September 20, 2018
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Belfast mayor, City Council debate if meetings have been unsafe or hostile

Abigail Curtis | BDN
Abigail Curtis | BDN
Belfast City Councilors and Mayor Samantha Paradis (right) participated in a moderated discussion Tuesday night about how they can work together better as a group.
By Abigail Curtis, BDN Staff

Ongoing tensions between Belfast’s mayor and the city councilors led the officials to participate in a facilitated civility workshop this week that focused on how to get along better with one another and with the public.

After the workshop, though, it seemed clear that the jury was still out on how or whether that can happen. At least one attendee came away with an optimistic view of the proceedings. Others did not.

“I’m really hopeful that this is the beginning of an ongoing dialogue,” Mayor Samantha Paradis said Wednesday. “Just to even get to the meeting, to have every councilor there and be part of the discussion, I have a lot of gratitude for that. It’s hard work, the work we do.”

But at least some councilors were not so sure that the workshop led the group to a better place. Councilor Eric Sanders said he felt disappointed in the three-hour session, which essentially ended with a long speech from Paradis about how she has felt like the council has been a hostile environment for her in which she has felt unsafe, among other concerns.

“I don’t think the solution was found,” he said Wednesday. “I think the council is struggling. I don’t think the council feels that they’re giving off vibes of hostility. When we’re told that, we don’t have a response because we don’t believe that. Did we learn anything last night? I don’t think we did. I was going to the meeting to learn, and I felt disappointed. Everyone has feelings, but they aren’t usually on the agenda.”

It was clear throughout the workshop, facilitated by former Portland Mayor Pam Plumb, who donated her time to the city of Belfast, that everyone at the table was working hard to try to grapple with the issues in front of them.

Tensions among the city’s elected officials, fanned by the ongoing controversy over a proposed salmon farm project, had reached a fever pitch after a heated council meeting at the beginning of June. After that, Paradis proposed the workshop to help the councilors find better ways to communicate with the public and with one another.

The officials did work on that Tuesday night, going over ground rules for the open-to-the-public and other portions of their meetings, among other topics. But the discussion got a little sticky when more emotional and weighty matters were aired during the last half-hour of the workshop.

“Our experience of this council is that while we have had environments of disagreement in the past, they have not been unsafe and hostile. They have been, I thought, civil,” Councilor John Arrison said during the workshop. “We have a situation now where some parties are sensing greater hostilities. The concern is what do we do about that? And whether, in fact, it is a hostile environment or whether it’s an environment of just disagreement.”

Paradis, a 27-year-old registered nurse and Frenchville native, responded at some length, saying she has not felt welcomed or respected by the councilors and that she believes that is in part because she is so different from the previous mayor. That was Walter Ash, a lifelong Belfast resident and retired mechanic in his 70s.

“I haven’t felt like what I brought to the table has been heard in a lot of ways. That’s difficult for me to say that and for councilors to hear that. It’s tough for me to hear that for me saying at times that there’s a hostile environment, or I’m unsafe, [and then be] criticized for that,” she said. “That there’s some judgment: ‘Well, is she really unsafe?’ In this day and age of ‘Me Too,’ we think about how women’s voices are authentic and important. There’s no need to question if someone says, ‘Hey, this is what’s happening.’”

Her experience may not be shared by the rest of the council, but it is no less real to her, she said.

“It is mine, and it has been mine, and I hope it doesn’t continue to be my experience,” Paradis said during the workshop.

Efforts to speak with the mayor Thursday morning to clarify why she has felt unsafe at City Council meetings were not immediately successful.

After Paradis finished speaking, Plumb asked the councilors what they thought would be helpful to build the ability of the council to work well together. She was initially met by silence. Finally, Arrison spoke up.

“The challenge is that this council worked wonderfully well for three years, and then we began to have this question of whether we were a hostile environment,” he said, shortly before the facilitator drew the meeting to a close at 9 p.m. “That’s where I’m concerned that you just had a lot of silence when you asked this question.”

After the meeting, Councilor Mary Mortier told the BDN she wished the group had been able to keep on talking and working through some of the big issues, which she feels were left hanging in the air.

“I felt as if we were just getting to the heart of the matter in the last 15 or 20 minutes. I wish we had had another hour, to complete the conversation,” she said Thursday.

Elected officials said they expect the conversation will have to continue in the days and weeks to come. City Manager Joe Slocum said he is optimistic about Belfast’s future and acknowledged that resolving concerns will be a work in progress.

“I think the big issues out there are really rooted in experience, rather than gender or age,” he said. “I think we take one day at a time. And we will never, ever, ever do it absolutely perfectly to everybody’s satisfaction. I think the people of Belfast care about tone, and that extends to everyone. Citizens and government representatives alike.”

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