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After heated debate, Hartford still fails to change undocumented immigrant policy

  • Hartford Selecboard Chairman Simon Dennis gives details about the proposed "Welcoming Hartford" ordinance to an audience in the auditorium at Hartford High School in White River Junction, Vt., on Tuesday July, 29, 2019. Rick Russell photo.

  • Hartford Selectboard members Jameson Davis, right, and Alan Johnson, listen to comments from the public during a hearing on a proposed Fair and Impartial Policing policy in White River Junction, Vt., Tuesday, July 16, 2019. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

  • Hartford Selectboard member Jameson Davis points text on an overhead projector during a meeting to discuss the proposed "Welcoming Hartford" ordinance at Hartford High School in White River Junction, Vt. on Tuesday, July 30, 2019. (Rick Russell photograph)

  • Supporters of the originally worded proposed "Welcoming Hartford" ordinance sit in the front row of the auditorium at Hartford High School in White River Junction, Vt., on Tuesday, July 30, 2019. Freweyni Asress, center, is flanked by Ed Taylor, left, and Ashley Andreas, right. (Rick Russell photograph)

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 7/31/2019 9:58:58 PM
Modified: 8/1/2019 1:53:50 PM

HARTFORD — An eleventh-hour effort to adopt a policy that some say would better shield undocumented immigrants in town from federal apprehension failed late Tuesday night, and an already acrimonious process turned even uglier when an audience member directed a racial epithet, insults and expletives at a Selectboard member who declined to support her position.

Now, town officials say they don’t know when the issue, which has been the subject of heated debate for two months, will be resolved.

Tuesday’s nearly six-hour Selectboard meeting was the latest in a series of public debates on amending the town’s Fair and Impartial Policing policy. Like the previous meetings, the gathering was punctuated by multiple contentious exchanges between supporters and opponents of protections for undocumented immigrants. It was the first public airing of the newly proposed “Welcoming Hartford Ordinance,” which town officials presented as a compromise effort to clarify the ground rules for municipal employees when it comes to communicating with federal authorities about a person’s citizenship or immigration status.

As Tuesday’s meeting dragged on past 11 p.m., a majority of the opponents had left, and the conversation had shifted to a dialogue between the Selectboard and about 50 supporters, who pleaded with board members to adopt the ordinance or change police department policy to better protect undocumented immigrants.

When it became clear that the Selectboard wasn’t going to take a vote, an incensed supporter told Selectman Jameson Davis, who is black, “You’re a race traitor. You’re a coon. You’re spineless.”

After a minute or so more where the audience shouted invectives at the Selectboard, Davis called for the meeting’s adjournment.

A CATV recording of the meeting doesn’t make clear who directed the slurs at Davis. In an interview on Wednesday, Freweyni Asress, who was among the immigrant rights supporters who were urging the Selectboard to hold a vote, declined to say whether she had yelled the disparaging terms at Davis. But she did not distance herself from the sentiment behind the comments. Asress said Wednesday that Davis has “lied to us … betrayed our trust … and done a disservice to the black and brown people who live here.”

Asress was previously known as Olivia Lapierre and in 2017 resigned after a short stint as chairwoman of what was then known as the Hartford Committee on Racial Inequality.

Davis on Wednesday confirmed that he had been called a “coon” and a “race traitor” but didn’t say by whom. He declined further comment.

Also Wednesday, Selectboard Chairman Simon Dennis said that several parts of Tuesday night’s meeting had been disheartening, including opponents again using disparaging terms to describe immigrants during public comments despite being asked not to do so and supporters shouting foul language at board members. One opponent wore a hat that said “police” and “ICE” in large letters on the front of it, at times waving it around the room.

Dennis said he hopes the debate on the town’s policy on further protecting undocumented immigrants can move forward constructively in the near future, though he said he wasn’t sure when the topic would resurface on a Selectboard agenda.

Tuesday night’s meeting, held in the Hartford High School auditorium and attended by at least 150 people, started out with Selectboard members addressing the proposed ordinance, which officials had decided was a better vehicle than police department policy for enacting the type of protections being sought.

For a brief moment on Tuesday night, it appeared immigrant rights supporters might get their way.

After it became clear that the latest ordinance language was unsatisfactory to many, Selectman Dan Fraser motioned to adopt amendments to the town’s existing Fair and Impartial Policing policy as proposed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Vermont and Migrant Justice, a Burlington-based organization pushing for economic justice and human rights. Those amendments were first discussed at a Selectboard meeting in early June.

Selectman Alan Johnson seconded Fraser’s motion, saying, “I am of the mind that we can survive this change as a town,” and the supporters erupted in applause.

The conversation among the board members immediately turned to Hartford Police Chief Phil Kasten, who previously said that he doesn’t support the proposed changes to police department policy. The proposed changes contradict federal law and could put him and his officers in a tight spot, he said previously. In addition, he contends his officers don’t inquire about the immigration status of individuals they encounter.

Johnson noted there is concern that Kasten might leave his post if a policy or ordinance he opposed were passed.

“Although he has expressed extreme discomfort with this action … I have seen him lead,” Johnson said of Kasten. “If he chooses to step away from that leadership, I respect that … But we need you now more than ever, Chief. We can figure this out if we pass this policy tonight, and you will definitely have my support if you choose to stay with us.”

Selectboard member Kim Souza and Dennis asked Kasten directly on Tuesday night if he planned to remain with the town if something was passed, or how the town could convince him to stay. That line of questioning prompted Town Manager Brannon Godfrey to step in, and Kasten didn’t offer a response, other than to say, “I have spoken to the manager about my concerns.”

(Reached via email on Wednesday, Kasten skirted a question about his future with the town but responded to a rumor that his home in Hartford is for sale. One of his children graduated recently, and his family has “decided to down-size from our current home for some financial flexibility. The town was made aware of that,” he wrote.)

Late Tuesday night, after Selectmen Dennis Brown and Dick Grassi made it clear they were not prepared to vote on either a policy amendment or an ordinance, Johnson withdrew his second to Fraser’s motion. He said, “it is incredibly clear to me” that forcing a vote on Tuesday night could be “equally detrimental to the cause.”

This prompted howls of protest from the supporters, including the epithet directed at Davis.

After the Selectboard adjourned on Tuesday night, supporters hopped on the stage where the board had just conducted the meeting and chanted and sang songs, including one by Shea Diamond titled American Pie.

Videos posted online after the meeting showed supporters still in the school auditorium around 3:45 a.m.

Jordan Cuddemi can be reached at jcudde or 603-727-3248.

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