Cringes, gasps as Bangor councilor says LePage ‘hits the bars’ rather than focusing on issues

By Nick McCrea, BDN Staff
Posted June 11, 2013, at 3:32 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — First-term Councilor Charlie Longo faces rebuke, and perhaps a formal reprimand, from his fellow city councilors for his disparaging comments about Gov. Paul LePage during a meeting Monday night.

“I say this with the utmost respect. But, you know, if Gov. LePage is not busy enough to go to Jamaica, if Gov. LePage isn’t busy enough to go — I have not personally confirmed this, but, folks say that he hits the bars pretty heavy,” Longo said toward the end of the public meeting, which was broadcast on local access television.

“But, if he has enough time to make it to those meetings or those junkets, to those nightclubs, whatever it is, he has the time to sit down with our mayor, with our city councilors, to discuss the issues that face the state of Maine,” Longo continued. “I don’t care if it’s at the Sea Dog or at Diamonds, I will sit down with Gov. LePage anywhere to discuss this issue.”

Longo’s comments, which drew audible gasps and visible cringes from councilors and city staff attending the meeting, came during a tense discussion about the state’s most recent budget proposal, which would mean a $1.1 million loss in revenue sharing for Bangor. Losing that money will mean a more than 40-cent increase to the tax rate — which already was poised to increase — or dramatic cuts to city services, city officials have said.

Councilors asked city staff to send a letter to the governor’s office to request a meeting to discuss how the budget, especially the loss of revenue sharing, was going to affect municipal service centers such as Bangor.

Longo felt such a meeting would be unlikely and questioned whether LePage would care to hear about how this budget would affect municipalities.

“That comment was completely out of line,” Councilor Ben Sprague said after Longo spoke.

“That was an embarrassment to this body.” Councilor Joe Baldacci said.

Longo was immediately asked to apologize or rescind his statement. He responded by saying, “at the end of the day we need to fight for our constituents in every way possible,” adding that he was sorry if his comments “made people uncomfortable.”

After the meeting, several councilors discussed reprimanding or censuring Longo. On Tuesday morning, Longo issued a statement apologizing for his comments. Longo said Tuesday afternoon that he has called the governor’s office to apologize as well.

“We must spend our time on productive discussions about how we can move this community forward,” Longo said.

“Bringing rumors to the public record, especially those involving alleged alcohol use, have no place in deliberations of Bangor City Council. Therefore, I apologize for making those comments but still would demand that the governor and Legislature do what is right for the citizens of Bangor,” he said.

His apology failed to appease other councilors, however. Councilor Patricia Blanchette said his apology came “a day late and a dollar short” and that it should have come last night.

“We’re all angry, we’re angry at him,” said Blanchette, who has spent a total of 18 years as a councilor and eight as a lawmaker in Augusta. “It’s a normal occurrence for him,” she said. “I have told him right to his face, think before you speak.”

“I’m not a fan of LePage, but I don’t call him a drunk,” Blanchette said. “We all have disagreements, and that’s part of healthy politics, but you’d better be doing so respectfully.”

“I think this is an embarrassment to the institution of the Bangor City Council and a major distraction,” Sprague said Tuesday about Longo’s comments. “We are fighting a number of challenges on multiple fronts right now and we cannot get bogged down with things like this.”

Longo has had spats with councilors in the past. In 2011, he suggested during a committee meeting that a donation of a content management system to the city by former Council Chairman Cary Weston’s marketing company created a conflict of interest. Weston took exception, saying, “I wish you would watch your comments.” The city’s attorney and Maine Municipal Association later said they saw no conflict, but the City Council decided 6-0 during a Dec. 28, 2011, meeting that Weston did have a conflict and should sit out during the vote.

At a meeting in early 2012, Weston and Longo engaged in a 10-minute argument after Weston chastised Longo for not paying attention after Longo asked about a change to the agenda. It turned out that the revision wasn’t included in Longo’s packet. Longo demanded an apology and walked out of the meeting when he didn’t get one. Weston later apologized.

A month later, Longo questioned whether the city might want to hold a direct election of a mayor, a change Portland made around that time.

In April 2012, Longo emailed a letter to Waterfront Concerts promoter Alex Gray saying that the concert series shouldn’t allow rock performer Ted Nugent to perform because of comments the entertainer made during a National Rifle Association convention in St. Louis.

Longo said during an interview Tuesday that he made the comment in the “heat of the moment” and that “these kinds of battles should not take place in the public eye. We need to make sure we work together.”

He said he’s proud of several accomplishments since he joined the council, including the city’s rejection of a pay-as-you-throw trash program and the passage of sex offender residency restrictions after a failed initial attempt three years ago. During this year’s budget process, he said he has taken several trips to Augusta to lobby on behalf of Bangor officials.

While his questions can frustrate other councilors, Longo said it’s still important to ask them. Otherwise, the city might open itself up to conflicts of interest or oversights that will hurt in the long run, he argued.

“My constituents deserve to have someone look at things in a different way,” he said.

Longo said his speaking style can be “rough around the edges” but that “people without backbones are who got us here, with Gov. LePage able to take $1.1-$1.4 million out of our budget.”

Several other councilors who spoke at Monday’s meeting, including Blanchette and Baldacci, criticized the governor for “bullying” tactics throughout the budget process.

Councilors also criticized the Legislature for its budget deal, which increases sales, meals and lodging taxes, compounding the burden on families, they said. At the same time, the loss of revenue sharing will force service reductions or tax hikes.

“If this is the best the Legislature can do, it’s a failure of both parties,” Baldacci said.

Councilor David Nealley said the “shortsighted” budget deal was “clearly just a tax shift,” placing the financial burden on communities rather than with the state, but pointed out that he couldn’t see how the council could benefit from “name calling.”

Blanchette said this was one of “the most disappointing legislative sessions” she had ever seen. Longo followed with his comment.

Blanchette said she and Longo have had “tussles” in the past about missed budget meetings and asking questions that already have been answered in meetings or in materials provided by staff.

“If he gets reprimanded, it’s because he deserves it,” she said.

Longo countered that he has missed a total of two budget meetings.

LePage spokeswoman Adrienne Bennett did not immediately reply to a message seeking comment Tuesday.

“I didn’t come on the council to make friends, I came to serve my constituents,” Longo said.

http://bangordailynews.com/2013/06/11/news/bangor/cringes-gasps-as-bangor-councilor-says-lepage-hits-the-bars-rather-than-focusing-on-issues/ printed on July 29, 2014