A Knox County Commissioner accused representatives of a regional broadband group of bullying public officials and tried to bar them — and members of the public — from advocating for the organization’s proposal at a county meeting Tuesday.
At the meeting, Knox County Commissioners determined which funding requests from towns and non-profit organizations the county would prioritize when it decides how it will spend $7.7 million in federal relief funding from the American Recovery Plan Act.
Commissioners ultimately identified seven requests — including an affordable housing project proposal from the Knox County Homeless Coalition — as potential contenders for federal funding out of the dozens of requests the county received.
However, none of the broadband proposals were advanced. In addition to the Midcoast Internet Development Corporation’s proposal, there were several from individual towns passed over as well.
In conjunction with the town of Rockport, the Midcoast Internet Development Corporation — a newly formed entity working to establish a consumer-owned broadband utility in the region — had requested $750,000 from the county for the first phase of its countywide build out. The Midcoast Internet Coalition, which is an ad-hoc group of towns that supports the regional utility, has also been involved in the discussion.
But Knox County Commissioners unanimously voted to bar members of the group, and the public, from commenting on matters relating to the Midcoast Internet Development Corporation. Commissioners said that they had received all the information they needed on the project.
“I think we have been threatened by this organization enough and I think we have been told by this organization how they perceive we should be doing our jobs, enough,” Knox County Commissioner Dorothy Meriwether said at the start of Tuesday’s meeting. “And I again would ask that we deny the request to speak on the subject of the Midcoast Internet Coalition.”
Meriwether did not specify how the group allegedly threatened the commissioners, but did later indicate it was in an attempt to get funding.
“They had a presentation, they had an application, we have heard a lot of comments. I’m sorry that everyone did not get a chance to participate, these meetings have been going on for some time,” Knox County Commissioner Sharyn Pohlman said in support of limiting public comment.
While commissioners voted to bar public comment on the subject, several representatives of the organization — who are also elected officials in area towns — as well as members of the public spoke up to express concern over the decision to limit public comment.
“I do not understand either the practical or legal precedent to not allow for the citizens, for your constituents, to speak to the subject,” said Midcoast Internet Development Corporation Vice President and Camden Select Board Member Matt Siegel.
Prior to the meeting, members of the regional broadband group expressed concerns that the internet company, Spectrum, would be giving a presentation to commissioners at the meeting regarding its services in Knox County. The presentation was not happening in relation to the federal funding discussion.
Both Pohlman and Meriwether said that while they think high-speed internet access is important, they feel that other issues — like health care and affordable housing — need to be considered first.
Meriwether floated the idea of the county making funds available for more rural communities that were looking to finish broadband projects. With several towns requesting individual funding for broadband investments, Pohlman suggested that perhaps there was an opportunity for collaboration.
Despite the contentious tone of Tuesday’s meeting, Siegel urged the county commissioners to consider future ways for the county and the broadband group to work together.
“I hold out the olive branch. We need to reset because the anger that you feel, the misinformation, the statements I’ve heard in this meeting are not accurate in terms of what this organization, this community, both the coalition and the utility are about,” Siegel said.
Knox County Commissioners stressed that the seven funding requests they identified as priorities were not guaranteed to be funded. The county will review internal department requests for funding on Friday and then will review their full list of funding priorities with the county’s attorney before making a final decision.
It was not immediately clear when that decision would be made.