Thomas Stith’s strategy to compel people to attend a city council meeting on Durham’s immigration policy backfired this week when dozens of peoplemost of them wearing pink stickers reading “Immigrant Rights and Human Rights”crammed council chambers Sept. 17, ready to speak. Unfortunately, it was the wrong meeting.

Last weekend, Councilman Stith, who is running against incumbent Mayor Bill Bell, unleashed a barrage of automated phone calls, one with language tailored for whites and another that targeted blacks, claiming that Durham is a “sanctuary city where illegal immigrants commit crimes without fear of being deported.” Stith then asked citizens to attend the meeting, at which he had planned to introduce a resolution “to end the policy that makes Durham a safe haven for illegal immigrants.”

Stith tried to allay fears concerning racial profiling by sending black voters calls that began “I know what it’s like to be stopped by the police because of the color of my skin.”

“I would have liked to have gotten one of those calls,” Councilman Howard Clement said at the meeting. “I would have left a message.”

Stith blamed City Manager Patrick Baker, who was absent, for failing to put the item on the agenda, as Stith said he had requested. Other council members understood the issue would be addressed later. It is on the agenda for a council work session, Thursday, Sept. 20, beginning at 1 p.m.

Logistics are less important than the underlying issues: Stith’s stance on immigration and his apparent use of fear tactics in rallying support.

In 2003, the council passed a resolution, 4-1, prohibiting city employees or police officers from randomly asking people about their citizenship. However, law enforcement officers are required to cooperate and share information with federal and state authorities as required by law.

According to the minutes, Stith seconded the motion, noting “this is an issue of the protection of basic human rights for individuals.”

Stith now contends that the resolution is confusing, and can be interpreted to mean police don’t have to check a person’s immigration status during a criminal investigation. However, according to police department policy, police can and do check the status of arrested persons.

In that case, Stith says, the resolution’s language still contradicts current police protocol: “This is a situation where our policy and practices aren’t in sync.” The police department is expected to comment at the work session.

Stith-the-candidate has adopted a position reflecting that of his previous employer, the Civitas Institute. Civitas is part of the conservative Art Pope empire, which includes the John Locke Foundation. The Locke Foundation has posted a statement on its Web site decrying Durham as a “sanctuary city.”

There was a backlash at the meeting, in e-mails and in the blogosphere against the automated calls.

“It was effective from the point of view of my objective to inform people about the issue,” Stith said in a phone interview after the meeting. “People have interpreted it as targeting a community; that’s not my intent. More work needs done on the message.”