MOUNT RAINIER – Just a day after the city of Hyattsville unanimously passed a non-citizen voting amendment, the city of Mount Rainier held a public hearing on the very same issue.
Last Tuesday, Dec. 6, the Mount Rainier City Council held a public hearing to gauge citizen opinion on the possibility of amending the city charter to allow non-U.S. citizens to vote in municipal elections.
This change would not only extend voting to residents without documentation, but also to those residing in the city with work visas and green cards – a point made clear by Councilwoman Shivali Shah, who represents Ward II.
“Immigration is a very difficult topic and the immigration system doesn’t make it any easier,” Shah said. “One of the primary confusions is a lot of people hear non-citizens as not legal… Non-citizens, yes, includes people that are undocumented as people who are on expired status or people who are not here legally. The other groups that it includes are people that are here on visas, such as work visas and student visas. Some people are here as refugees, asylumees, they have various protective status that they have to renew periodically.”
About 25 residents filled the top room at Potts Hall, where the council moved its meeting due to the anticipated turnout. While Mount Rainier residents packed their public hearing – much like Hyattsville’s did in the months before that city passed its amendment – the mood in the room was extremely different from Hyattsville’s public hearing.
The loudest voices in the room at the Hyattsville hearing were ardently against the change to the city charter. At Mount Rainier’s hearing, not a single resident voiced opposition to the possible change.
Charnette Robinson was the first resident to speak at the hearing and said she takes issue with the idea that a group of people who pay taxes to a city cannot vote on how those funds are spent.
“You’re living here, paying taxes, you have a right to vote. That’s how I see it,” she said.
Anthoner resident, Celina Benitez, said she thinks it is important for the city to further integrate the people living within their boundaries.
“Mount Rainier would not be the first city that has non-citizen voting in the municipality,” she said. “I think it’s important to integrate the people that live here. Not only that, but we need to make sure that the people that are here who are also paying taxes, are attending our school, and also volunteering their time … that we start acknowledging them as functional members of our community.”
Benitez said there are several members of the community who have temporary-permanent status, meaning they are in limbo between their arrival to the country and citizenship.
“They’ve been here for over 15 years and they cannot become citizens. Every 18 months they go ahead and have to pay fees in order to remain in this country,” Benitez said, explaining that those non-citizens have to have good legal standing. “When people think about people that are non-citizens they assume there’s some process for them to become citizens and that’s not actually the case.”
Mayor Malinda Miles, however, sang a different tune from the residents gathered.
“I was opposed to and probably am still opposed to the language and the legislation, but not because I’m opposed to inclusion,” Miles said. “I’m opposed to (the) timing. We’ve had four years to review our charter and do it as a secular document, being reviewed, being rectified.”
Miles said she would rather not amend the charter in bits and pieces, but fully revamp the whole thing at one time. She said this is an idea she has brought up on numerous occasions to the council, but has only seen work done on the volume near election time.
“Let me say to you with all sincerity, the charter is not a piece or document that should just be willy-nilly, you pick what you want fixed and then you work on it but the rest of you ignore. It is a full piece,” she said.
Miles said she also wants the ultimate decision to be up to the people of Mount Rainier, meaning she wants the amendment to go to referendum. She said she doesn’t want the five-person council to make the decision for the more than 8,400 people who live in the city.
“I was told without any hesitation that there are four votes already so it really doesn’t matter if I vote,” Miles said.
Though every speaker at the public hearing voiced favor for the charter amendment, some did have questions about the logistics of the plan.
Michael Barton wanted to know how the city would handle the change, since the “actual proposed language” was not readily available for the public to view.
His specific question was about Mount Rainier laws stating that if you can register with the county, you can vote and he wanted to know what proof of residency would now be required to register to vote.
“I would want to know, at the Mount Rainier Board of Elections, what kind of documentation is required in order to register – if you have to have proof of ownership, or residency or official state documentation, which is sometimes hard to obtain if you’re undocumented,” Barton said.
Other citizens raised concerns about there being an obtainable list with names of all registered non-citizens on it and what could potentially be done with that information.
Miles said the council is still working out the kinks of its legislation and will continue to discuss the logistics and concerns moving forward.
“A lot of that is being discussed back and forth with the council. I think staff has given some directive to check and see how others have done it. They’ve looked to come to some other discussion or whatever. We are here at the forum to get your input,” she said.
The council will also have an in-depth work session later in the month before an official first reading occurs. Miles said there will be ample time to make changes to the amendment before its possible passing.
“We will be going back to work session. It will get a first reading and then it will get a second. So there will be time to make changes, amend as we go forward,” she said.
Moving forward, Councilman Jesse Christopherson said he thinks the future of Mount Rainier is bright.
“So this is just the beginning. There will be more and I think this will create an opportunity and motivation to engage people that we haven’t engaged before,” he said.