2017-06-09 / Front Page

Cape nears resolution

By Wm. Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

Although only about 25 strong, the audience at the June 5 workshop meeting of the Cape Elizabeth town Council, gathered to hear debate on a proposed resolution welcoming diversity, was the large enough to spill out of the Jordan conference room and into the adjoining stairwell. (Duke Harrington photo) Although only about 25 strong, the audience at the June 5 workshop meeting of the Cape Elizabeth town Council, gathered to hear debate on a proposed resolution welcoming diversity, was the large enough to spill out of the Jordan conference room and into the adjoining stairwell. (Duke Harrington photo) CAPE ELIZABETH — About 25 people attended Monday’s workshop session of the Cape Elizabeth Town Council, which may not sound like a lot. Still, it was a crowd by Cape standards and enough to overflow the Jordan Conference Room, with bodies spilling out into the stairwell, leaning in though the doorframe to catch what they could of the conversation.

What they wanted to hear was debate on calls for the town to adopt an anti-racist resolution “welcoming all people,” with three different versions on the table or discussion.

In February, the South Portland City Council adopted its own resolution declaring solidarity with Muslims and other immigrant residents. That municipal expression of tolerance and respect was updated by a 5-2 vote May 15 with added language that saddled up to, but did not overtly suggest a sanctuary city approach. However, while those votes were based almost entirely in local concerns about federal policy in the wake of Donald Trump’s election as president of the United States, the Cape call to support diversity was triggered by a local incident.

According to interim school Superintendent Howard Colter in emails recounting what happened, an altercation occurred last November between middle school students from Cape and Wells, who were engaged in a touch football game while a high school football playoff came was in progress.

“At some point there was an engagement 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.

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,” Colter said.

“In the end, we made it clear that what happened shouldn’t be repeated,” he said.

However, some in the community felt more should be done, resulting in formation of the Cape Diversity Coalition, which submitted the welcoming resolution, with a request for passage by the town council.

The council voted unanimously April 10 to send the text to workshop for tweaking to avoid “unintended consequences” from its passage. By the time that vetting session took place, June 5, two competing versions were jockeying for council favor.

One, submitted by planning board member Victoria Volent, included a broader declaration of “inclusion” designed to avoid classification of people or groups. The other, turned in by Councilor Penny Jordan, used different language to accomplish the same goal, to scrub the Diversity Coalition version of all words or phrases that may seem to call out or classify a particular subset of people as different from the rest.

“I feel we should we should seek words that encompass all people and espouse inclusion,” Jordan said. “But where I come down is that we should adopt something. To do otherwise suggests that discrimination does not happen in our community, when we know it does.”

However, before the council got to picking one template over the other, or to beating up the wording on one particular version on the way to a final edit, council Chairman Jamie Garvin suggested the council might do well to first determine if it should be entertaining the topic at all.

“That’s really the fundamental question here,” he said. “Is this even the kind of thing we should be taking action on.”

“There has been precedent for past councils of taking things from political groups, looking at what’s there and passing resolutions,” said Councilor Patricia Grennon.

As an example, she noted, the council expressed its collective position in 2009 on the Taxpayer Bill of Rights, as it did in 2004 on an earlier version, known as the Palesky Tax Cap. However, Town Manager Matthew Sturgis said examples of the council taking a general political stance are fairly uncommon, with the TABOR resolution appearing to be the most recent on record, according to his research.

“My question is comparing apples to apples in deciding whether or not we should be going down this road,” said Councilor Caitlin Jordan. “We have a list of past resolutions, but without looking at the language that was put forward then, I have a hard job comparing what was put forth on the spending limit bills to what is before is now. Were we making an equivalently powerful statement?

“I need more information on what we’ve done in the past,” she continued. “Right now, I’m of the mindset that maybe this isn’t the right forum to be passing something like this. What is the precedent we are setting? What’s the next issue that’s going to come along that we are going to have to make a statement about?”

