The Belfast City Council during a council meeting Tuesday evening. Credit: Gabor Degre

Belfast city councilors unanimously voted to stop Mayor Samantha Paradis from speaking on behalf of the City Council during Tuesday night’s contentious special meeting.

They also voted, three to two, to have Belfast leave the Mayors’ Coalition on Jobs and Economic Development, with City Councilors Neal Harkness and Paul Dean voting against the action.

“The council has lost confidence in the mayor,” Councilor Eric Sanders said while making his first motion.

The special meeting was called in order to respond to a provocative opinion piece written by the mayor and published last week in the Republican Journal, in which councilors believed that Paradis publicly called them sexist, ageist and bigots. Councilors spoke at length about their perceptions of the mayor’s behavior, but she was unbowed by the criticism. She gave no explanation for her words and simply spoke of exercising her First Amendment rights with her OpEd in the newspaper.

“I’m unsure of why this motion is necessary,” Paradis said just before councilors voted to stop her from speaking on behalf of the council. “It seems to be a political attempt to, again, escalate things. I don’t see that it’s necessary.”

Credit: Gabor Degre

The Belfast City Hall meeting chambers were full of people who were there to support the mayor, snapping their fingers, calling out loudly and, at one point, standing up to show their displeasure with the council’s actions.

“I stand with the mayor,” a woman in the crowd called out late in the meeting.

Still, the councilors continued with the special meeting. Most of the five spoke emotionally and at length about how their relationships with Paradis have deteriorated during the year that she has served as the city’s youngest and second woman mayor. They talked about a lack of communication and expressed a sharp lack of trust, as well as a feeling that Paradis talks on and on at meetings without calling on others.

“The mayor jumps in and starts talking, just about until the oxygen is gone from the room, and that’s not how you run a meeting,” Councilor Mike Hurley said. “I’m really tired of it. That power has been abused.”

Councilors appeared hurt and even betrayed by the mayor’s implicit allegations in the newspaper. Sanders, who called the meeting, said that he felt compelled to do so after his young daughter asked him if the mayor had called him a bigot after hearing about the Op-Ed.

“I think kids are impacted,” he told Paradis. “Your letter to the … newspaper I found offensive, and laced with inappropriate innuendo. It was inaccurate, misleading and self-serving.”

Moments of controversy

Several times during the meeting, Paradis suggested that councilors had acted behind her back to prepare for the meeting and to draft the motions that Sanders brought forward. When City Manager Joe Slocum clarified that the first motion, to stop the mayor from speaking on behalf of the city council, had been given the green light by the city attorney, his words brought an angry rumble from the crowd.

“Again, it is very concerning to me that I have not seen the motion,” Paradis said.

“Amen. Amen,” a man in the back called out, prompting the councilors to ask the mayor to use her gavel to keep order in the meeting.

But Slocum pushed back, explaining that it is normal for a councilor to seek legal advice before bringing a motion forward.

“It is a very common practice,” he said.

Paradis, who at one point described herself as the elected leader of Belfast, vehemently defended her role in the Mayors’ Coalition and said the council’s action would be bad for the city. The mayors’ group is composed of leaders of some of the state’s communities who advocate for state policies that will grow Maine’s economy statewide.

“My voice is impactful on the Mayors’ Coalition,” Paradis said. “I feel as though if you follow through with this, the city of Belfast and the larger public of Maine will be done a disservice. I request that we move forward with the business of the city.”

Hurley, who was described — though not by name — in the mayor’s OpEd as a councilor who used “verbally aggressive” behavior to talk to a female constituent and who frequently keeps an open knife on his desk, said that he has been involved with city government for a long time and what is happening right now is unprecedented. He previously said the knife in question was a small pocket knife.

“Nothing like this has ever happened before,” he said. “This is new ground. This alienation we’re dealing with is not something these councilors have put on the table. I hope this motion, this lack of confidence, will come back in a short while to be a vote of confidence.”

But Paradis did not take the proffered olive branch.

