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Rutland voters unseat secretive mayor after year-long refugee fight

By   /   March 7, 2017  /   News  /   No Comments

Photo courtesy of David Allaire

NEW MAYOR: David Allaire won the mayor’s race with 51-percent of the vote, crushing incumbent Mayor Christopher Louras, who earned only 34 percent after he was caught plotting in secret to turn the city into a refugee resettlement hub.

RUTLAND, Vt. — Rutland has spoken.

Voters on Tuesday unseated 10-year incumbent Mayor Christopher Louras, replacing him with David Allaire after a year of turmoil stemming from the mayor’s secret plan to make the city a permanent refugee resettlement community.

Unofficial results show Allaire won 51 percent of the vote. Louras placed second with 34 percent, and Mike Coppinger came in third, with 13 percent.

Rutland gained national attention last year after Louras was caught negotiating secretly with state and federal agencies to settle 100 Syrian and Iraqi refugees. Discussions began in November 2015, but Louras announced the news in late April.

Allaire campaigned on a promise to bring “trust, respect and transparency” back to the mayor’s office. To many, the overwhelming victory is proof that voters are sick of having a mayor who makes deals behind closed doors.

Allaire has been one of Louras’ most vocal adversaries over the past year. The 19-year member of the Board of Aldermen led efforts to bring transparency into the refugee resettlement process, penning several letters to government representatives and requesting that the city attorney evaluate Louras’ actions against the city charter.

Louras was instructed to keep the process secret by Amila Merdzanovic, executive director of the Vermont Refugee Resettlement Program. In emails obtained through a public records request, she is seen urging Louras to avoid transparent public forums on refugees: “If we open it up to anybody and everybody, all sorts of people will come out of the woodwork. Anti-immigrant, anti-anything.”

Photo by Bruce Parker

OUT: Five-term incumbent Mayor Chris Louras was stripped of his power after a crushing defeat on Town Meeting Day.

Louras never apologized for keeping voters and city leaders in the dark. Even after he made the April announcement and locals responded by gathering enough signatures to qualify the issue for public vote, Louras cared more about the national spotlight than his constituents.

“It doesn’t matter what the [ballot] language was,” he said in a radio debate last month. “The way it would have been portrayed locally [and] to the state and to the nation is, here is a community who wants to vote on whether they would let people in.”

In July, the Board of Aldermen narrowly defeated the push from city residents to hold a non-binding special election.

For much of the year, locals expressed frustration that their opinion mattered little to Louras or resettlement agencies. VRRP continued to push ahead with plans and ignored the board’s information requests for months.

When the U.S. Committee on Refugees and Immigrants finally responded to the board in December, Gail Johnson, a Rutland resident and former Naval officer, found the letter to be full of factual errors.

Two refugee families arrived in January, but executive orders by President Donald Trump halting Syrian immigration have thrown the program into question. Trump’s executive order released this week puts only a four-month halt on travel from Syria, meaning more families could be coming to Rutland this year.

Throughout the campaign, Louras insinuated a vote against him would make Rutland look bad in the eyes of the nation.

“We are on a state and national stage. This community will be defined by the election on Tuesday. The result … will define who we are,” he said at the final mayoral debate.

Emma Lamberton is Vermont Watchdog’s health care and Rutland area reporter. Contact her at [email protected] or @EmmaBeth9.

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Emma Lamberton is Vermont Watchdog’s health care and Rutland area reporter. She has written for the Rutland Herald and Times Argus, two of Vermont’s largest newspapers, and her work has published in The Washington Times, FoxNews.com and a number of local Vermont newspapers. She is also a member of Investigative Reporters and Editors. Emma is always looking for new stories. Readers are encouraged to contact her with tips and story ideas.