‘Sanctuary City’? No, but Great Barrington acting like one

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By Tuesday, Dec 20 News  8 Comments
Heather Bellow
The Great Barrington Selectboard at Monday's meeting, where existing policy about police treatment of undocumented residents was reiterated. From left: Vice Chair Steve Bannon and board members, Dan Bailly, Ed Abrahams and Bill Cooke. Chair Sean Stanton was not present.

Great Barrington — The town’s policy that its police won’t harass or tattle to immigration agents on undocumented residents – that all residents will receive equal treatment – pre-existed a statement issued on the matter last month.

The town’s statement was reviewed and clarified by the Selectboard and Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin Monday (December 20) in response to a open meeting law complaint from The NEWSletter’s Eileen Mooney, who said the town’s statement should have been placed on that meeting’s agenda.

Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin at last month’s board meeting at which she read the town’s policy regarding the police department’s treatment of undocumented citizens. Photo: Heather Bellow

Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin at last month’s board meeting at which she read the town’s policy regarding the police department’s treatment of undocumented citizens. Photo: Heather Bellow

The statement reads as follows:

“We join other Police Departments in the Commonwealth and our state police in making a statement on community relations.

“We want our immigrant population to know that local police will continue to be committed to building and maintaining positive relationships within the community. We will continue and always be there to serve everyone in our community and have zero tolerance for bullying or harassment.

“The Great Barrington Police Department does not investigate civil immigration laws, as this role falls to the federal government. All of our residents should be completely confident that their local police department is here to assist them in a crisis situation.

“Municipal police exist to ensure public safety and security, and the Town of Great Barrington has worked hard to ensure that there are strong, positive relationships among all groups in this community. We will continue in this manner moving forward.”

Board Vice Chair Steve Bannon said this statement had been officially put on Monday’s agenda, just to cover the bases.

After some housekeeping to make agenda items on the “Town Manager’s Report” more transparent, there was some discussion about the policy and a public hearing. Board member Ed Abrahams explained what the policy means.

“If you call 911 because your neighbor’s house is on fire, you’re not going to get arrested,” he said. Undocumented residents “don’t need to be in fear…we’re not making a statement about immigration policy and this has been existing policy…what the state police have called for.”

Indeed, it is a fundamental part of the progressive policing style, practiced by the Great Barrington Police Department, known as “community policing.”

Patrick Fennell asks the board whether the town is a "sanctuary town." Board Vice Chair Steve Bannon said it isn't. Photo: Heather Bellow

Patrick Fennell asks the board whether the town is a “sanctuary town.” Board Vice Chair Steve Bannon said it isn’t. Photo: Heather Bellow

Board member Dan Bailly noted that it doesn’t change how police deal with criminal behavior among all the populations. “Undocumented people will also be charged with crimes if they commit them,” he said.

“Are we a sanctuary town?” asked Patrick Fennell, who didn’t appear too happy about the idea.

Bannon said that no, the town was not.

“Just checking,” Fennell replied.

Tabakin explained that the term “sanctuary city” doesn’t apply here because “we’re not a city.”

Nitpick at will. But actually, by having such a policy, the town is kind of acting as a sanctuary town if you use the definition reported by the Economist in this article: “There is no specific legal definition for what constitutes a sanctuary jurisdiction but the term is widely used to refer to American cities, counties or states that protect undocumented immigrants from deportation by limiting cooperation with federal immigration authorities.”

The statement by the board and Tabakin came on the heels of some hot-headed campaign grandstanding by President-elect Donald Trump (To read a local story about what it feels like to be undocumented in the age of Trump, click here).

A number of cities grew downright defiant at Trump’s anti-immigrant invective and policy threats and have built in all kinds of protections for undocumented immigrants.

Meanwhile, in little Great Barrington last month, the town’s statement of policy issued forth a flood of love into Town Hall, which rarely gets a dose of it.

Local author Daniel Klein reads from his statement about the town's sanctuary policy, and expresses gratitude to the board and town manager. Photo: Heather Bellow

Local author Daniel Klein reads from his statement about the town’s sanctuary policy, and expresses gratitude to the board and town manager. Photo: Heather Bellow

And last night it continued as our very own intellectual star, local author and philosopher Daniel Klein, was among others who had come bracing for some kind of reversal. Klein got up to tell the board and Tabakin he was grateful, and that he was “proud” to be a citizen of the town. Then he quoted New York City mayor Bill DeBlasio: “If the federal government wants our police officers to tear immigrant families apart, we will refuse to do it.”

“I know that, for procedural reasons, you may be revisiting that vote tonight,” Klein added. “But I feel confident that you will again act with deep care and dignity.”

