BELFAST, Maine — No one could say the last few years have been smooth sailing for Belfast municipal government.
Hot-button issues councilors have grappled with include Nordic Aquafarms, the coronavirus pandemic, the housing crunch and anti-mask-activists who took to a downtown “free speech” corner to protest earlier this year.
Still, despite the polarizing issues and often-heated rhetoric on social media, Belfast Mayor Eric Sanders and city councilors Mike Hurley and Brenda Bonneville will face no opponents at the ballot box this November.
The incumbents posit that the absence of challengers may be because of a pervasive fatigue around the pandemic. Or a feeling that being on council takes a lot of time and can be a thankless position. Or a hope that a majority of residents generally like the decisions that the current slate of officials have made.
Still, the lack of opponents is something that some of them, at least, feel is not great for the city’s residents.
“What we lose when nobody runs is a spirited debate about what we are doing, why we are doing it [and] what are our goals for the city,” Hurley said. “When you have that public debate, it helps flesh those things out. Here we are, in the middle of a pandemic, with a housing crisis, with a fish farm still very much on the front burner. And yet nobody even puts their hat in.”
In Hurley’s case, the fact that he is running unchallenged seems particularly surprising. The longtime councilor and former mayor has a reputation for being outspoken on social media. He also pulls no punches on issues that matter to him, including Nordic Aquafarms, a locally controversial project that he strongly supports.
Back in January, Hurley took to YouTube to share a video of himself lighting off illegal Roman candles in his yard to celebrate the inauguration of President Joe Biden. When the video surfaced, he took heat from residents who demanded he resign.
Instead, Hurley suggested that those who were angry he violated the city’s fireworks ordinance challenge him at the polls during the next election. The fact that no one has, he thinks, is telling.
“There isn’t general apathy. People were really angry and promising to run — that’s not apathy,” he said. “But when push comes to shove, it turns out that it’s easier to dish it out than actually take out papers and run.”
Sanders, a former councilor, was unopposed when he ran for the mayor’s seat two years ago. He followed former Mayor Samantha Paradis, whose two-year tenure was often marked by discord and strife among the council.
“The reason I ran was to end the turbulence within the council,” Sanders said. “I try to be a good mayor. I try not to curse too much, I try not to walk my dog in the cemetery. I do my level best.”
He hopes he has succeeded in turning the temperature down at city council meetings, which were once considered “must see TV” among many in the city due to their unpredictability. But he doesn’t know if that’s why no one chose to run against him.
“I guess I take it all in stride,” he said. “To have somebody run against me, that would have been fine. It’s really up to the voters to decide what kind of job they feel we are doing.”
But Sanders is clear on one thing.
“I don’t think it’s a mandate,” he said, adding that the lack of challengers should not be a reason for him or the councilors to get complacent. “I don’t think it’s because of the job I’ve done or haven’t done. I just think people are comfortable venting on social media, but they don’t, at least historically here in Belfast, seem to want to do the job.”
Bonneville agrees with Sanders that the lack of challengers is not necessarily a reflection of how citizens feel about their elected officials.
“I’m not going to make the assumption that being uncontested is a referendum,” she said.
She thinks the reason may have to do more with the pandemic than anything else.
“Frankly, COVID has been exhausting to everybody,” she said. “Perhaps in non-pandemic times, people may have had some more energy to throw their hat into the ring.”
Still, Bonneville hopes that it’s not just fatigue that has kept others from running for office at a time when councilors are voting on issues that matter to the city’s present and future.
“Why is nobody else running? I wouldn’t want to say it’s because I’m doing such a great job. But perhaps the notion is that the council as a whole, including the mayor, is being looked upon favorably by the general public,” she said. “Perhaps the community feels that we’re on a good course.”