Cape debates resolution ‘welcoming all people’
CAPE ELIZABETH — A schoolyard incident last fall that prompted formation of the Cape Diversity Coalition has also resulted in calls for the Cape Elizabeth Town Council to adopt a resolution “welcoming all people,” but councilors say the document presented to them is not quite ready to represent the voice of the town.
While all members of the council expressed support for the resolution in principle, most expressed some level of concern with its wording. The council voted unanimously Monday, April 10, to send the resolution text to workshop, possibly as soon as May 1, for tweaking to avoid “unintended consequences” from its passage.
The resolution, which says the town of Cape Elizabeth, “condemns actions of hate, violence or discrimination directed toward immigrants, refugees, asylum seekers or any persons targeted for their religion, ethnicity, race, nationality, gender, immigration status or sexual orientation,” was sponsored by Councilor Sara Lennon. It was presented to her, she said, by former councilor Jamie Wager on behalf of the newly formed Cape Diversity Coalition.
“I know the schools have been working already around a lot of these issues, and they suggested it would be great to have the schools and the town together on this progress, and I agreed with them wholeheartedly,” Lennon said. “I was real impressed and excited about this and I’m hoping other councilors will also think this is a great idea.”
Two members of the Cape Diversity Coalition, Woodcrest Road resident Jim Sparks and school board Vice Chairman Susana Measelle Hubbs, spoke Monday on behalf of the group’s proposal.
“The Cape Diversity Coalition is a growing group of inspired people who strongly believe that standing on the side of diversity, respect, and kindness is the only way,” Measelle Hubbs said. “Furthermore, it is the best way to sustain Cape Elizabeth’s true bounty and beauty.
“Our town has the opportunity tonight to make a proactive and symbolic commitment to welcoming and protecting the rights of any and all of our community members and visitors,” Measelle Hubbs said. “I urge you join our neighboring towns – Portland, Westbrook and South Portland – and speak out confidently in favor of love and acceptance. I urge you to model for our children that hate is not tolerable and silence is cowardly. And, lastly, I urge all of us to stand together as true beacons of life, liberty and light.”
On Feb. 6, the South Portland City Council adopted a resolution declaring solidarity with immigrants, specifically naming Muslims, against “all hateful speech and violent action.” That measure was voted on in the wake of President Donald Trump’s attempt to temporarily suspend travel to the U.S. from seven Muslim-majority nations named as terrorist threats by the previous administration. Trump’s move drew a sharp rebuke from many civil rights groups, as well as an injunction from a federal judge preventing its execution. As such, the South Portland resolution declared that the city “categorically rejects political tactics that use fear to manipulate voters or to gain power or influence.”
However, the Cape Elizabeth version was prompted by a local incident of hate speech.
Sparks described himself as a “somewhat peripheral” member of the community, who lived in town but otherwise did not get overly involved in its workings.
“But that peripheral engagement changed for me one day last November when I was on the green hill behind the football stadium at the high school and learned of an incident that had just taken place that was very disturbing to me,” he said.
According to interim school Superintendent Howard Colter, the incident involved middle school students from Cape and Wells who were engaged in a touch football game while a high school football playoff game was in progress.
“At some point there was an engage of strong feelings among the young people,” Colter said. “It got into a kind of yelling, pushing match and I believe that one student, an ethnic minority, things were said to him that were very unkind, and I think it would be fair to say were threatening and racist.
“Other students stood up and said they wouldn’t have that and, ultimately, adults stepped forward, and a police officer stepped forward, and said let’s calm this thing down, and everybody kind of broke up,” Colter said.
Colter said the students were not disciplined. However, school administrators in both districts used the event to create a teachable moment, “to educate rather than be punitive.”
“In the end, we made it clear that what happened shouldn’t be repeated,” he said.
But Sparks said he felt more what needed.
“I felt that something had to be done,” he said. “I didn’t know what shape it would take, but it seemed crystal clear to me that the people of our town needed to gather in some way and say it was not OK for people of color, for people who are Muslim, or for people who immigrated here from another country, to be told that they did not belong.
“I believe it is our responsibility to stand by our neighbors when they are subject to fear and intimidation,” he said.
On April 2, a student-led group hosted a potluck dinner at the high school in which attendees were invited to bring a dish from their families nation of origin. The event was attended by about 170 people.
“I realized from looking at 170 people gathered with very little advance warning that there is a hunger to discover our differences and the ways in which we may be more alike that we know,” Sparks said.