Here is the full text of Klein’s remarks to the Selectboard:

“SELECTMEN:

“I want to express my gratitude to our Selectmen and our Police Department for creating and unanimously passing the ‘Sanctuary’ resolution at their last meeting. You made me proud to be a citizen of Great Barrington.

“In passing this resolution, our town joins many other towns throughout the Commonwealth: North Adams, Pittsfield, Northampton, Amherst, Somerville, Chelsea, and Boston.

“And we also join many cities throughout the country: Los Angeles, Washington DC. Baltimore, Salt Lake City, Burlington, Denver, Minneapolis, and many, many more, including New York City.

“It was New York City’s mayor, Bill DeBlasio who said: “If the federal government wants our police officers to tear immigrant families apart, we will refuse to do it.”

“I know that for procedural reasons, you may be revisiting that vote tonight. But I feel confident that you will again act with deep care and dignity.

“Thank you very much.”

Klein later told the Edge that he thought the term “Sanctuary” in this regard may have “originated with the Sanctuary Movement of the 1980s, which was a religiously-based movement that provided safe-havens in churches and synagogues for Central American refugees fleeing civil conflicts.  That is yet another strategy and one we might have to keep in mind for the future.”


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8 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Art says:

    Here’s hoping that it never becomes necessary for Great Barrington to actually declare itself a “sanctuary” and let’s also hope that it’s citizens and elected officials will be willing and able to do so if it becomes necessary.

    1. john lawson says:

      Hope is a cheap thing to quote David Bowie.
      Here’s to GB raising the flag and defining itself as a Sanctuary Town.

  2. Leonard Quart says:

    At this bleak historical moment, Great Barrington’s action is heartening.

    1. Patrick Fennell says:

      So all towns should be allowed to break Open Meeting Laws and hide things from the public like GB does all too often? Regardless of how the Town Council tries spin the November 28, 2016 what the SB and town manager did was unethical.

      1. Ed Abrahams says:

        The SB did nothing outside of an open meeting. To be on the safe side, we repeated an agenda item to be sure that nothing was done outside of open meeting. All that happened, twice, both times at an open meeting, was that the town manager read the already established policy of the town police and the state police, and the SB acknowledged that it was actually the existing policy of the town. Nothing was hidden. No laws were broken.

        Please, please be careful when publicly accusing your neighbors of breaking the law. I’m sure you didn’t mean it, but your carelessness can tarnish reputations.

      2. Patrick Fennell says:

        Ed, what the board and Town Manager did was underhanded and you know it. The article was way to important not to be put on teh agenda. Transparency is something your board lacks.

  3. Steve Farina says:

    In an attempt to step back and look at this issue objectively, I am wondering if the town police will not cooperate with federal authorities on all federal crimes. The word “undocumented” is an improper replacement for “illegal”. So the statement that illegal immigrants (those in this country illegally because they do not have proper documentation and have not followed the legal process to gain entry to our country) will be charged with crimes if they commit them is oxymoronic, the illegal immigrant’s presence in the country is itself a crime.
    That said, I am not advocating racial profiling in any way, especially as we have many immigrants who have entered this country legally, some of whom have become citizens and actually have Constitutional rights granted to our citizens.

  4. Carl Stewart says:

    Ed Abrahams is, quite simply, incorrect when he states that the Great Barrington Selectboard did not violate the Open Meeting Law. The purpose of an agenda, which is required to be posted no less than 48 hours prior to a meeting of a municipal body, is to give notice to the public that a matter will be a topic of discussion. I have read, quite carefully, both the agenda for the November 28 meeting and the accompanying agenda packet. There is absolutely no mention made of the “sanctuary” issue and this very clearly a violation of the Commonwealth’s Open Meeting Law. Mr. Abrahams attempts a little dance around the issue when he states that the Town Manager “read the already established policy of the Town.” If this was not on the agenda…and it most certainly was not…then it was improper to discuss the matter at that meeting. The fact that the meeting was an open one is irrelevant; proper advance notice, i.e., 48-hours, to members of the community that the sanctuary issue was to be discussed (or “read by the Town Manager”) is what is required so that they (the taxpayers) could prepare for the discussion. Such notice was not given and Ms. Mooney’s Open Meeting Law complaint was a valid one. It should be noted that every member of a municipal body in Massachusetts is required to certify that she is familiar with the requirements of the Open Meeting Law. This rule applies to the Selectboard, the Finance Committee, the Planning Board, etc. Other bodies have been fined by the Commonwealth for less egregious omissions.

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