Farmed salmon was not on the ballot but nevertheless seemed to win big in Belfast on Tuesday, after the three City Council candidates who fought the proposed fish farm each lost bids for municipal office.
The hard-fought race was widely seen as a referendum on Nordic Aquafarm’s proposed land-based salmon farm, a development plan that has bitterly divided the midcoast city of 6,700 and its environs. Incumbent councilors Mary Mortier and Neal Harkness won their races, along with political newcomer Paul Dean.
“I’m happy to have the honor of serving again,” said Harkness, who edged opponent Joanne Moesswilde by 1,818 to 1,637. “Joanne ran a really gracious campaign — and obviously, a lot of people listened to what she had to say, and I have to take that seriously. It shows people have a lot of concerns about the fish farm. I want to talk with Joanne so she can help me learn what some of those concerns are.”
The multimillion dollar proposed fish farm, and a perception held by some that the City Council paved the way for the Norwegian-owned company to come to Belfast, was one of the primary reasons why three of the candidates, Moesswilde, Ellie Daniels and Jim Merkel, said they decided to run for office.
Moesswilde’s name was on the ballot, while Merkel and Daniels, a Belfast businesswoman whose house abuts the proposed development and who is suing the city over how officials changed the zoning to make it possible for the development to move forward, both ran as write-in candidates. Throughout the fall, the write-in candidates campaigned tirelessly by going door-to-door throughout the city and by sharing impassioned pleas about civility and the future of Belfast over social media.
“We definitely had a lot of support,” Merkel said, acknowledging that write-ins have an uphill battle to win office. “I’m going to continue really holding the City Council accountable.”
Moesswilde said that running for council was a good experience.
“I’m glad I did it,” she said. “I think it was a close enough race that it was a message to say hey, people are really thinking about what’s going on. I think all three of us gave it our best shot.”
With turnout heavy in all five of the city’s voting wards, Dean prevailed over Merkel by 2,190 to 555, according to unofficial figures. Mortier received 2,199 to Daniels’ 691.
“I’m thankful,” said Dean, a retired Verso mill worker who served for many years on the Belfast comprehensive plan committee. “And now, the work begins. Running is interesting, but this is what I wanted to do. I’m looking forward to it.”
The newly elected councilors will join Mike Hurley, Eric Sanders and Mayor Samantha Paradis on the City Council.