BANGOR, Maine — The Bangor City Council selected former state legislator and mental health advocate Sean Faircloth as its new chairman and the city’s ceremonial mayor on Monday.
“Sean will help fight for Bangor in Augusta and all around the state, and if I wasn’t running for Congress, I would want to be in Augusta myself to see Mayor Faircloth rationally discuss policy with the current governor of our state,” said Councilor Joe Baldacci, who nominated Faircloth during the meeting at City Hall.
No other nominations were made during the proceedings. Faircloth takes the reins from former City Council Chairman Nelson Durgin, whose term on the council expires in November 2016.
The decision came during the council’s first meeting since the election of Sarah Nichols and Joe Perry and the re-election of David Nealley last week.
The proceedings were not without controversy.
Nealley began his new term by calling for a change in the way the council chairman is selected, saying the decision was already made in private before he got to weigh in on the issue.
“The way we choose a chair, when it really is behind closed doors with folks who get together and pre-arrange a selection isn’t appropriate,” he said.
Upon accepting the gavel, Faircloth called on the council to redouble efforts to attract jobs to the region, saying Penobscot and surrounding counties are facing an exodus of young people, losing nearly 3,400 residents between 2010 and 2013.
“We owe this redoubled effort to the thousands — mostly young people — who have left our region and the thousands — mostly young people — projected to be leaving in the coming years,” he said.
According to Faircloth, that will require the city to serve as a leader for the region that constantly searches for good ideas that will bring jobs to the area or decrease the cost of living for residents.
He said the region has for too long operated with a culture of “unjustified complacency,” hoping that mills would re-open or that lawmakers in Augusta or Washington, D.C., would take action to provide jobs.
“I’ve devoted much of my life to policies that protect children, the disabled, mental health consumers, people facing addiction, seniors,” he said. “But the best social program is a job.”
Elected to the council in 2014, Faircloth is a former state lawmaker who was selected to serve as majority whip in 2008.
He left Maine in 2009 to become executive director of the Secular Coalition for America, a Washington, D.C., advocacy group that represents the interest of “atheists, humanists, freethinkers, agnostics and other nontheistic Americans.”
Faircloth serves as director of Maine Mental Health Connections Inc., an advocacy group that represents the interests of mental health care consumers. His mother and brother, both deceased, struggled with mental illness, he has said previously.
Locally, Faircloth is credited with leading the $4.5 million Maine Discovery Museum project to fruition in 2001.
During his council tenure to date, he pushed the council to adopt, in a 7-2 decision in March, a resolution supporting the concept of a national park and recreation area in the Katahdin region, saying it would bring needed jobs to the state.
He also supported Baldacci’s proposal for a local minimum wage ordinance in Bangor that, if approved, would increase wages for the city’s lowest paid workers from $7.50 per hour to $8.25 per hour in 2016, $9 per hour in 2017 and $9.75 per hour in 2018.
While support for Faircloth was unanimous, it was not without criticism.
Nealley said — given the field of candidates — he would like to have seen a veteran councilor, either Baldacci or Ben Sprague, step into the leadership role.
Nealley said he believed Faircloth could do what needs to be done as chairman, but not because of anything he had done in his first year on the council.
“Quite frankly, he was silent at most meetings, and the No. 1 issue that he drove with a passion was the North Woods park, which I didn’t believe was a city-related issue,” he said.
Despite his position, Nealley offered no alternative nomination. He instead proposed a change to the city charter that would have the council select the chairman over two meetings.
That would enable anyone interested in the job to make a pitch during the first meeting and the council to decide during the second meeting, keeping the proceedings public, he said.
That proposal was not supported by all councilors though.
Newly elected Councilor Joe Perry said Nealley’s plan would not result in less behind-the-scenes negotiating.
“After the election, a lot of positioning goes on because no one wants a divided floor or a messy floor fight,” he said.
According to Perry, the only way to avoid behind-the-scenes discussion would be to go to an elected mayor, which he said he is not sure would be good for the city.
“Personally, I think it’s smart for anyone who wants to be nominated to have a pretty good idea when going in whether they have the votes,” he said.
A Democrat, Faircloth is author of the book “Attack of the Theocrats: How the Religious Right Harms Us All — and What We Can Do About It.”
He is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and holds a law degree from the University of California’s Hastings College.
As council chair, Faircloth is recognized as the official head of the city for ceremonial purposes and has all the powers and duties granted to mayors for the purposes of military law. He also acts as mayor when mayoral representation is required on a board or commission, according to the city’s charter.
The chairman is often called upon to testify on local issues at the state Legislature.
Unlike strong-mayor forms of government, Faircloth is not empowered to veto council decisions, though he is authorized to call special meetings and work sessions.
The city charter does not grant the chairman authority to control the council’s agenda, a power that would enable him to keep items he does not like from coming up for discussion.
During Monday’s meeting, Nichols, Nealley and Perry took their oaths of office. They will each serve three-year terms.
Follow Evan Belanger on Twitter @evanbelanger.