MADISON, NJ – After adopting Resolution 57 at its Feb. 6 meeting, the Borough Council held a forum on Monday, April 3, for a community conversation.
“This is a very important night,” Mayor Robert Conley said as he greeted more than 100 people at borough hall. The meeting was moved from council chambers to the courthouse room because of the overflowing crowd. He emphasized that the purpose was an open discussion, not a debate and its purpose was community building. He noted that nothing in the resolution made Madison a sanctuary city and that “residents should obtain equal treatment to all who seek our services.” He said it was important to put actions behind words. “I am the mayor for all,” he said. “If not, I’m the mayor for no one.”
The crowd was then divided into groups of 10 to 15 and met in various rooms throughout the Hartley Dodge building. He established ground rules, which would provide “a judgment free zone.” Two volunteers would serve as moderator and recorder of the conversations. Some considerations included: why you came, what does a welcoming Madison look like? What are you optimistic about? What do you fear and what are you willing to do? “We cannot live within our own walls,” the mayor said.
In one of the break-out groups, a resident expressed concern about the resolution, saying it was unnecessary. Another person said the resolution would divide, rather than strengthen, the community. The facilitator, Joanne Spigner, cautioned those present to move beyond the resolution itself during the discussion. One optimistic outlook was that “we’re having this conversation in a respectful manner.” She said that many of us “live in our own bubbles.” Another noted,” So many people really have a good heart.” A woman who said she is conservative said that all opinions should be welcome. There was concern, too, that we don’t always listen to another person’s story, but instead make assumptions. “This conversation is worth having,” one person said. “There is now language on the table. We’re a little more informed.” Spigner summed up the conversation, noting, “We need to get to know people and let them feel safe on the streets, in schools and stores and with the police. What is less visible is what scares us.”
The various groups then re-convened to share and reflect. One person referred to the Mount Laurel directive. “Madison led the way,” Mayor Conley said, “in its legal and moral obligation.” Some people spoke of the Interfaith Council, Welcome Wagon, International Day and other efforts in the community to bring people together.
There was considerable debate about legal and illegal immigrants and incidents of racial profiling. One person said the conversation “didn’t go far enough.” Another said we “let fear and bias overcome values.” A number of speakers came to the microphone during a period for public comments. Although there were varied points of view, the mayor managed to defuse comments that could have been disruptive.
Mayor Conley said the task force would gather all the suggestions recorded during the small group discussions. “We’ve heard a lot of great ideas,” he said and next steps would be considered and shared.