Political tensions have reached a fever pitch in Piscataquis County, more than two months after county commissioners passed an anti-mask resolution that referred to the coronavirus as the “Wuhan virus” and contained misinformation about mask-wearing.
Those tensions have played out in particular over the past week with the county commissioners’ denial of a request related to a grant application that is nearly always a formality, and impostor mass texts purportedly sent on behalf of a new grassroots political group. They show how the politicization of mask-wearing and other COVID-19 prevention measures has spilled over into parts of county business unrelated to the virus.
On Tuesday, the Piscataquis County commissioners denied the Center Theatre in Dover-Foxcroft a letter of community support for its application for a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant. They said the theater had a political agenda because its executive director, Patrick Myers, and board chair, Cynthia Freeman Cyr, vocally opposed the commissioners’ January resolution and supported COVID-19 restrictions. The commissioners also voted to call on the Maine Attorney General’s office or district attorney to investigate the theater’s use of previous grants.
Myers and Cyr said they took all political actions as private citizens, and that those actions don’t represent the nonprofit theater. They also noted that the spending commissioners want to look into — involving the transfer of funds from Dover-Foxcroft to the theater for work on a separate community space in town — was overseen by Dover-Foxcroft officials and that the town’s annual independent audit never found any impropriety.
The county commissioners’ January resolution opposing Gov. Janet Mills’ COVID-19 restrictions spurred the creation of PROACT, a grassroots group in which Myers is involved that has called on the commissioners to rescind the mask statement and show greater transparency after the commissioners passed the resolution in private in violation of Maine’s open-meeting laws. For many PROACT members, the commissioners’ vote on the resolution marked the first time they had paid attention to county politics.
Recently, mass text messages purporting to be from PROACT were sent out calling for the commissioners to support the theater’s application for a federal grant to pay for repairs to damaged columns and footings that hold the theater over the banks of the Piscataquis River.
One message touted the theater’s creation of the first “Transgender-Friendly” bathrooms in Piscataquis County. Another highlighted PROACT’s support for refugee resettlement in Piscataquis County.
The texts, which highlight cultural wedge issues that PROACT takes no stance on, are clearly fraudulent, PROACT members said. Noting that the texts said “Paid 4 by PROACT,” Treasurer Gloria Zela said that she never approved such an expenditure.
County commissioners voted 2-1 against issuing a letter in support of the federal grant application on Tuesday. Before the vote, the county had received 105 emails, letters and phone calls in support of the theater and just one in opposition, County Manager Michael Williams said. Four more messages of support arrived after the vote.
It is unclear if the Centre Theatre can apply for the grant without the commissioners’ authorization. U.S. Department of Agriculture officials in Bangor said they could not waive the requirement for a letter of support from the local governing body, but higher-ranking officials might be able to, Myers said.
The USDA’s Bangor office did not respond to a request for comment.
The theater has looked elsewhere for support. A spokesperson for U.S. Rep. Jared Golden said the congressman’s office was working on a letter of support for the theater. The offices of Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King were also reviewing a request for a joint letter of support.
The damage the federal grant would help to repair comes from flooding and erosion over time, as well as improper roof drainage that damaged one column. Myers estimated that repairs would cost more than $50,000, and that the USDA grant would pay for 55 percent of the costs.
Not receiving the grant would likely delay the repairs for about a year, Myers said.
During the commissioners’ meeting on Tuesday, commissioners Jim White and Andrew Torbett accused the theater of hurting local businesses, referring to Myers’ opposition to the anti-mask resolution in January and the actions of Cyr, who also serves on the Dover-Foxcroft Selectboard, in encouraging local businesses to enforce COVID-19 restrictions such as mask-wearing.
Torbett echoed that view in an email on Wednesday, citing business owners who had demanded that the “persecution” stop. He also noted that commissioners had voted to authorize the county to help Dover-Foxcroft pursue grants to pay for repairs all along the riverbank, including to the Center Theatre building.
Cyr said she was one of many town officials and members of the select board who had encouraged businesses to comply with the state’s mask-wearing requirements. The select board works with the Piscataquis Chamber of Commerce to provide hand sanitizer and masks to local businesses.
“To have the town doing its best to comply while the county moves in the opposite direction is not helpful,” Cyr said.
Plus, it’s common for people to hold multiple roles in small communities, and their actions in one role shouldn’t reflect on other organizations with which they’re involved, she said.
White on Tuesday cited a January WABI interview with Myers in which he spoke critically of the commissioners’ mask resolution from his Center Theatre office. Myers said he was speaking as a private citizen and that the situation had impressed on him the importance of further separating his roles as the theater’s director and private citizen.
Last November, Myers ran as a Democrat against Torbett, a Republican, in the race for county commissioner.
Myers said the theater has allowed programming from many political perspectives. It has hosted evangelical church groups, it held a private screening of the 2019 anti-abortion film “Unplanned,” and it has hosted Republican gubernatorial primary debates.
Letters of support from local governing bodies in grant applications are commonplace, and they rarely result in political debate. The primary role of the letter is to ensure that an applicant has general support from the community.
The commissioners are the only officials elected by all of Piscataquis County, which the Center Theatre serves from its Dover-Foxcroft location. The commissioners have approved letters of support for theater grants in the past, though Myers noted that the members of the commission had since changed. Last month, the commissioners approved a letter of support for a development group that proposes to redevelop a ski resort overlooking Moosehead Lake as it seeks financing for the project.
Myers said he did not want to ascribe motive to the commissioners’ actions. Cyr saw it as a reflection of increasing political polarization occurring across the U.S.
They bemoaned that an arts organization had ended up in the middle of such a political conflict. They said they hope they can apply for the grant regardless, and that their county’s political situation deescalates.
“We need to be thinking about what an asset the theater is to a tiny community like ours,” Cyr said. “Instead, we are finding ourselves in the posture of trying to defend its existence.”
The Maine Attorney General’s office and District Attorney Marianne Lynch’s office did not respond when asked whether the Piscataquis County commissioners had requested that they investigate Center Theatre’s past use of grants.