South Orange Trustees Vote to Designate Town as Sanctuary City

by Mary Mann
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In a 180-degree turnaround, South Orange Village President Sheena Collum said she moved from being a skeptic of adopting a Sanctuary City resolution into a champion for the cause.

Collum told the South Orange Village Board of Trustees on Monday night, “I went from thinking. “Let’s protect the money,” to thinking, ‘Let’s protect the values of this town.'”

Collum’s thinking on the subject experienced a sea change several weeks back as President Trump’s executive order regarding federal funding was signed. “I didn’t buy into the idea of ‘we will penalize you.’ What’s coming next? …. It is scare tactics. Any government that behaves in that fashion resembles a dictatorship.”

Collum became such a proponent of a designation to protect immigrants — creating a resolution ensuring that immigrants in the town will not be targeted by law enforcement but complying with all state and federal laws — that she led the charge to change the language of the resolution to include the label “Sanctuary City.”

The resolution, modeled on Maplewood’s “Welcoming Community” resolution, contains almost the exact same language — and it is those actionable parts of the resolution that will or will not bring the town grief from the federal government, said an immigration attorney consulting with the town, not the title nor the terminology. (South Orange is adding clarifications, including one enumerating the town departments participating in the actions at the request of the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education — presumably to protect any federal education funding.)

Attorneys for the town and Collum stressed earlier in the discussion that federal funding could only be taken away from the town by an act of Congress, not by executive order and that the town was on firm legal footing to fight any effort to remove funds.

Collum admitted, therefore, that the resolution was symbolic in nature — “What this resolution does is it took everything we were doing in practice and put it on paper” — but she insisted that symbolism was important.

Many residents who spoke at the meeting felt that the symbolism of the move was important as well and asked for the term “sanctuary city” to be used. Said Tim Catts, “It’s about sending a message. Words really do matter quite a bit here.”

Many of those who spoke did so under the auspices of SOMA Action, with one member presenting a petition in support of the resolution that had been signed by more than 200 South Orange residents.

Earlier in the meeting, Collum also addressed comments arguing against the resolution, saying some residents had contacted her to say that the town should not adopt it because of possible loss of federal funding. Others said that the nature of South Orange’s non-partisan governing body should keep it from taking an action that could be seen as anti-Trump. Others argued that the Trustees should not take on non-local or social issues.

Collum countered the last two arguments, saying that the town took on any issues that impacted residents and, “We lead on social issues.”

Collum, as Village President, did not vote on the resolution (the Village President only votes in a tie); the Trustees present voted 4-1 in favor of the ordinance, with Walter Clarke, Deborah Davis Ford, Howard Levison and Steve Schnall voting for it and Jeff DuBowy voting against.

DuBowy was not against the resolution in principle. In fact, he asked for the change to “Sanctuary City” and wanted stronger wording throughout, calling the language of the current resolution “watered down.” DuBowy said he preferred to see the decision made in referendum.

As a referendum, DuBowy said, “For the record, I’d vote for it.”

Collum continuously made reference to the fact that she had modeled the resolution on Maplewood’s “Welcoming Community” resolution, which has inspired similar resolutions in towns such as Madison. However, she felt that the change to Sanctuary City was important: “This is the model ordinance of being a Sanctuary City and we should convince every municipality in New Jersey to do this.”

About being a Sanctuary City, Collum said, “Call it what it is.”


Photos by Matt Peyton Photography:

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