City council rejects bigotry in Vergennes; resolution supports inclusivity, rights for all

VERGENNES — After hearing from about a dozen-and-a-half citizens at its Tuesday meeting, the Vergennes City Council unanimously adopted a resolution supporting “the rights of people in our nation to love whom they choose; to practice the religion of their choice; to support their families; to be free from discrimination in housing, employment, and public accommodations; and to be safe and secure in their homes and communities.”
Several residents, including Mike Winslow, recommended the council take up a resolution condemning hate and supporting inclusion after the events in Charlottesville, Va., and after two Confederate flags recently appeared on city properties, sparking debate in Vergennes, particularly on social media.
Resident Stacy Raphael advocated for a resolution at Tuesday’s meeting. Raphael said the issue was more than one or two residents flying Confederate flags. She noted no one has gone to take down those flags, while at the same time repeated attempts by residents to put Black Lives Matter or similar signs on their lawns have led to theft and vandalism.
“No one’s talking about one man’s right to fly his flag,” Raphael said. “Let’s not pretend this isn’t about racism, intolerance and bigotry.”
Resident Jeane Posner thanked the council for its “prompt response” to the citizens’ request for the resolution, which she said would “respect the Constitutional right to display that symbol (Confederate flag),” but also “disavow what those symbols stand for.” (See related story for full text of the resolution.)
Several others cited the results of the “Driving While Black And Brown In Vermont” study conducted by University of Vermont and Cornell professors and released in January. It concluded African-American and Latino drivers were more likely to be stopped in Vergennes than in any other Vermont community.
Resident Tim Cook said he was “proud of Vergennes citizens” for taking the initiative to present a resolution request to the council, and was one of several to refer to the study. 
Cook asked that the council “hold city employees” to the same standard expressed in the resolution, “including the city police department.” Cook said the department has “good leadership under Chief (George) Merkel,” but was concerned the city’s reputation and ability to lure new businesses could be hurt because of “perceived racism.”
“We need to unravel the perceived racism in our community,” Cook said.
Resident Jason Farrell also pointed to the survey and how many from outside Vergennes have come to view the city because of it.
“The perception of this community is minimally one that we should be concerned about,” Farrell said. “It’s still brought up.”
Farrell said city officials should work to “ensure the public knows we’re not a community that stands for that.”
Resident Catherine Brooks suggested a study committee to identify any issues that might exist within the department and recommend steps if necessary to correct them. Daniels eventually asked her to lead such a committee, on which Alderman Jeff Fritz and Rep. Diane Lanpher, D-Vergennes, volunteered to serve.
“By being proactive and doing the right thing we save ourselves from future problems,” Brooks said.
Both Mayor Michael Daniels and City Manager Hawley agreed to study this issue, but also said the study was flawed. Daniels urged residents to speak to Merkel directly, and said Merkel could be invited to address a future council meeting on the question.
“You need to know all the information to make a fair judgment on the topic,” Daniels said.
Merkel has noted many of the traffic stops are of cars passing through Vergennes on Route 22A, a major north-south highway in Vermont, while the survey methodology only compares the ethnicity of the people stopped by the department with the local population. He said a more accurate assessment would have been percentage of tickets given by ethnicity after stops were made.
Hawley said the survey’s small sample size is also a problem, but said more data is available since then. He told the several residents who cited the study that the city would follow up on results to make sure there are no issues.
“It’s worthy of continued review, and we should do that,” Hawley said.
There was also debate on the language of the resolution, on whether it should be rewritten jointly by residents and council members and adopted at a future meeting, and if the council should wait for citizens to draft their own resolution and petition for a citywide vote.
Raphael criticized the statement as it was first presented, particularly language the council later agreed to remove, that the council “on behalf of ourselves” rejected hate and supported inclusiveness.
“There are a lot of ways this statement doesn’t go far enough for me,” Raphael said, but said that phrase “undermines” the resolution and makes it “equivocal.”
Daniels said the council tried to strike a balance in a statement that the council could issue “without taking a (city-wide) vote.”
“We realize it was middle of the line,” he said.
Fritz said the “on behalf of ourselves” language had been debated as the resolution was drafted, and he did not favor it.
Hawley said he believed the language was redundant.
“I don’t really think it’s necessary,’ Hawley said. “It’s a resolution of the Vergennes City Council.”
Alderman Renny Perry said a council resolution would have “about the same impact” as a citizen-driven resolution, while Fritz said given recent events and the strong feelings of many he backed a quicker council action, while at the same time council could “look to the voters to bring us their own resolution” in the future.
“I would prefer to not wait,” Fritz said. “It’s important to make a start now.”
Lanpher, who in November helped Vermont representatives and senators draft a similar statewide resolution after post-election incidents, said a council action would also carry weight for residents and potential victims of hate and discrimination alike.
“They look to officials like yourselves and me in my other role to stand up for them,” Lanpher said.
Resident Mabrouka Liebhaber also said she would appreciate an “official confirmation” of the city’s values.
After almost an hour of discussion with residents, the council agreed quickly to strike “on behalf of ourselves” and adopt a resolution that concludes by describing Vergennes as a “just city that is proud to support people of diverse cultures, faiths, beliefs, and identities, and to celebrate both our individuality and our commonality; a place where hate is not welcome.”

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