MOUNT DESERT — Residents at town meeting Tuesday night voted 101-59 for a nonbinding resolution declaring Mount Desert a “sanctuary community.” The resolution sought to “protect the independence of our local law enforcement by refusing to require police or town employees to serve as enforcers of federal immigration law.”
It also states that law enforcement officials “shall not detain an individual solely on the basis of a civil immigration detainer.”
Caroline Pryor, a leader of the petition drive to place the resolution on the warrant, described it as “a positive statement of our values as a welcoming place without regard to the color of your skin or where you go to church.”
Police Chief Jim Willis said he didn’t disagree with the sentiments expressed in the resolution.
“I embrace the concept. I think that is who we are as a community and should continue to be,” he said.
At the same time, he said, the police cannot ignore laws and court rulings. As for concern about his officers enforcing federal immigration laws, Willis said, “We simply don’t have the authority to enforce federal immigration laws. I’m not sworn as a federal officer, nor are any of the people who work for us.”
He said his department does occasionally assist federal agents.
“They may call us and say they are coming to our town to pick a person up and ask us to come with them to back them up,” he said. “And the answer has always been yes and probably will continue to be yes because we have to ensure the safety of our fellow officers. But it would be them doing any enforcement, just as it is now.”
He said that if the resolution were to pass, he would develop a policy to address its intent.
“I think we can incorporate most of these things,” he said.
Selectman John Macauley said that he, too, supports the resolution’s sentiments, but he has concerns.
“The heart’s in the right place, but it doesn’t do anything,” he said. “It doesn’t give us the power to do anything or authorize us to do anything from an enforcement perspective. Maybe it makes us feel better.”
He said the resolution put voters in an awkward position: to pass something that has no teeth or defeat it and appear to be unsympathetic.
“Anybody coming out of second grade has these kinds of values, I hope – we treat people with dignity and respect. But what are the real ramifications down the road [of passing the resolution]?
“I would love to see this come back, maybe for a special town meeting, but maybe not tonight.”
Several others expressed agreement.
Rick Fuerst said he thought some were making the question more complicated than it is.
“This is a resolution; it’s not binding the way an ordinance would be,” he said. “And I think we should pass it.”
A few people spoke against the resolution, questioning why immigration laws should not be rigorously enforced and expressing concern that some people who come to work in the area overstay their visas.
Paulette Bilsky said that, like others, she supports the intent of the resolution but could not support it because it is ambiguous. She said it should not be adopted “until it can be written so that everybody understands exactly what it means.”
Wendy Littlefield won a two-year term on the Board of Selectmen in Monday’s election, outpolling Gordon Beck 161-78.
Macauley and former Selectman Rick Mooers were each elected to three-year terms without opposition.
About 12 percent of the town’s registered voters cast ballots.
At the open town meeting Tuesday night, voters approved a municipal budget for next year totaling $8.9 million and a $4.25 million budget for Mount Desert Elementary School.
Also approved were five bond issues totaling $1.3 million, including up to $500,000 to pay half the cost of rebuilding 1.1 miles of Route 198 from just north of the Parkman Mountain parking area to the Giant Slide Trailhead. The Maine Department of Transportation will pay the other half of the estimated $1 million cost.
Voters agreed to authorize a bond issue of up to $350,000 to pay half the cost of extending high-speed internet service to the Pretty Marsh area. Internet service provider Spectrum will pay the other half.
A proposal to issue bonds of up to $274,000 for engineering and design services for a major makeover of Main Street in Northeast Harbor also was approved. The estimated construction cost is $1.6 million.
Macauley, the Board of Selectman chairman, said it is long overdue.
“Northeast Harbor village is falling down around the ankles,” he said. “This is about replacing what we used to have, and we haven’t been doing that very well.”
Voters authorized borrowing up to $32,500 more than the $150,000 they approved last year for technical and construction services associated with replacing all of the town’s 274 street lights with LEDs. And they approved borrowing up to $33,500 to complete the reconstruction of a boat landing in Otter Creek.