BELFAST, Maine — The lunchtime crowd walking downtown on Wednesday may have wondered what ICLEI is and why it needed to be kicked out of town, as banners held on all four corners of the intersection of Main and High streets urged be done.
Protesters from the John Birch Society, a conservative group formed in 1958 to push for limited government and personal freedoms, said that the city was a member of the International Council on Local Environmental Initiatives. That group advocates for municipal policies that reduce energy consumption and mitigate climate change.
The John Birch Society protesters — about a dozen in all — also drew a connection between ICLEI and the United Nations’ Agenda 21, a land-use planning initiative.
But it turns out the city is not a member of ICLEI.
A city committee, the Belfast Climate and Energy Committee, joined ICLEI and paid the $600 annual dues a few years ago to get information about how to reduce energy consumption in municipal buildings and promote similar strategies for residences and businesses, Belfast Assistant Planner James Francomano said Wednesday.
Roger Lee, a three-term city councilor seeking a fourth term, was a member of that committee and said Wednesday it is essentially defunct. The city stopped paying dues to ICLEI in 2010, but the organization’s website still lists Belfast as a member.
Hal Shurtleff of Boston, a regional field director of the John Birch Society who was among the protesters, said he concluded that Belfast was a member by reviewing ICLEI’s website. Wednesday’s protest was still valid, he said after the banners were taken down, because ICLEI is part of a larger effort to limit personal freedom.
“ICLEI is one tentacle” of other, larger efforts to impose limits on personal freedom, he said.
Two women holding the banners joined Shurtleff in denouncing ICLEI, saying the organization wanted to prevent people from purchasing certain kinds of vehicles and ending single residences because of their impact on climate change. Shurtleff said climate change was a myth.
Shurtleff is scheduled to present information about Agenda 21 at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 7, at the Belfast Free Library.
City officials contacted ICLEI Wednesday to ask that Belfast be removed from the list of members.
Lee expressed dismay that ICLEI was cast as a villain.
“They’re a perfectly fine organization. They’re assisting municipalities all over the world,” he said.
Membership allowed the committee to receive software to estimate how energy use might be cut in municipal buildings. Committee members also were able to attend regional meetings to learn what other towns and cities were doing on the energy-efficiency front, Lee said.
“It’s pretty small-scale stuff,” he said. ICLEI does have “a particular regimen they want you to follow. Our committee never did that.”
The city has improved energy efficiency at City Hall, and plans to do the same at the police station, the Belfast Free Library and the Boat House, Lee said.
A handout given to pedestrians on Wednesday featuring Shurtleff’s photo and biography noted that “ Agenda 21 will require a profound reorientation of all human society, unlike anything the world has ever experienced.”
During the protest, Shurtleff said planning and environmental initiatives conflicted with the personal liberty protections of the U.S. Constitution.
Lee remained perplexed.
“It’s hard to even understand [the protesters’] position,” Lee said. “Apparently there’s something wrong with trying to live sustainably.”