Sanctuary city foes launch petition drive

A petition being circulated in Salem to ask the City Council to rescind its Sanctuary for Peace ordinance or put it on the ballot in November.

SALEM — Voters at odds with the City Council's support of the  "Sanctuary for Peace" ordinance are working to reverse the decision or freeze it until a ballot vote is taken in November.

A group of residents opposed to the ordinance have started circulating petitions to rescind or force a referendum vote on the so-called sanctuary city ordinance. The ordinance has so far received two votes of support from city councilors.

It goes before the City Council Thursday night for final passage. At that time, if it passes, a 20-day window opens for voters to collect enough signatures to put the question on a referendum ballot in the fall, according to City Clerk Cheryl LaPointe.

Residents would need to gather 3,572 signatures of registered voters in Salem by Wednesday, May 3. 

The effort was launched by Mark Lovely, brother of Ward 3 Councilor Steve Lovely. It is being organized by Steve Pinto, a former councilor who was voted out of office in 2011.

"If we get the signatures, it'll go back to the City Council, and the City Council can say, 'We rescind it' and it won't go to the ballot. Or they'll say, 'We aren't going to rescind it' and it becomes a referendum and goes to the ballot," Pinto said. "The whole prerogative of the petition is to have the people vote on it so it can either get rescinded or remain as an ordinance."

LaPointe said petitioners can legally gather signatures now, even though the ordinance's final passage hasn't happened yet. But signatures can't be submitted to the clerk's office for approval until after the final vote takes place. 

This isn't the first effort to put the sanctuary city ordinance on the citywide ballot. Steve Lovely, who voted against the sanctuary city ordinance, also tried unsuccessfully to get the council to send the issue to voters in November. 

For Pinto, the issue is less about opposing the sanctuary ordinance, he said, and more about giving residents the chance to decide.

"I don't know why you wouldn't give the people the right to vote on it. That puzzles me," Pinto said. "We just started this a week ago, and we're meeting down at the Willows on Sunday. A lot of people are Facebooking. We've been getting a lot of calls — a lot of them are unhappy more about not having a choice than whether to rescind it."

Ward 4 Councilor David Eppley, who launched the discussion last November by filing the ordinance, declined to comment on the petition drive. 

No Place For Hate chairman Jeff Cohen said he has concerns about putting the issue to a ballot vote.

"By putting something on the ballot, the majority can overwhelm a minority, affect people, marginalize people," Cohen said. "We have a history of not deciding civil rights issues at the ballot."

At the same time, he defended the idea of ballot votes in general, describing them as essential to democracy.

"People have a right to petition anything and put anything on the ballot if they get enough signatures," he said. "That's democracy."

A hot issue

The sanctuary ordinance affirms the city’s current policies that police officers and city officials do not ask for proof of citizenship as part of their normal duties. The ordinance does not bar officials from cooperating with federal immigration authorities.

But it has been a hot issue in the city since it surfaced late last year. Supporters have hailed it as an affirmation of Salem's commitment to be a welcoming community and reassurance for residents that they can report a crime or call for help without having their immigration status questioned.

Opponents, meanwhile, have said it's unnecessary, and have alluded to promises from the Trump Administration to ax federal funding to sanctuary cities, which they say could jeopardize $11 million in federal funds to Salem.

The requirement for 3,572 signatures stems from the city charter, which calls for signatures from 12 percent of registered voters. As of Friday morning, the city had 29,761 registered voters.

In 2012, a similar petition drive forced the city to put the Community Preservation Act on the ballot that November, after the City Council had voted not to put the question to voters. In that case, petitioners needed just 5 percent of registered voters, or 1,350 signatures. Voters later approved the Community Preservation Act by more than 1,500 votes.

Residents behind the Sanctuary for Peace petition drive have been circulating the petition on social media and have scheduled an event for this Sunday at Salem Willows, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., to collect more signatures.

"Sunday will give us a good read," Pinto said. 

But even if the petition succeeds in getting the question on the ballot, the work doesn't end there.

"If it becomes a referendum, there will be some work to do, some literature to put out for the election," Pinto said. "You educate people, let them know the ramifications, what it involves."