In split vote, Easthampton subcommittee says council can’t direct police operations with ‘sanctuary city’ ordinance

  • Easthampton City Council's Rules and Governmental Relations subcommittee meets on March 6, 2018. From left to right: Homar Gomez, Daniel Rist, Thomas Peake, Joseph McCoy and Owen Zaret. —DUSTY CHRISTENSEN

Published: 3/6/2018 11:30:08 PM

EASTHAMPTON — A City Council rules subcommittee voted 2-1 Tuesday to agree with the city solicitor’s opinion that the council does not have the authority to issue an ordinance directing the day-to-day operations of the police department.

The vote is part of a continuing and contentious citywide debate over whether the City Council should, or can, pass an ordinance to become a so-called “sanctuary city,” which would prohibit the city’s resources from being used for federal immigration enforcement.

After considering a sanctuary city measure last year, the council dropped the issue in February 2017 after City Solicitor John Fitz-Gibbon said the body did not have the power to issue such an ordinance. Others, however, have disagreed with that assertion, including American Civil Liberties Union attorney Bill Newman. 

In October, a group called the Easthampton Community Coalition filed a petition requesting that the council issue an ordinance — or the mayor an executive order — that would implement sanctuary city protections, putting the issue back on the City Council’s agenda.

At issue in Tuesday’s rules and governmental relations subcommittee meeting was simply the question of whether the council has the power to pass such an ordinance — not whether the council should ultimately pass one.

Committee members Daniel Rist and Joseph McCoy voted to back the city solicitor’s opinion that the body does not have that power, and Thomas Peake voted to disagree. That opinion now goes back to the full City Council, which could accept it or overrule the subcommittee’s opinion and begin the process of crafting an ordinance.

Rist addressed the differing legal interpretations of the city’s charter, saying that the only way to resolve a dispute of that nature would be legal mediation.

“I’m not sure we should spend taxpayer money on that,” he said of requesting another legal opinion on the subject. McCoy agreed that going that route would be a “rabbit hole” of expenses.

“At some point you have to go with the opinion we have,” McCoy said, referring to Fitz-Gibbon’s view that the City Council does not have the authority to create a sanctuary-city ordinance.

Peake disagreed, saying that in his close examination of the city’s charter he couldn’t see any language prohibiting the council from passing that ordinance.

“To say we can’t do this — not that we shouldn’t, to say we can’t do this — is concerning, and I’m worried it sets a bad precedent,” he said, imagining a future scenario when the council wants to check executive power but is unable.

Although debate was to focus solely on the question of whether the council was able to pass such an ordinance, subcommittee members’ conversation often strayed into the question of sanctuary-city status. At one point, Rist commented that he finds it difficult to separate the two questions.

The subcommittee was scheduled to report back to the full council on Wednesday, but Rist said that, as the subcommittee’s chairman, he’ll delay that report until the body’s March 21 meeting, given a snowstorm descending on the region.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at

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