Steve O'Halloran, a member of the Ellsworth City Council, wears boots and holds a manure shovel in the City Council chamber on Nov. 4, 2022. The props were meant as a commentary on the digging O'Halloran says he has to do to get information from other city officials. Credit: Courtesy of Gordon Workman

Since he was first elected to the Ellsworth City Council in 2021, Steve O’Halloran has carved out a reputation as the board’s primary contrarian.

Disagreements between O’Halloran and other councilors have been apparent in some of the council’s public deliberations, though debate during meetings has mostly — but not completely — remained civil. At meetings over the past several months, O’Halloran has been the sole councilor on the 7-seat board to suggest distributing ARPA funds to local taxpayers, to oppose auctioning off a house seized for unpaid taxes, to oppose re-appointing Dale Hamilton as the council chairman, and to oppose expanding Ellsworth’s City Forest, among other council votes.

O’Halloran doesn’t always take a contrarian view though. He voted earlier this month with five other councilors to recognize June as Pride Month, and he has supported the city’s efforts to get a composting company to better control foul odors from affecting neighboring property owners on Industrial Road.

But at times there have been heated exchanges between O’Halloran and other city officials through emails or letters, some of which O’Halloran has shared with local residents as he tries to draw attention to the inner workings of City Hall. 

The latest happened on Monday and led to a Wednesday face-to-face meeting between O’Halloran and City Manager Glenn Moshier in Moshier’s City Hall office where the pair discussed how they are getting along. 

Moshier said Wednesday afternoon that he and O’Halloran met for about 45 minutes and that the meeting was “very productive.” He said that, in any workplace, differences of opinion arise but that people still need to find a way to work together.

“It was a cordial meeting,” Moshier said, without getting into specifics. “We talked about ways we can communicate better and work for the benefit of the city.”

But the email exchange that sparked it was less than cordial. In their Monday email exchange, O’Halloran accused Moshier, who also serves as the city’s police chief, of refusing to shake his hand last Friday when O’Halloran wanted to discuss a lawsuit he had filed against the city. O’Halloran and a group of commercial property owners recently lost an appeal of the city’s decision to lease a former hardware store for use as a new police station.

Moshier, in an emailed reply, told O’Halloran it was “completely inappropriate for you to congratulate me” and said it was “troubling” that O’Halloran told the Ellsworth American newspaper “that I won and all the citizens of Ellsworth, businesses and school department lost.” 

Still, both agree that the Wednesday meeting behind closed doors was productive. 

“We had a pleasant conversation,” O’Halloran said.

O’Halloran said he encountered resistance from other city officials within days of his election in the fall of 2021, though he said some things have improved in the past couple of months. He said his primary goal as a city council is not to be well-liked by other city officials but to be as transparent as possible and to reduce the tax burden on local property owners.

He said he and Hamilton have gotten better at disagreeing with each other, whether it’s about O’Halloran’s insistence on speaking during the citizen’s comments portion of council meetings or Hamilton’s desire to prevent O’Halloran directly contacting city employees with citizen concerns.

“When I got elected, I was hated immediately by the council,” O’Halloran said. “I’ve had an uphill battle.”

Hamilton did not respond Wednesday to a request for comment. 

The feuding between Hamilton and O’Halloran spilled over into public view this spring when, in April, Hamilton sent O’Halloran a letter — a copy of which was publicly released by O’Halloran — in which the council chairman said he had “specific and repeated examples where your behavior has been disrespectful and uncivil to both city staff and members of the public.” Hamilton did not provide details of what O’Halloran was accused of doing, but listed nearly 20 dates on which O’Halloran made offending comments either by email or verbally during council meetings.

Hamilton said in the letter that he tried to discuss his concerns in person with O’Halloran on March 17 at City Hall, but opted not to when O’Halloran held a large mirror on his lap so that Hamilton would be talking to a reflection of himself.

“I’m guilty of ‘not going along to get along,’” O’Halloran said. “I’m a political outsider. I don’t know how to be a politician.”

The matter then was scheduled for an executive session during the council’s April 10 meeting, but O’Halloran said he wanted the discussion held in public session, not behind closed doors.

At the start of the meeting, the council voted unanimously — but without explanation — to remove the item from the agenda. 

O’Halloran said that, since then, he has not been approached or contacted again by Hamilton about his alleged inappropriate conduct.

“We both have axes, but we’ve agreed not to swing them at each other,” O’Halloran said.

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....