“I find this very unfortunate,” she said. “I prepare extensively for every meeting, and I attempt to call on people as fairly as I can. It is my First Amendment right to share my thoughts and feelings. I’m worried this will end up with a public outcry that this is not the right course of action. I request respectfully that you decline to vote on this motion. That you think of me with respect and dignity. My writing to the newspaper is in no way a personal attack on any individual, and this is not an effective use of our time.”

But that’s not how the councilors took it.

“What jumped out at me was the [comment] about ageism, sexism and bigotry,” Mary Mortier had said earlier in the meeting. “I had to sleep on that. I was astounded by it. I was mortified by it on so many levels I will never be able to explain them all. I think this broad comment, with no clarification and definition, I do not feel that it can be tolerated. That was a breaking point for me.”

Councilor Neal Harkness struck a similar note.

“You have no confidence in the council,” he told Paradis. “And yet we are supposed to think that the mayor who calls us bigots would [represent us].”

Paradis appeared unemotional as she responded.

“This is not a public trial,” she said. “I have shared my comments. It’s my First Amendment right. And this is negatively impacting the business of the city.”

Background to the meeting

In the OpEd, published last week in the Republican Journal, Paradis wrote that she feels councilors have preferred her to be seen but not heard, and that she has encountered sexism, ageism and bigotry while on the job, among other difficulties. One area of contention is her mandated hourly breaks for stretching or meditation and bathroom time during long council meetings.

It has been a little more than a year since Paradis, a 27-year-old Frenchville native, nurse and political newcomer, beat out longtime Belfast Mayor Walter Ash. Her political ascendance has been considered noteworthy both in Belfast and beyond, and Paradis was selected to be a panelist this September at the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco.

Still, in Belfast, the position of mayor is considered to be largely ceremonial. The mayor, elected by voters to a two-year term, presides at all council meetings but has no veto and no vote except in case of a tie, and is recognized as the official head of the city for ceremonial purposes and for all purposes of martial law. But the past year has seen seemingly constant discussions and negotiations about the role — including Paradis’ decision to hold hourly breaks during council meetings.

“I’m a nurse who knows the importance of self-care and movement,” Paradis wrote in her OpEd. “So when it became clear that the average council meeting lasts five hours, I instituted breaks every hour so that I could stretch my legs, practice meditation or use the bathroom.”

But the mandated breaks, along with tensions between the council and Belfast residents over the proposed land-based salmon farm, were among the divisive issues that came to a head this summer between councilors and the mayor. At that time, Paradis called for a facilitated civility workshop in order to help the elected officials get along better with each other.

The workshop, and the debate over bathroom breaks, didn’t go unnoticed by Belfast resident Lee Woodward. The local attorney and longtime Rotary Club volunteer was named “Citizen of the Year” by the Belfast Area Chamber of Commerce at the annual chamber dinner Nov. 16. After the surprise announcement was made, Woodward, known for his pointed sense of humor, was asked to make a few remarks to the crowd. He prefaced his remarks with a joke about how he would not be a facilitator for the city councilors he saw in attendance and that if anyone needed to take a bathroom break while he spoke, they could go ahead and do so.

Paradis, who was at the dinner, wrote in her OpEd that his remarks were hurtful.

“You see, Mr. Woodward, your comments were inappropriate and not funny,” she wrote. “In the last year, I have been carving out and fighting for every inch of the seat I sit in at the center of the Belfast City Council. I have encountered sexism, ageism and bigotry. I left the Belfast Area Chamber dinner when everyone stood up to applaud for you and cried on my way home.”

Woodward said Tuesday before the meeting that the mayor called him after she wrote the OpEd, but prior to its publication, and read it to him over the phone. He told her that if it was printed, he would have no response and offered no apology, either.

“I have no intention of offering any rebuttal. I think none is needed. In my opinion, very little of the OpEd deals with me,” he said. “The joke was not only pointed at her but the entire City Council. The mayor has been a rather large distraction, and the City Council could have nipped it in the bud early on, but they didn’t.”

He said he wouldn’t be at the meeting in person but still would tune in.

“I’m going to be sitting back with a glass of wine tonight, watching this on TV,” Woodward said.