Lennon said that once word broke following that event that she planned to introduce the coalition’s proposed resolution, she received, “such a positive reaction from every person.”
“I haven’t had one person say we shouldn’t do this,” she said.
However, none of those people were fellow councilors. And while Lennon’s peers supported the general idea, they questioned the details.
“In concept, I don’t disagree, but maybe we should have input on crafting of content to achieve what we want it to achieve and not have unintended consequences to it,” Councilor Penny Jordan said, citing concerns raised by the town attorney and police chief over “ambiguity” in the draft resolution.
“I also don’t disagree with what’s been said by the group. In fact, I think we all on some level agree. (But) I do have a problem with the wording of this resolution,” Councilor Kathy Ray said, after seconding Jordan’s motion.
Ray said she was specifically concerned about the resolution’s seeming laissez-faire attitude on a person’s immigration status.
“As councilors we take an oath to uphold town and state law, so the immigration status piece is concerning to me,” she said.
Ray also noted that, “we heard from one group over the weekend that said we’re not included in this,” adding, “When we begin listing groups of people we run the risk of leaving somebody out.
“I’m concerned about excluding people,” she said. “I don’t disagree with the idea, but I think we need to spend some more time, do some more discussion, maybe talk with some more people, so that we come back with a product it’s something that everybody can say, ‘I agree with this,’” Ray said.
Only Councilor Jessica Sullivan raised the question of whether the resolution was in the proper purview of the council at all.
“We are being asked to affirm and promote a political statement on behalf of a private organization. And, as a council, we don’t do that. We haven’t done it in the past,” she said, recalling that the town declined to adopt a resolution condemning “tar sands” oil when asked to do so “by a neighboring community.”
“While I support the intent of this, I have a process and a procedural concern,” Sullivan said. “If we affirm and promote this resolve, are we going down a slippery slope to affirm the resolves of other organizations that will want to promote their views, and will want town council support to do that? No matter how valuable and important they might be, what criteria do we use to decide which group’s deserve the support of the town council?”
On that, Lennon was ready with a rebuttal.
“This is not a specific small group with an agenda. It’s a growing coalition of townspeople,” she said.
The Cape Elizabeth Town Council has adopted resolutions brought to in by special interest groups in the past, Lennon said, pointing to a position the council took in 2009 on the Taxpayer Bill of Rights.
Lennon also answered part of Ray’s criticism.
“I don’t think anyone expects us to cover every possible person that we don’t what to exclude,” she said.
Although Lennon and Councilor Patricia Grennon voted to send the resolution to a workshop, both said it is meant to be “symbolic” and does not intimate specific council action. Thus, the wording may not need to be as precise as with an ordinance.
However, Councilor Caitlin Jordan disagreed.
“I 100 percent support and agree with the concept and symbolism of what we are trying to put forward on this,” she said, “but being an attorney myself, one word here and one word there means a lot. I don’t want to be editing it up here tonight because that does not give it the justice that it deserves.”
In addition to the actions it condemns, the resolution, as drafted, says the town, “welcomes residents of all cultures and faiths, celebrates the benefits of a pluralistic society, and defends the inalienable right of every person to live and practice their identity, culture and faith without fear,” that Cape Elizabeth, “affirms that anyone targeted on the basis of nationality, religion, race, ethnicity, gender, immigration status or sexual orientation should be able to turn to the town’s officials for protection without fear of retribution,” and that it “encourages forums where civil and respectful dialogue may take place to promote better understanding.”
“I think it’s important to look at this in a far bigger context than as a reaction to the few incidents that happened with kids, which were highly unfortunate,” Lennon said. “You could argue that the spark that started this came form that, but I think it’s much more ambitious and big picture and aspirational and positive, rather than reactionary, or in some way, like, ‘Oh, my gosh, we’ve got to cover ourselves. I don’t think that’s the spirit of this at all.”
“We would all love it if more diverse people came and brought their backgrounds and richness to our community,” Lennon said.
Sparks, meanwhile, said he understood that the resolution, as written, could be viewed as “too political,” and that the council should “remain neutral.”
“But these are the best of American values. These are not Democratic values or Republican values,” he said.
Sparks then quoted President John F. Kennedy, apologizing in advance for the “male-centric” language of the time, saying, “The rights of every man are diminished when the rights of one man are threatened.”
“This resolution sends a message that we stand with our neighbors when they feel threatened,” he said. “It sends a message that people of all cultures, all skin colors, all religions, are welcome to be a part of out community. And it sends a message that we are not neutral about the right of our residents to be treated with dignity and to live without fear.”