherst, listens as Basileus Zeno tells his story of living in the United States at a meeting in March to declare Amherst a sanctuary community. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 5/8/2017 11:52:13 PM

AMHERST — By an overwhelming majority, Town Meeting on Monday declared Amherst a sanctuary community, ensuring what supporters say will mean better protection of civil rights for all residents.

At the fifth session of annual Town Meeting, members voted 165-4 in favor of the Sanctuary Community Bylaw, aimed at offering protections to undocumented immigrants, and prohibiting employees from participating in, and municipal money from being used toward, the establishment of a Muslim registry.

Caroline Murray of Precinct 4, spokeswoman for the Amherst Sanctuary Committee, said the bylaw is necessary because, under President Trump, efforts to deport undocumented immigrants and force people to show their identifications have ramped up, and more Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents are being hired, placing neighbors at risk.

“Because of this, we need to have the Amherst Community Sanctuary bylaw,” Murray said.

The passage of the bylaw, Murray said, means that police won’t be allowed to collect certain information on people’s immigration status, and ensures neighbors won’t be afraid to call police.

“So this bylaw makes us all safer,” Murray said.

The bylaw earlier won support from the Select Board and Human Rights Commission.

Select Board member Connie Kruger said elected officials are confident that $1.5 million in federal funding, which has been threatened by Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions as punishment for sanctuary cities, is relatively safe based on court decisions. The measure, Kruger said, also fits the values of Amherst.

Human Rights Commission Chairman Matthew Charity said his board is concerned about religious, ethnic and racial profiling as a result of executive actions related to immigrants.

Vincent O’Connor of Precinct 1 said he sees the bylaw as a way of protecting individuals against racist attacks by “a misguided administration.”

Harris Freeman, the Northampton attorney representing the sanctuary committee, said the bylaw is not in conflict with federal statutes and there is nothing in the U.S. Constitution forcing local police to administer and enforce federal immigration laws. In fact, Freeman said, the bylaw will help Amherst avoid unfunded federal mandates that would siphon local resources into enforcement.

Murray said her committee will work with the police department on implementing policies and procedures in the coming weeks.

Police Chief Scott Livingstone said the bylaw won’t change the approach his department has used, including how it acts on requests to detain immigrants, which are voluntary.

“Immigration detainer requests are just that,” Livingstone said.

The lone Town Meeting member to speak against the bylaw was Peter Vickery of Precinct 2, who said it was unwise to actively undermine federal law and questioned the action being taken now when, he said, President Obama deported more than 2.5 million undocumented immigrants.

When the vote was taken, some in the middle school auditorium held signs featuring butterflies, the symbol of the sanctuary movement, and applauded.

In other action, Town Meeting adopted the “Half Percent for Art” bylaw that will ensure visual and performance art is integral to any municipal building project. Amherst joins Cambridge as the only communities in Massachusetts with such a bylaw.

While the Finance Committee opposed the bylaw because it would add costs to projects, such as expanding and renovating the Jones Library and building new Department of Public Works and fire station buildings, Town Meeting approved the measure, 110-45.

“Art is part of preserving the human psyche,” said Kenton Tharp of Precinct 1.

“All of us can use more beauty and inspiration in our lives,” said Jennifer Page of Precinct 8.

But Kay Moran of Precinct 4 worried about the bylaw driving up costs.

“It’s earmarking tax dollars for public art. It means those dollars won’t be available for other needs in a building,” Moran said.

And Irv Rhodes of Precinct 7 said repairing potholes and upgrading sidewalks should be prioritized over art.

In other business, Town Meeting established special education reserve funds for the elementary and regional schools, including transferring of $150,000 from free cash to seed the elementary school account, agreed to dissolve the Public Works Committee and Public Transportation Bicycle and Pedestrian Committee and have the Transportation Advisory Committee handle the same work, and voted to merge the Housing and Sheltering Committee and Amherst Municipal Housing Affordable Trust.

John Hornik, chairman of the housing and sheltering committee, said the new merged committee will continue to promote a plan for housing low-income families and homeless individuals.

Our charge is to support (and) encourage those developments,” Hornik said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.


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