The day after a contentious special city council meeting in Belfast that ended with the mayor rebuked by councilors, it seemed as if everyone in the small midcoast Maine city was abuzz over what had happened.
Councilors unanimously voted on Tuesday night to stop the mayor from speaking on the council’s behalf, and voted three to two to have the city leave the Mayors’ Coalition on Jobs and Economic Development.
On Wednesday, supporters of the councilors traded heated comments with defenders of Mayor Samantha Paradis over social media. Neighbors who met by chance in the streets or in city shops asked what each other thought of the meeting.
The meeting had been called after Paradis wrote a provocative opinion piece in the Republican Journal that spoke of how hurt she was after Lee Woodward, the Belfast Citizen of the Year, made jokes about mandatory bathroom breaks and a mediated civility workshop earlier this month at the annual Belfast Area Chamber of Commerce dinner. Those have been among the issues that the mayor and the council have disagreed over during the past year.
One thing was for sure: Just about everyone had an opinion and was eager to share it. That is not a surprise for Belfast residents such as Erik Klausmeyer.
“The community is really paying attention and engaged with what’s happening. It’s more than just drama,” he said. “You pay attention, and talk about it, and engage with it. That’s impressive. We should be at least proud as a community we’re doing that. It’s such a deeply emotional type of issue for so many people.”
Paradis, a 27-year-old northern Maine native, nurse and relative newcomer to Belfast, wrote in her OpEd that she felt council members preferred for her to be seen and not heard, and that she has encountered discrimination in the form of sexism, ageism and bigotry while on the job. She also described herself as the first queer, second woman and youngest mayor of the city.
At Belfast City Hall on Tuesday night, it was standing room only as city councilors told Paradis how her words had made them feel. Supporters of the mayor snapped their fingers, called out and even stood up in a group at one point to show their solidarity with her. Joanne Moesswilde said after the meeting that she wanted to come because after she read Paradis’ piece in the newspaper, she had a strong reaction to it.
“My impression was the mayor was looking to see who will support her when she’s challenged in public,” Moesswilde said. “That’s why I stood up. She’s a person and needs to have support, just like anybody.”
Another supporter, KT Crossman, told the Republican Journal that the council’s actions were “outrageous,” and said that the councilors misunderstood the mayor’s account of experiencing sexism, ageism and bigotry.
“It’s a different thing to say I have experienced these things than it is to say somebody is those things,” she said. “In this particular climate, you can’t say that a female mayor is not experiencing sexism.”
Allegations and questions
But Josh Ard, a tattoo artist whose business, Permanent Expressions, is perched in a building that overlooks downtown Belfast, said he noticed that Paradis’ charges of discrimination are vague and nonspecific, and that has bothered him.
“Especially in today’s political climate, the allegations that Samantha makes are very serious,” he said. “They should be handled accordingly. If they’re true, they should be called out. If someone made a sexist comment, the public should know. In this climate, this is not the time to make an allegation like that unless you plan on pursuing it. And if it’s true, I hope she does pursue it. It should be exposed, 1000 percent.”
At the meeting, Paradis repeatedly said that she was expressing her First Amendment rights by writing the OpEd. She has explained that her OpEd was intended to share her experiences with the public, and has largely declined to give specifics about her allegations.
In the OpEd, she called out Councilor Mike Hurley (though not by name) as using verbally aggressive behavior to talk to a female constituent and for frequently having an open “switchback knife” on his desk during meetings. Hurley has said that the knife in question is a small pocket knife he has used on occasion to open granola bars.
On Wednesday, Ard said that the ongoing municipal drama is a distraction for the city, and that he hopes the mayor, the councilors and the city can all figure out how to move on from this. The 32-year-old businessman lives in Thorndike and doesn’t get to elect the city’s elected officials, but what happens here is of huge importance to him, he said.
“I was very excited to have Samantha voted in. I’ve been the young guy forever, since I opened, and there’s a lot of youth in Belfast doing awesome things,” he said. “But she’s certainly not representing me accordingly. The only thing she’s representing is her own agenda.”
The position of mayor in Belfast is a largely ceremonial one and the mayor only casts votes during council meetings in case of a tie. But the position is still important to people like him, Ard said.
“What wasn’t touched on is that the mayor is kind of the link to business owners,” he said. “A lot of us don’t live in Belfast and don’t have a vote. I always saw the mayor’s role as representing us. And I think everything is getting overshadowed by this. … I hope it all works out. It’s the whole youth of Belfast that’s depending on Samantha. She has a role I think she’s overlooking. She represents the youth of Belfast, regardless of their gender, religion or political views.”
Natalia Rose, who owns Eat More Cheese, a specialty food shop in a courtly brick building located across the street from Ard’s tattoo studio, said that Paradis’ recent actions have left her with questions.
“I’m just a little bit perplexed at this type of behavior from the mayor,” she said. “I feel there are too many feelings involved. It’s a job. You just go do the job, just like anywhere you work … you don’t have to think that everyone is always trying to attack you. I feel bad for her that she feels that way.”
Rose said she voted for Paradis but might not do so again, calling the mayor’s OpEd “eye-opening.”
“I think I learned a lesson about doing a little more research before voting,” she said. “Sometimes you have to walk away from the catchphrases: female, progressive. I know in the last election I did a lot more research.”
The road forward
Although Paradis and the city councilors may not seem like they have a lot of common ground right now, City Manager Joe Slocum said he believes there is a way forward.
“We clearly have some conflict between the council and the mayor,” he said. “That’s hopefully going to get fixed by a lot of sustained communication all around.”
He said that he thinks all of the city’s elected officials have good intentions, all of them are hardworking and dedicated, and that he does not have a sense of discrimination or abuse happening among them.
“Having said that, people can get quite passionate in small, local government,” he said. “But disagreement is not discrimination.”
He said that the strife between the mayor and the council has at times been hard for city employees.
“It’s a little frustrating for the staff,” he said. “We want to work with a cohesive group. But there’s nothing that can’t be fixed if people are willing to be flexible, and share their experiences and perspectives with each other in a really polite and respectful way.”
Councilor Eric Sanders, who brought forward the two motions against Paradis at the special meeting, said he is interested in getting on with the business of the city and doesn’t think he is alone in that desire.
“I can’t speak for the rest of the council, and I certainly can’t speak for the mayor, of course, but it is my hope and impression that all of us want to get on with the city’s business,” he said. “That’s my only goal. That’s the reason I’m on council.”
Paradis said on Wednesday afternoon that she, too, would like to get back to the city’s business, but doesn’t think it will be easy to do that. She said that Belfast leaving the Mayors’ Coalition, a group that advocates for policies that will grow Maine’s economy, will be a blow to taxpayers.
“This is absolutely something that could impact the city’s way of doing business,” she said. “We’ll lose our voice among other cities in Maine.”
Still, she said that she hopes that she and the councilors can get to a place of mutual respect for each other, but it seems as if it will take some work to get there. She said she felt disrespected during the special council meeting and anticipates that for the foreseeable future, her supporters will come to the Belfast City Council meetings to speak on her behalf.
But she did speak generally of an avenue for reconciliation with the council.
“I hope we can move forward through a healing process, coming together and recognizing our humanity,” Paradis said.