Community engagement can mean many things, from taking an active role in governance to connecting with neighbors. For one group of Lebanon residents, it means that and a whole lot more. For more than a year, the Welcoming Lebanon Ordinance has been a substantial focus of their time and energy. Following up on the city’s 2019 Resolution for Inclusiveness denouncing “all ideologies based on hatred and intolerance,” and affirming a “commitment to protecting its citizens, residents, and visitors against discrimination,” the ordinance clearly and explicitly rejects discrimination and protects those in the city who may be vulnerable to harassment by unjust federal immigration policies.

Kathy Beckett (below), a resident of Lebanon, has been the driving force behind the ordinance from its inception. Early in 2019, she explains, “Migrant Justice led a meeting with Upper Valley community members who were interested in prohibiting local police from aiding or participating in enforcement of federal immigration law.” From there, the petitioners’ committee began to take shape. On October 15 of that year, the committee filed a petition for a Citizens’ Binding Initiative to the City Clerk; this would allow them to collect signatures in order to place the ordinance on the ballot for the March 2020 election. “Only Lebanon voters could be on the Petitioners’ Committee,” Kathy recalls. “We started as a group of five Committee members, including some individuals who were present at the Migrant Justice meeting, and through personal contacts, our numbers gradually grew to include a total of 24 registered Lebanon voters who were certified to collect signatures. Sixteen of the 24 petitioners were seniors.”

The committee drafted the Welcoming Lebanon Ordinance and collected more than the 611 signatures needed to secure the ballot item. Along the way, the committee met with their neighbors and colleagues to garner support, address concerns, and work together with the community to secure popular support for the ordinance. “It was made clear that each person’s contribution to the effort would be appreciated, regardless of the amount of time the individual could dedicate to the work,” notes Kathy. The results of this effort were apparent when the ballot item passed, ensuring the ordinance would go into effect in the city in 2021. “When we received the official word on election night,” Kathy remembers, “I was thrilled, and grateful to the people of Lebanon for showing support for our immigrant neighbors and others who would be affected by the Ordinance. A very moving moment that evening occurred when a young woman who receives DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) stated that for the first time, she felt safe in the Upper Valley.”

Task Force members discuss the ordinance at a meeting. Above: Kathy Beckett, Karen Liot Hill, Devin Wilkie, and Diane Root. Below: Karen Liot Hill, Sue Prentiss, Keysi Montas, and Barry Schuster.

Following the vote, Mayor Tim McNamara established a task force; citing the need to “turn our policy into an ordinance that reflects the wishes of the voters,” he appointed members of the City Council, the petitioners’ committee, and the general public to serve on the task force. On May 28, the seven members began the months-long process of ensuring the ordinance was enforceable and clear, while ensuring the voter-passed ordinance’s intent remained. Karen Liot Hill, a City Councilor who served as the chair of the task force, has been invested throughout the process in ensuring these conditions are met. “I believe when it comes down to it that most people share the same values, they want the same things for our community,” she says. “Disagreement comes from how to achieve things like safety, security, health, and happiness.”

“My belief is that the reason so many people signed the petition is because they want everyone who lives in the city, who works here, and who travels through Lebanon to be treated with dignity, respect, and equality while they are here,” Karen says. “We’ve had a really collaborative process that resulted in something that, while it may not have met all the participants’ goals, does reflect our shared values, and does reflect progress for advancing justice and equality in the City of Lebanon.”

Along the way, the task force worked with legal counsel from the city and from the petitioners’ committee to find and address issues within the ordinance and elsewhere in the city’s codes in order to best protect the entire community.

Kathy, who also served on the task force, is optimistic about the future of the ordinance. “My hope is that this Ordinance will prove to be one piece of an effort to ensure fair and just treatment of all persons in Lebanon, and that its adoption encourages immigrants, members of the BIPOC community, and other individuals protected by the Ordinance to live in Lebanon and to fully participate in the life of the City without fear.” We’re heading in the right direction.