PITTSFIELD, Maine — Pittsfield’s health officer resigned during the Town Council’s virtual meeting earlier this week, when members decided to return to in-person meetings with no requirements for masks and social distancing.
During a heated discussion that lasted about an hour and a half, councilors considered what in-person gatherings would look like. Ultimately they could not agree on a location and whether safety procedures, such as masks and health screenings, should be in place.
Councilors voted 5-2 to return to in-person, with Mayor Heather Donahue and Deputy Mayor Timothy Nichols voting the motion down.
Town councils and select boards across Maine are grappling with the best ways to hold municipal meetings to conduct public business. Pittsfield is one of the latest to decide on in-person rather than virtual meetings, but not without controversy.
“We all want to be in person,” Mayor Heather Donahue said Wednesday. “It’s definitely easier to conduct meetings when we’re in person. It’s a lot of extra work for the staff to set up the Zoom and maintain it. Before, we had a statewide mask mandate for indoor areas. … Now that that’s not in place [and] there’s no mandate, people’s willingness to do that quickly fell away.”
The discussion ended on a confusing note, Donahue said. She was awaiting clarification from the town manager and attorney on Wednesday about how future meetings will proceed.
A legal review indicated that the next meeting will take place in person, Town Manager Kathryn Ruth said Wednesday evening.
Don Chute, who was appointed health officer about four years ago, resigned near the end of the discussion. He has been troubled by the division he has witnessed in the community and among town councilors, he said Wednesday.
Chute was clear that he holds no hard feelings toward councilors. The last 18 months have been long and hard, and he grew frustrated when it seemed like councilors did not want to heed his advice and “follow the science,” he said.
“It seems like I was putting an awful lot of emotion and hard work and diligence into trying to come up with a compromise, and it wasn’t happening, so I felt they needed to find somebody that maybe could accomplish that for them,” he said. “And that’s OK with me.”
Councilor Jason Hall initially broached the topic of in-person meetings. He proposed gathering in the council chambers, located in the Pittsfield Town Office’s basement.
The council heard recommendations from Chute, who is also Pittsfield’s fire captain and the town’s public works officer, and Bernard Williams, the fire chief and Emergency Management Agency director.
Chute cautioned against “packing at council chambers,” because the room is not spacious, though he could look again at the square footage to determine how many people could safely attend. He urged members to “find a middle ground.”
“Everything that’s coming out of the federal CDC and the Maine CDC is a recommendation for 6-foot spacing indoors, and if you can’t do that, you should be wearing a mask. … If you think this stuff is not real, I just had a dear friend of mine from Hartland Fire that passed away at 55 from COVID,” Chute said.
Williams warned councilors about the humidity in the dark basement, where conditions are ripe for mold to thrive. He also said wearing a mask is about common courtesy.
Councilors offered other suggestions for meeting places, such as nearby school gymnasiums, the Cianbro Institute and the Pittsfield Community Theatre, which is closed and up for sale by the town.
Councilor Amanda Collamore said she could not wear a mask due to a medical condition. She also noted many residents do not have stable internet access to join the Zoom meetings, which essentially means they cannot participate.
Councilor Pete Logiodice said people should do whatever they feel protects them best.
“My recommendation is no mask for me, but that may not be the recommendation you want to follow,” he said.
Donahue pushed for an organized, multifaceted policy, one that the council could refer to both in the immediate future and over the long term. Councilors debated safety procedures, such as contact tracing and temperature checks, but by the end of the meeting, they adopted none.
“I personally think we’re being very reckless in not having any type of safety protocols in order and not having a policy or procedures in place,” Donahue said Wednesday. “If 50 people show up and want to sit in that room, what do we do? We don’t have any policy in place.”
The Town Council meets next at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 19. Councilor Jason Hall said the meeting will take place in the council chambers at the town office. A virtual option will still be available to the public.
Ruth, alongside Chute and Williams, will spend some time next week looking into the theater as a possible meeting place.