MOUNT DESERT — A nonbinding resolution declaring Mount Desert a “sanctuary community” will be on the warrant for the May town meeting.
The Bar Harbor Town Council is expected to decide March 21 whether to adopt the same resolution or have residents vote on it at town meeting in June. The resolution states that local police would not be required to serve as enforcers of federal immigration laws.
In response to a query from Mount Desert Town Manager Durlin Lunt, the legal services department of the Maine Municipal Association issued an opinion that the sanctuary resolution would have no legal force because the town’s charter does not give voters or municipal officials the authority to restrict the enforcement of laws. The same appears to be true for Bar Harbor, whose charter has almost identical language regarding the powers of town meeting.
Jim Willis, the chief of police for both towns, said in a memo to Lunt, “We are all sworn to uphold federal, state and local laws. That won’t change.”
A petition calling for adoption of the sanctuary community resolution, signed by more than 130 registered voters in Mount Desert, was submitted to Town Clerk Claire Woolfolk last week. The signatures of 120 voters – 10 percent of the number who voted in the last gubernatorial election – were required to place the resolution on the town meeting warrant.
Bar Harbor Town Clerk Pat Gray said she has certified that the sanctuary community petition, submitted to her on Monday, had more than the required 243 signatures of registered voters.
According to the wording of the resolution, its purpose is “to ensure all visitors and residents of Mount Desert [and Bar Harbor] may live free of harassment or arrest by restricting town and law enforcement personnel from asking personal identity questions relating to country or origin, legal residence status, gender identity, race, religion or sexual orientation unless this information is required in the investigation of a serious/violent crime … .”
The resolution would further “guarantee that law enforcement officials shall not detain an individual solely on the basis of a civil immigration detainer.”
Anna Davis, a leader of the petition drive, told the Mount Desert selectmen Monday that the resolution is in no way a criticism of the police.
“We believe our police department is doing a spectacular job, and we want to stand up in support of that with a statement of our values,” she said. “We have a huge amount of seasonal workers, mostly in Bar Harbor but [elsewhere] on the island, who have voiced fear of going to the police, not because the police have done anything [wrong], but simply because of the current political climate.”
Sarah March, who grew up in Mount Desert and now lives in Bar Harbor, told the selectmen she has worked in restaurants in both towns along with seasonal employees from the Caribbean and Eastern Europe.
“If they have a domestic incident or something, they are worried about going to the police force,” she said. “Or if they are being mistreated by their boss, which I have heard of more than once, and I’ve heard of really awful living conditions. But they would never go to the police force because of the fear that they have. I’ve definitely seen the effect that has on the workers who come here.”
All four of the selectmen at Monday’s meeting indicated they agreed with the sentiment behind the resolution.
“I can’t imagine having an argument against it,” Chairman John Macauley said. “It is something that simply tells us how to behave, and this is certainly how we should be behaving.”
But the selectmen agreed that, given the oath they took to uphold the laws of the United States, they should not recommend passage of the resolution by voters at town meeting. They voted 4-0 to make no recommendation.
Members of the town’s Warrant Committee are expected to discuss what if any recommendation to make at their March 21 meeting.
Police Chief Willis said the sanctuary community resolution, if it is adopted in either Mount Desert or Bar Harbor, would have no effect on the police departments’ policies or practices.
“We haven’t changed anything and don’t plan to change anything,” he said.
Lunt, the Mount Desert town manager, told the selectmen that the resolution is “basically a statement of the sentiments of the community, the values of the community, but doesn’t have any restrictions on your actions or mine or the police department’s.”
Willis said his officers do occasionally check people’s legal status, but it isn’t done randomly. Rather, he said, it is generally in connection with some specific incident or investigation.
If someone is found to be in the country illegally, Willis said, “We typically would engage with federal partners, Customs and Border Protection, and discuss the situation with them and take guidance from them.”
He said Bar Harbor Police Sgt. Chris Wharff serves on a regional task force headed by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, a division of the Department of Homeland Security.
“It’s mostly focused on human trafficking,” Willis said. “The idea is to have enough resources to deal with an incident or help with an investigation. It’s not very active, but occasionally they do operations. (Wharff) has worked with them once or twice over the last couple of years.”
Willis said Customs and Border Protection reimburses the police department for any overtime Wharff accrues while working with the task force.
Reporter Liz Graves contributed to this story.