LEWISTON — The City Council adopted a citywide equity statement Tuesday after debating a section that references immigration status.

The statement, developed over a period of months by a local coalition known as City Spirit L/A, along with human rights nonprofit Mindbridge, commits the city to addressing inequity and building a community “where people of all cultures and identities can thrive.”

Despite a groundswell of support for the overall effort and the message it sends, the adoption in Lewiston was delayed last month after a councilor said the statement should receive a legal review. A debate swirled again Tuesday regarding a section of the statement that references immigration status, which Councilor Lee Clement has argued could be interpreted that Lewiston condones illegal immigration.

The section reads, “Here the City endeavors to create an environment where everyone is treated fairly, respectfully, and embraced, regardless of their race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, gender identity, marital or familial status, immigration status, sexual orientation, age, economic status, disability, or other individual identities expressed and experienced.”

Following a legal review, councilors were briefed directly by city legal counsel, but did not agree Tuesday on the direction they received.

Clement offered an amendment that would have added the clause “in keeping with federal and state law,” but the amendment failed 5-2.

Several councilors said the addition was unnecessary, and that legal counsel assured officials that additional language was not needed.

Councilor Luke Jensen said everything the city does follows federal and state laws, and that if the city added the language to this statement but not others, “how is that not racist?”

Jensen also argued that singling out one reference in a much broader document “kind of seems like we’re just hitting on a lightning rod in politics here.”

Clement made several comments relating to illegal immigration, and current conditions at the country’s southern border. He said several constituents have told him they don’t support the statement.

Councilor Safiya Khalid said using the term “illegal” to refer to people is “dehumanizing,” and that the discussion was clouding the goal of the statement.

“This community came together to write a simple statement to commit our city to equity,” she said. “What does that have to do with the southern border and the federal level. I hope we can stop embarrassing ourselves.”

During public comment, several people spoke in favor of the statement.

Fatuma Hussein, executive director of the Immigrant Resource Center of Maine, who worked to develop City Spirit L/A, said “Lewiston has come a long way,” since she was among the first Somali families to move to the city in 2001.

She said Lewiston has become a “symbol of hope,” but that “20 years later, to come back to where we started, it’s a bit taking us backwards,” referring to the debate.

“To me the language was very clear,” Jensen said. “I’m disappointed it went to legal review to begin with. It helps make us the city we want to be…It’s not really radical. In 20 years we’re going to look back and say we probably should’ve done this sooner.”

The council voted 5-2 to adopt the statement, with councilors Clement and Michel Lajoie opposed.

The City ‘Spirit’ council is a group of city, school and community leaders that formed to address conflict and inequity in the Twin Cities. Officials in Auburn have also seen the statement, but have not yet voted to adopt it.

The process to develop the statement began in June 2020, and included workshops and focus groups. The statement saw six drafts, then went to the public for feedback in November.

CITY BUDGET

The City Council also held the first of two public hearings on the fiscal 2022 budget Tuesday, but no one from the public spoke.

City Administrator Denis D’Auteuil presented his draft budget March 16, and the council has since been holding workshops twice a week. On April 13, the council will begin budget deliberations, and on May 4 will hold a second public hearing and vote to adopt the budget.

On the municipal side, including the county tax, the budget is slated to be $50.76 million, an increase of $1.05 million, or 2.11%.

As of now, proposed spending increases at city and school levels translate to a property tax rate increase of $2.26 per $1,000 of assessed property value, or 79 cents at the city level, 1 cent at the county, and $1.46 for schools.


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