Belfast City Manager Joe Slocum has been noticing something undesirable lately during meetings with the city’s elected officials: rising levels of tension.
In a bid to turn down the temperature, Slocum decided to draft a resolution that would clarify procedural rules for the meetings and make sure everyone has a chance to speak.
In his resolution, Mayor Samantha Paradis would speak on an issue only after the rest of the councilors have had the chance to address it. City attorney Bill Kelly also drafted a version of the resolution for the City Council to consider, which also provided for the mayor — or presiding officer — to speak after the councilors.
“It feels like the tension is building, and I want to get the pressure out of the balloon,” Slocum said Wednesday. “I have great confidence this will resolve. But if stuff starts to fester, and you don’t do anything you’ve got a mess.”
Still, it seemed apparent at Tuesday night’s regular council meeting that not every elected official will view this as a step toward solving a problem. Three months ago, councilors voted to stop Paradis from speaking on behalf of the council.
That move happened after the 28-year-old first-term mayor wrote a provocative opinion piece in the Republican Journal, in which she said she felt that councilors preferred her to be seen and not heard, among other allegations.
A week later, the council and the mayor made peace. The council rescinded its earlier decision to stop her from speaking on their behalf and the mayor said she wanted everyone to “move together for the good of the city,” seek common ground and get back on track.
But it seems that not all the issues about communication and meeting management have been solved.
“This is a thinly veiled resolution by the city manager and city attorney to again limit when I can speak at meetings,” Paradis said early in Tuesday’s meeting.
She wore a white pantsuit as an intentional nod to the “suffragette white” worn by Democratic women during President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address, saying later she chose her attire to highlight the importance of female voices.
“I find it terribly unfortunate that the city manager, city attorney, and councilors, who are mostly all male, continue to find it appropriate to limit when I can speak at meetings,” Paradis wrote in an email sent to the BDN Wednesday evening.
But other councilors refuted that view.
“It’s not, to me, a veiled attempt to muzzle the mayor,” Councilor Mike Hurley said at the meeting. “I’m happy to hear her speak anytime.”
Hurley and the three other councilors present quickly voted to table the resolution until Councilor Eric Sanders, who was out of state, would be able to participate in the conversation.
But the morning after the meeting, Slocum explained that what he is looking for is more efficient, effective — and less tense — communication. He has heard people say that they didn’t have a chance to speak on an item because two officials had a long back-and-forth conversation that seemed to exclude others from joining in, among other concerns.
“It’s not just about the mayor and the rest of the council. It’s for the entire council,” he said. “I have observed angst from a lot of corners for a lot of reasons for a while. There has been some frustration by the council, shared by several different people. No member is the good person or the bad person.”
He said he is recommending that the mayor call upon the councilors first for a specific, practical reason. In Belfast, the position of mayor is a largely ceremonial one, and the mayor only casts votes during council meets to break a tie.
“My recommendation is that the mayor call on the ward representatives first because by and large, they do the voting,” Slocum said. “If the mayor voted twice in the last 12 months, that would be a lot.”
Mostly, though, he just wants everyone who speaks at meetings — including elected officials and city staff — to have a better structure in place to help them communicate.
“We’re all about trying to work better together as a team,” he said.