TWIN FALLS — The City Council will likely vote later this month on a resolution declaring Twin Falls “a community where all residents are welcomed, accepted, and given the opportunity to connect with each other without bias in pursuit of common goals.”
The Council listened to two hours of public testimony Monday evening. Of the 28 members people who spoke, 21 supported the resolution and seven opposed it.
The Council didn’t vote — it was listed on the agenda for discussion, not as an action item — so a final vote will likely be scheduled later this month. However, the Council’s discussion made it clear that, if nobody changes their minds, it will pass 5-2.
“It’s important for the migrant in our community who doesn’t feel welcome,” Mayor Shawn Barigar said. “It’s important for the person at the grocery store who’s wearing a headscarf being judged. It’s important for the gay person who cuts hair at a shop in Twin Falls being judged for being gay.”
Councilman Greg Lanting said the resolution would help to counteract the less-than-welcoming impression of Twin Falls some people could get from following media coverage of Twin Falls — the debate over refugee resettlement here has gotten national attention over the past year.
“I believe that we have been painted just as the Muslims have been painted with a wide brush,” he said.
Vice Mayor Suzanne Hawkins and Councilwoman Nikki Boyd said they plan to vote against the resolution. Hawkins said the resolution is divisive and “redundant and most likely unnecessary” because Twin Falls is already a welcoming place. Although the public testimony at Council meetings has been overwhelmingly in favor of the idea, Hawkins said, outside of meetings she has gotten far more feedback from people opposed to it. The City Council, she said, should be debating issues like the city’s finances, not ones such as refugee resettlement over which they have no control.
“I think we are really muddling in an area where we don’t belong,” she said.
Boyd said the resolution wouldn’t say anything that isn’t already in the city’s strategic plan.
“I believe everything that we’ve talked about that we believe is is already in writing,” she said.
The resolution originated out of a Boy Scout Eagle Scout Service Project at the College of Southern Idaho Refugee Center. Troop leader Mark Crandall brought it to the Council, and his original pitch envisioned something more like the “welcoming city” resolutions that have passed in Boise and Ketchum — Boise’s mentions refugees specifically.
However, the language of the resolution City Manager Travis Rothweiler presented Monday doesn’t mention immigrants or refugees. Instead, it lists points in the city’s strategic plan, such as sections calling for a “responsible community” and a “secure community,” and relates it to goals such as giving everyone who lives in Twin Falls the chance to contribute to community life and encouraging residents, businesses and community groups to “join in a community-wide effort to adopt policies and practices to promote unity, inclusion, understanding, and equity.”
Rothweiler said he would prefer to call it a “neighborly city” resolution rather than a “welcoming city,” to allay the fears of opponents who view it as a precursor to becoming a “sanctuary city” that doesn’t cooperate with federal immigration enforcement. He said he had gotten extensive public feedback on the proposal and tried to word the resolution in a way that incorporated that while not taking a political stance.
“Serving does not necessarily allow us to pick sides,” Rothweiler said. “And in this resolution, what we tried to do this evening was to take a balanced approach.”
Most of the public testimony, however, was about refugees. Crandall praised the resolution Rothweiler and city staff had crafted.
“I think a resolution like this would go a long way toward helping us as a city” and showing the world that “hate does not define us,” Crandall said.
Melissa Joelson compared current anti-Muslim sentiment to the long history of prejudice against other groups — Germans; Irish Catholics; Jews; Mormons; Poles; Italians. Muslims in Twin Falls, she said, are often spoken of as “the other,” but they’re school teachers, tailors, carpenters, shop owners, forestry biologists, restaurant owners, “and of course the yogurt maker,” a reference to the Chobani yogurt factory.
“We’ve got over most of these biases,” Joelson said. “And now it’s time to get over the last.”
Terry Edwards, who opposes the resolution, said the issue is safety, and that the people making it about refugees were “the biggest bigots in town.” He questioned how Twin Falls could be a welcoming city when Planned Parenthood is allowed to offer abortions here.
“We’re a welcoming city and we’re welcoming people into town to kill babies?” he asked.
He ended by invoking the refugee crisis in Europe, which has been inundated with mostly Muslim refugees from the Middle East since 2015.
“Has anybody even seen what’s happening in Europe? ... Let’s welcome them all here,” Edwards said. “I’m sure they would like that.”
Glenneda Zuiderveld, who said she was speaking on behalf of the family of a young girl who was sexually assaulted by three refugee boys from Iraq and Eritrea at the Fawnbrook Apartments last year, said she doesn’t see the need for the resolution. Twin Falls can be a welcoming place without it, she said.
“Why all of a sudden do we have to put our name to something to make us a great city?” she said.
Zuiderveld blamed the boys’ backgrounds for their actions and said that, if refugees are going to resettled in Twin Falls, the community needs to decide what to do to make sure something similar doesn’t happen again.
“There is a different culture,” she said. “And it’s just not food and it’s not music. ... There is a different culture, and it would be awfully naive of us not to take that into consideration for our children. And obviously these boys were practicing their culture. That is a hard reality.”
Some wording of the resolution could change, Rotheweiler said, but the Council didn’t give him further instructions. A final version of the proposed resolution is expected to be presented at a future Council meeting.
“It’s important for the migrant in our community who doesn’t feel welcome. It’s important for the person at the grocery store who’s wearing a headscarf being judged. It’s important for the gay person who cuts hair at a shop in Twin Falls being judged for being gay.” Twin Falls Mayor Shawn Barigar
Editor's note: This article has been updated to indicate that 'Rothweiler' is City Manager Travis Rothweiler.