RUTLAND, Vt. — Members of the Board of Aldermen say they haven’t seen the city’s refugee resettlement application despite a claim by the mayor that the document’s availability proves he’s being transparent on the issue.
In a recent radio interview, Mayor Chris Louras attempted to silence critics of his plan to make Rutland a refugee resettlement community by saying the city’s application to the federal government is available to the public.
“The abstract was, in fact, given to the Board of Aldermen, and they do absolutely have the latitude to provide that abstract to any constituency,” Louras said on Vermont Public Radio’s Vermont Edition.
Two aldermen told Watchdog the board has never seen it.
“He certainly didn’t present it to us,” Alderman Ed Larson said in an interview.
According to Larson, board members received only a brief summary when representatives from the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program and U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants spoke at a board meeting in May. He added that members are having to rely on Freedom of Information Act requests to get details on the program.
“We have a copy of the mayor’s letter that he had to submit to the federal government, (which was) in a series of FOIA emails that was provided to us by members of the media, but I don’t recall ever seeing an abstract in terms of the application,” he said.
Board of Aldermen President William Notte, an outspoken advocate for refugee resettlement, also said the application wasn’t provided.
“We were given a two-page item, which is what I believe the mayor is referring to, but I was under the impression that was not a complete document,” Notte said.
“I have requested that the complete form be sent to me so that I can distribute it both to the Board of Aldermen and to the members of the general public.”
Louras is under fire for secretly planning to make Rutland a permanent resettlement community. On April 26, the mayor surprised residents by announcing a plan to receive 100 Syrian refugees, slated to arrive in October. He later admitted having spent six months in private consultations with representatives of VRRP, USCRI, the State Department, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Gov. Peter Shumlin.
Louras has defended his secrecy by saying public awareness would have led to a citywide vote on the issue, a democratic approach that the mayor called “offensive.” He also said key stakeholders — including housing experts, economic development professionals, and Rutland City Public Schools Superintendent Mary Moran — were in on the talks from the start.
The Board of Aldermen narrowly rejected a petition by residents to put the issue to a vote earlier this month. However, they agreed to send an advisory letter to the assistant secretary of the U.S. State Department Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration expressing their lack of support for the program. Larson said the letter is a request for additional time so city leaders can review any documents the State Department may provide.
David Trapeni, the organizer who led the petition for a citywide vote, said the mayor’s secrecy has provoked a flurry of FOIA requests. Among other things, the requests aim to intercept communications between Louras and Shumlin that could validate or dispel a rumor that the mayor was offered a federal job in return for accepting Syrian refugees.
“From what we understand, it was something at the SBA (Small Business Administration). It’s not the commissioner of the SBA, but something underneath her, because obviously he’s not going to take a position that would be in jeopardy after the election,” Trapeni said.
Trapeni claims Shumlin reached out to Louras after President Barack Obama announced a federal plan to resettle 10,000 Syrian refugees fleeing a civil war. An estimated 12 million people have fled the country in the past five years.
“Shumlin had him go up there and asked him to help out and get some of the refugees,” Trapeni said. “… And for consideration of that, basically I think everybody who follows politics has decided that his mayoral chances are pretty much done, because people are pissed off in this community.”
Larson said he FOIA’d the governor’s office for information that could shed light on the program and possible incentives offered to Louras.
“(I requested) any communications between the mayor’s office and the governor’s office referencing the resettlement program … and also in reference to that particular rumor, if there’s any communication involving a potential job opportunity.”
Asked if the governor’s office had responded to the job offer claim, Larson said he “received an email from one of the governor’s paralegals stating that they had no emails or anything related to that.”
Trapeni said he initially ignored the rumor until another source independently said Louras’ family has plans to move to New Hampshire. He then repeated the job rumor during a public comment period on the night the board voted against holding a special election, and even made a passing comment to Louras.
“I caught him down in the hallway downstairs and said to the mayor, ‘Good luck on your new job,’ and he goes, ‘Yeah, thanks,’ and I go, ‘You’re welcome.’”
Notte dismissed rumors of a quid pro quo. “I’ve heard those rumors, and quite frankly, I think they’re all poppycock. The mayor has deep roots in this community.”
Louras did not respond to Watchdog’s request to be interviewed for this story.
Despite expressing disappointment with the situation, Larson said he blames the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program, not the mayor.
“The onus is on the Refugee Resettlement Program and not so much on the mayor, who is trying to do what he feels is morally and responsibly right for the city by his determination.”
“He never lied to us — he never did. He just kept a secret from us,” Larson added.
When asked how the aldermen could have been kept in the dark, Larson replied, “The president of the Board of Aldermen finally admitted that he knew about it early on, after denying that he did.”
Trapeni said he will continue seeking answers on what took place behind closed doors.
“I’ve known him a long time. One thing about Louras is, he’s not going to stick his neck out unless there’s something good on the other end of it. He’s just not going to. He’s not made that way,” he said.
“He’s looking for something better, and obviously he was given an opportunity, and we believe that’s the reason he’s jeopardizing his political aspirations in the city.”
Contact Bruce Parker at email@example.com