A newly adopted ordinance making Salem a sanctuary city is now headed to the voters in November after the City Council failed to rescind the measure in response to a citizens’ petition to reject it.
At a heated council meeting on May 25, a motion to rescind the ordinance failed when five councilors voted in opposition and five voted “present,” with one member absent. Under the terms of the city charter, a question on whether the ordinance should stand or be repealed will now be placed on the Nov. 7 election ballot.
“I’m pleased,” said former councilor at large Steve Pinto, one of the petition organizers. “I think it’s a big issue and that was our objective all along, to get it on the ballot.”
The City Council’s second vote on the ordinance came after a challenge against the signatures on the petition mounted by four residents fell short.
Concluding a hearing that consumed 14 hours over four days, the city’s three-member Registrars of Voters determined the petition met the requirement of having 3,724 qualified signatures — 12 percent of registered voters — required by the city charter, according to City Clerk Cheryl A. LaPointe.
The clerk’s office had previously certified 3,724 signatures, or 152 more than the minimum required. More than 500 signatures were originally challenged, but the board invalidated just 48 of those, well below the 153 needed to disqualify the petition.
The ordinance, originally passed by the City Council by a 7 to 4 vote on April 13, reaffirms existing Salem policy that city services are open to all and that police or other municipal employees will not require anyone seeking assistance to show proof of being legal immigrants. Proponents say it does not prohibit police from cooperating with federal authorities.
Ward 4 Councilor David Eppley, who filed the sanctuary ordinance with Mayor Kimberley L. Driscoll, said he was disappointed the matter is going to the ballot.
“Under our city charter, the voters of Salem do have the ability to petition for rescinding an ordinance passed by the City Council, to place it on the ballot. I don’t question that,” he said. “But I’m very disappointed with us having to go through this exercise because it’s been a tradition in Massachusetts to keep human rights and civil rights issues off the ballot.
“It’s much better to deal with these issues at the elected official level . . . that way you can only be mad at elected officials rather than your neighbors,” Eppley said. “Now we are in the process where we are having neighbors voting against neighbors, and that’s never good.”
Eppley was among the five councilors who voted against the motion to rescind the ordinance.
“I was disappointed in those who voted ‘present’ for not actually living up to the expectations of voting ‘yes’ or ‘no’ on issues,” he said.
Pinto, who predicted voters will rescind the ordinance in November, said for many a key issue is concern it would put the city at risk of losing up to $11 million in federal aid because President Donald Trump has threatened to strip certain funding from sanctuary cities.
“To lose $11 million, how do you make up for that?” Pinto said said.
But Eppley dismissed the concern about a possible loss in federal aid. “We are in complete compliance with current state and federal law,” he said.
“We want to make sure all our residents feel comfortable reporting crimes to city police without fear of being stripped away from their kids.”
John Laidler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.