Mayor Samantha Paradis extended an olive branch to Belfast city councilors at the beginning of Tuesday night’s regular meeting, and they accepted it.
The council’s unanimous vote to rescind last week’s decision to stop Paradis from speaking on its behalf and to have Belfast rejoin the Maine Mayors’ Coalition on Jobs and Economic Development seemed to rapidly put an end to the dispute that has roiled the city for the past two weeks and put it under a statewide spotlight.
The dispute had its origins in a provocative opinion piece that Paradis wrote on Nov. 22 in the Republican Journal, in which councilors believed the mayor publicly called them sexist, ageists and bigots. The mayor previously said she wrote it to share her lived experience with the public.
“While I take serious issue with the response, I also take ownership for my own part of what happened. I felt a pressing need to raise public awareness of my concerns, but I did not fully appreciate the impact of what I wrote on you, fellow council members, and your families,” Paradis said Tuesday night, explaining that by sharing her experience publicly she hoped that another young, queer woman would feel comfortable on the City Council. “My intent was never to say that I think any of you are sexists, ageists or bigots. I am not in the position to be the judge of that. I think, no, I know you are all honorable people who have worked tirelessly to build a great city.”
She said she is the product of a new generation and that she knows she’s not the easiest person to get along with.
“But we’re all imperfect. Each of us here is imperfect. What I ask is simply to be treated as imperfectly as everyone else,” she said. “Most importantly, I want us to move together for the good of the city. Let’s seek common ground. Let’s get on track.”
Councilors seemed relieved to hear Paradis’ words and were quick to describe them as gracious and heartfelt.
“It has been a stressful week for everyone. It has been a stressful week for the city of Belfast,” Councilor Eric Sanders said, adding he would be interested in pursuing some type of diversity training with the entire council. “We can all learn. We can all learn together. My goal is that when we come out of this on the other side we are stronger together.”
The mayor also spoke of her appreciation for Lee Woodward, the attorney and citizen of the year whose pointed jokes about the mayor and the City Council at the Belfast Area Chamber of Commerce annual awards gala in November had spurred her opinion piece. Paradis’ words and the council’s response seemed to extinguish the fight in the people who packed the council chambers for Tuesday’s meeting. Many who stood up to speak during the public comment portion said they had prepared remarks that they no longer needed to say.
“I think all Belfast residents are breathing a sigh of relief,” Glenn Montgomery said when it was his turn at the podium.
The discord among the mayor and the council has been the No. 1 issue in the city since it began, sparking long and sometimes heated conversations on social media, in coffee shops and in people’s homes. But the debate took a negative and divisive turn at times, and on Sunday night Sanders said he was called a bigot by a stranger while he was shopping for ice cream at a local supermarket.
“It needed to stop,” he said after the council meeting. “We’re all good people, and we should all be working to be even better. But the city must come first, not us.”
For some in the city, the conflict seemed perplexing, as if bigger national issues such as inclusivity and the #MeToo movement had suddenly interrupted more mundane municipal matters, such as whether to groom the city’s rail trail for cross-country skiing. As well, many in Belfast have become accustomed to being the butt of jokes in Maine because of city leaders’ progressive stances, notably the fact that three years ago, Belfast became the first municipality in the state to replace the Columbus Day holiday with Indigenous Peoples Day.
“There’s very little daylight between the mayor and the members of the council on policy,” Councilor Neal Harkness said. “We’ve had clashes over style, over communication and over procedures. But there’s no great divide that we cannot cross.”
Still, Paradis’ original words in her opinion piece clearly resonated among many in the audience who had come to the council meeting to support her.
“When I read the op-ed piece, when I read Mayor Paradis say she experienced sexism and bigotry and ageism, those things didn’t shock me. There are very few women who haven’t experienced sexism. What did shock me more than anything are the responses I’ve been seeing online,” Belfast resident Annie Bussiere said. “While I love hearing that [the council is] looking toward conflict resolution and training, maybe this could be something we could do as a city. The work isn’t over, just because motions have passed. The work is just getting started.”