Sturgis said other recent council resolutions have included expressions in support of the town’s Greenbelt Trail, and in favor of various bond issues. However, resolutions on the 2004 and 2009 tax limit measures were the only ones he could adopted by the council based on a third-party request.

“As far as human rights related resolutions, I did not fund any as closely related to this,” Sturgis said.

Caitlin Jordan also said she was reluctant to act, at least in part because the resolution was submitted by an interest group, which clearly desired council action in support of its mission. However, noble that cause may be, she said, it still gave the submitted resolution a Sword of Damolces feel.

“I am saddened to think that people have the thought and the perspective that if we don’t do this, then we are racists and bigots, and that’s not true either,” she said. “I don’t like feeling the pressure that if we don’t pass this, that’s what people are going to think.”

Still, the balance of the five councilors present seemed to feel action was warranted.

“I personally feel that we’re in times that are very challenging,” Penny Jordan said. “As a result, to come forward with a statement as to our views as a town, and what our beliefs are, that’s a powerful statement at this point.”

“The idea that if we take action on this there’s going to be a slew of issues that we are going to be asked to take a position on, is valid,” Garvin said. “But the converse of that is that where (Sturgis) found so few in the timeframe he went back and canvassed, it speaks to some rather unique circumstances when an issue of any kind has risen to the level where there’s a feeling that the council should weigh in.”

However, Caitlin Jordan said that just as important as knowing what resolution past councils have passed, she’s like to know which, if any, prior councilors have rejected.

“When have we said, ‘No, that’s not our place.’ I’d be interested in that research, but that’s not going to be fun to do,” she said. “Have there been 200 requests and we’ve only adopted two? We don’t know.”

Grennen said trying to find guidance in every past resolution adopted by the council was getting a bit into the parliamentary weeds. The bottom line, she said, was the words before the council now.

“This is a statement of beliefs that, I believe, each of us would agree with every single thing in it,” she said. “This is just saying, this is what we believe as a community. I don’t know why we’re stumbling on this, to be honest.”

Although Garvin introduced the line of debate, he said he felt the resolution was within the council’s purview, in part because of how widely the issue has circulated in town since November.

“Although it was the tinder spark for this, I don’t think this is a school issue,” Garvin said. “I think the dialogue has been broadened to more than just a simple action on something that happened at school.

“There are some in town who have said, ‘Why are you creating a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist,’ but I don’t understand how taking an action like this harms anyone,” Garvin said. “I think this is fairly neutral, things that I feel are fairly universal beliefs held by all Cape Elizabeth citizens. I don’t see anything in here that could be interpreted as endorsing a particular (political) party, or ideology, or platform, or whatever.”

The council agreed that it would take up at its June 12 meeting the version of the resolution drafted by Penny Jordan, pending review by the town attorney.

That draft reads as follows:

“Resolution welcoming all people into our community:

“WHEREAS, the United States of America has long stood for the freedoms and rights of all people and especially those persecuted in other lands that are seeking liberty and religious freedom;

“WHEREAS, we feel all residents, regardless of beliefs and background, richly contribute to the quality of life in Cape Elizabeth,;

“WHEREAS, Cape Elizabeth supports respectful listening and dialogue across social, religious and political groups and rejects actions that stifle the views and ideas of others;

“WHEREAS, we elected representatives of Cape Elizabeth have a leadership responsibility to speak out against discrimination, intolerance, violence or hate;

“Now, therefore, be it hereby resolved, that the town of Cape Elizabeth:

“1. Condemns actions of hate, violence or discrimination directed toward any of its citizens;

“2. Welcomes all people and celebrates the benefits of a pluralistic society, and respects the inalienable right of every person to live without fear;

“3. Affirms that anyone targeted or made to feel unsafe for any reason should be able to turn to the town’s officials;

“4. Encourages forums where civil and respectful dialogue may take place to promote better understanding.”

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