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Belfast residents have grown accustomed to Mayor Samantha Paradis ruffling feathers for what she says and does, including the way she has run City Council meetings and for her frequent assertions at those meetings that her voice be heard.
But now some are questioning what she’s not talking about. They would like the mayor to be more forthcoming about how she intends to complete her term as mayor of the midcoast city despite having taken a job in Fort Fairfield, nearly four hours north.
Paradis’s employer at Northern Light Primary Care in the Aroostook County community on Thursday confirmed that she is working there as a family nurse practitioner. The mayor herself would not speak to the BDN about how she plans to fulfill her civic duties for the next 2 1/2 months while she’s working so far away. Her term ends in November.
“I think if you make a commitment to 6,000 people to be the head of local government, you should be present,” said Jasper Louden, a Belfast teen who is volunteering this summer at the Belfast Historical Society. “And I think you have a duty to your constituency to be transparent about it.”
Paradis has said that her legal residence will continue to be in Belfast and announced earlier this year that she would not seek re-election. The city charter specifies only that the mayor be elected by and from the qualified voters of the city.
The Aroostook County native made a splash in 2017 when, as a 26-year-old political newcomer, she beat longtime incumbent Walter Ash. Since then, she has often been a controversial figure in the city, making local, state and even national headlines. In the fall of 2018, she wrote a provocative op-ed in a local paper, saying that she has had to fight for every inch of her seat at the center of the City Council and that she had encountered sexism, ageism and bigotry, which seemed to thrust the council and the city overnight into an uncomfortable conversation about identity politics.
In a City Council meeting weeks later, Paradis clarified that the comment was not intended at the councilors specifically.
“My intent was never to say that I think any of you are sexists, ageists or bigots,” Paradis said.
Paradis, who receives a stipend from the city of just $2,500 annually for her work as mayor, also has campaigned nationally for higher pay for public officials. She has often butted heads with Belfast city councilors, who she has said have tried to silence her.
“I bring the first young, queer, female voice to the role of mayor,” Paradis said during a contentious council meeting in March. “My voice is important and needs to be heard.”
Some Belfast residents said this week that they are not concerned that Paradis is working more than 200 miles away, a distance that would seem to make it unlikely that she is living full time in the city.
“Because the mayor has stated that she is not seeking re-election, and she won’t hold that position in about 10 weeks, it doesn’t seem relevant to me,” Belfast resident Chris Bitely said. “I’m presuming she will fulfill her duties well enough to finish out her term.”
Ryan Otis, who owns Rollie’s Bar and Grill, disagreed. The Belfast charter specifies that the mayor serve a largely ceremonial role, and he said it was important to him that she be physically present in order to do that.
“As the official face of our city, you’ve kind of got to be around to be the face,” he said.
For some in Belfast, there’s an undercurrent of relief connected to Paradis taking a job in Aroostook County. Allan Gum of Belfast, who was relaxing at the American Legion Hall on Friday afternoon, said he thinks it’s time for a change in municipal government.
“We need a new mayor,” he said.
Despite the distance, Paradis has continued to attend council meetings, and Councilor Neal Harkness said she has kept up with the council workload.
“You could look at it as someone who found employment out of town but is still honoring her commitment to serve,” he said. “I respect that.”
But Councilor Mary Mortier pointed out that among the mayor’s stated goals during her time in office has been a commitment to transparency. Mortier said she has been hearing rumors around town that Paradis is no longer living in the city full time and would like the mayor to be more forthcoming with her constituents.
“She’s made transparency a key focus of her term as mayor,” the councilor said. “If the rumors are true, I hope that she will be as transparent with the community of Belfast as she has repeatedly asked the council to be.”
Watch Belfast’s special city council meeting to discuss mayor’s fiery OpEd