Belfast City Hall Credit: Nick McCrea

BELFAST, Maine — The divisive debate over a proposed salmon farm in Belfast has spilled over into the city’s governing body, prompting the city to set up a moderated workshop focused on how best to work together and with the public.

“We need to set aside differences and discern the best way to conduct our meetings and ensure the public feels comfortable speaking with us,” Mayor Samantha Paradis said during a Tuesday council meeting. “We are the role models of the city, and our behavior helps set the model for the city.”

Paradis first called for a workshop last month, following a series of contentious meetings and social media spats between some councilors and members of the public.

During a heated June 6 meeting, the latest in a series where opponents of the fish farm have blasted the city’s support of the project, Waldo resident Steve Byers read a poem that ended with the words, “State briefly the ideas, ideals or hopes, the energy sources, the kinds of security; for which you would kill a child. Name please the children whom you would be willing to kill.”

That insinuation outraged members of the council. Councilor Mike Hurley called the comment “reprehensible,” and councilor Neal Harkness called out another attendee for organizing a “mob” of opponents to attend meetings.

Paradis proposed the workshop after that spat, arguing it could help the council find better ways to communicate with the public. But her proposal sparked more debate and uncovered a divide between her and some councilors.

Several councilors balked at the idea, saying they felt it wasn’t a necessary step, and others disputed the need for an outside facilitator.

There was less resistance during Tuesday’s meeting, and while some councilors still didn’t agree a workshop is needed, they said they were willing to give it a try.

The council ultimately agreed — if reluctantly — to have City Manager Joe Slocum schedule a workshop moderated by Pam Plumb, a former Portland councilor and mayor who today works as a meeting facilitator and dispute moderator. He’ll set that up as soon as possible, but Plumb has said she may not be available until August.

“I am very happy that we’re having the meeting and moving forward with this,” Paradis said after the vote.

But the dispute didn’t end there. One of changes Paradis implemented since her election in November, in which she defeated longtime Mayor Walter Ash, was adding five-minute breaks after each hour of the meeting.

Several councilors have argued those breaks aren’t needed, and that they disrupt the flow of meetings and add unnecessary time to meetings that already run regularly past two and three hours.

“Since we started this in November, I feel like we’re in kindergarten,” Councilor Mary Mortier told Paradis. “I feel like you’re the new kindergarten teacher and we’re sitting in your kindergarten room. Whether it’s the breaks whether it’s the raising our hands [to speak]. I find it very irritating; I find it disrespectful.”

Paradis said she felt the meeting had turned “hostile” and that she was uncomfortable with the direction of the discussion. She wanted to save this decision for the workshop. The council weighed a motion to cut one of the breaks anyway.

The council ultimately fell short of the three votes it needed to eliminate the break, and likely will take that dispute up at the workshop as well.

Follow Nick McCrea on Twitter at @nmccrea213.

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