A faded crosswalk marks the road in front of Ellsworth High School on Thursday, Aug. 13, 2020. Students at the school are seeking approval from the elected city council to repaint two local school crosswalks and perhaps more downtown with rainbow colors to show support for the local LGBTQ community. Credit: Bill Trotter / BDN

A request from a group of Ellsworth High School students to paint some downtown crosswalks with rainbow colors as a sign of support for local LGBTQ residents failed before the City Council on Monday night in a split 3-3 vote.

Councilors Dale Hamilton, John Phillips and Robert Miller voted in favor of the measure, while councilors Heather Grindle, John Moore and Marc Blanchette voted against it. Councilor Michelle Kaplan, who is running for a seat in the Maine House this fall, declined to cast a vote on the measure, saying she thought it should go out to a local referendum vote.

Grindle, Moore and Blanchette each raised safety concerns about including rainbow colors in a crosswalk, saying they would not want the colors to distract a driver who could possibly fail to stop and run into a crossing pedestrian.

The Maine Department of Transportation does allow crosswalks to be painted with rainbow colors, though it has some design restrictions and only allows such custom designs where the posted speed limit is 25 mph or less, city officials said.

“In my mind, this all comes down to safety,” Blanchette said, adding that he does not think a crosswalk should be turned into “a piece of art,” regardless of whatever message it might convey.

Plus, Grindle said, if the council approved the request to add rainbow color to a couple of crosswalks, it would have to consider requests that might come along from other groups as well.

“What we allow for one, we must allow for all,” Grindle said. “We don’t have enough crosswalks.”

Grindle said she is supportive of exploring other ways to show support for LGBTQ+ students, and to combat bullying to which such students are often subjected.

Repainting the crosswalks is one way the city can send a highly visible message that it supports LGBTQ students and other local residents, said Carrie Richard Kutny, the faculty adviser to the high school’s Gender Sexuality Diversity Alliance student group, which proposed the idea. In Bangor, Orono, Portland and South Portland, where crosswalks have been painted rainbow colors, there haven’t been other competing crosswalk requests from other groups, she said.

“Not one group has asked to paint anything else,” Kutny said. “I think we probably do have enough [crosswalks].”

In response to potential safety concerns, Phillips noted that there is no data to suggest that rainbow-colored crosswalks are any less safe than traditional white ones.

Miller said he supports the students’ enthusiasm and thinks their initiative should be rewarded.

“Let them paint a couple of crosswalks,” Miller said. “It’s not that big a deal.”

In a subsequent unanimous 7-0 vote, the council agreed to create a committee to look into potential safety issues. Lisa Sekulich, head of the city’s public works department, and Police Chief Glenn Moshier each said they had concerns not about the proposed finished product, but about the process of painting the crosswalks.

If the crosswalks are to be painted, Sekulich said, they should not be painted by the student group, which the group had suggested. The city’s public works department should do it at a time of day when vehicle traffic is slow, perhaps at night, she said.

Sekulich noted that it was the public works departments, rather than residents, who painted crosswalks in Bangor and Orono. She also said the city can place signs at the crosswalks to remind motorists that state law requires them to stop to let pedestrians cross.

Sekulich and Moshier are expected to be members of the committee, as are students members of the high school group who proposed the idea.

The vote to create a safety committee to look into the proposal means the council likely will reconsider the request at some point, after the committee has considered how the crosswalks would be painted and whether the colors might distract drivers.

Last week, the city’s school board voted 4-1 in favor of letting the group paint a crosswalk at the high school and another at Ellsworth Elementary Middle School with rainbow colors. Additional crosswalks in downtown Ellsworth would be painted in the same color scheme if the council reconsiders the request and decides to allow it.

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....