'Welcoming community' question won't appear on Ledyard ballot

Ledyard — A question asking whether the town should declare itself a welcoming community for immigrants and refugees will not appear on the May referendum ballot, after the town attorney ruled the petition's signatures weren't gathered correctly and the declaration exceeded the town's authority.

The reaction disheartened residents who circulated the petition, who felt their gesture expressing a positive attitude toward immigrants and refugees was misinterpreted as seeking so-called "sanctuary city" status.

The text of the petition read: "Should the Town of Ledyard issue a Proclamation stating that we are a welcoming community and that vetted refugees and immigrants from all nations are safe here?"

In a letter written April 24, town attorney Meredith Diette listed a number of issues she saw with the petition, which included the fact that no one was present to monitor the signatures as they were recorded at times.

Judith Dolphin of Gales Ferry, who canvassed neighborhoods to gather some of the signatures, said she recognized afterward that they accidentally didn't follow the petition process correctly.

The petitions were left at the Gales Ferry and Bill Libraries, in violation of state law that requires a person circulating a petition to witness all of the signatures and sign that they are valid. 

"We did not supervise every signature on those forms," she said.

The town attorney also automatically reviews petitions to ensure the subject falls within the town's jurisdiction.

In her letter, Diette additionally stated that "the Town believes that the subject of the question is immigration enforcement." It wasn't clear to whom "the town" referred in that context.

She wrote that because the town must follow immigration law, she could not "certify that the subject of the relevant question is within the authority of the Town."

Diette did not respond to subsequent requests for comment.

David Holdridge, who, along with other members of the Ledyard Congregational Church, has been sponsoring a refugee family from the Syrian Civil War, developed the petition and said conflicting with immigration law wasn't the intent.

He compared it to a proclamation, like one "recognizing Veterans of Foreign Wars or Memorial Day or recognizing a civic organization for doing good things ... an expression of a town opinion."

"That's the way we intended this: being an expression," he said.

He said the circulators of the petition never intended to have the town become a "sanctuary city," a phrase that doesn't have a legal meaning. Similar gestures in New London and Norwich, which inspired the Ledyard initiative, also eschewed the term "sanctuary city."

The petition was challenged by former Mayor John Rodolico, who said he filed the challenge as a citizen after he saw the petition had been left out unmonitored in the library.

He said he filed the challenge because procedure wasn't followed, not because of what the petition was about.

"I know what the requirements are ... state statute gives specific direction on how the forms need to be and how signatures need to be gathered," he said.

The petition was filed under a rarely used section of the town charter that lowers the number of signatures gathered for "advisory questions" to appear on the town ballot.

The "advisory question" clause appears under a heading about town finances, and allows questions that advise the town government on any issue, provided it is legally under the purview of the town and is certified by the town attorney.

For the most part, Rodolico said, such advisory questions have been used to ask residents whether the budget was too high or too low.

A handful of times, Holdridge said, questions about expanding the library and economic development also were included. He had served on the charter revision commission when the provision was added in the 1990s, he said, and he felt it could apply to other issues.

The town on Friday published a legal notice of the upcoming town meeting and referendum on the budget that didn't include the advisory question.

Holdridge emailed Diette asking her to reconsider her position, but was denied, he said, and he doesn't plan on appealing any further.

n.lynch@theday.com


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