Until a couple of weeks ago, the election of a Ward 5 City Councilor appeared to be a matter of easy succession. A second candidate for the seat being vacated by John Arrison dropped out, leaving Paul Dean, a retired paper mill worker and former chairman of the city's Comprehensive Plan Committee, as the only name on the ballot.

Dean shares current Councilor John Arrison's affinity for detail and process, and the outgoing councilor had publicly endorsed his apparent replacement.

Since then, fellow East-Sider Jim Merkel has announced his bid to take the seat as a write-in candidate, largely on his opposition to the proposed salmon farm.

Dean said he generally supports the salmon farm proposal but wants to see the details and the emergency plans. In his 30 years at the mill in Bucksport, he oversaw safety and training in the power plant and wrote procedures to bring equipment online and offline safely. The stakes were high, and he developed a sense for the small details.

More recently, as chairman of the Comprehensive Plan Committee, during which he sat through an exhaustive course of public hearings, he found that good ideas tended to come at unlikely times from unlikely people.

"Sometimes you're talking and working in a vacuum," Dean said. "That doesn't mean there isn't more to the picture."

The comp plan, as it's often called, took an unlikely central role in the salmon farm debates when it was amended to fit a new zoning district created for the business.

City officials couched the workaround, later called out in a lawsuit against the city, as a reasonable exception for an exceptional situation. But opponents took issue with scrapping the goals built around long hours of public meetings to cater to a large corporation.

Dean worked for almost 10 years to update the plan and waited another two for the council to adopt a small portion of the land use recommendations. Another 11 sections of the plan have collected dust.

"I wanted to follow it through to completion," he said.

Dean said the City Council has tended to lose focus, even in the short term. Describing the group's annual tradition of setting goals, he said, "They make a list of five or 10 things and they promptly lose it.

"When I start something, I kind of want to work it through to the end," he said. "I'm stubborn that way."

In the race for Ward 5, Dean's slow-and-steady approach appears in stark contrast to the intensity coming from his fly-in challenger, Jim Merkel.

Merkel joined the race at the same time as fellow write-in Ellie Daniels of Ward 1, filling out a slate of three candidates, with Joanne Moesswilde in Ward 2, who oppose the salmon farm.

A self-described "recovering engineer," educator, filmmaker and promoter of simple living, Merkel has been among the more strident critics of the salmon farm. He has been skeptical of the city's endorsement of the project from the day it was made public and has railed against the "dog and pony show" of public hearings that followed.

While his bid for City Council might look spur-of-the-moment, Merkel has been living his platform for decades. In the 1980s, as a military engineer with top-secret clearance, he designed a forerunner to the Blackberry and traveled around Europe to market it to governments, both allied and undisclosed, through a process identical to that of an arms dealer.

In 1989, in a bar in Stockholm, Sweden, he saw footage of the Exxon Valdez oil spill and did a hard pivot.

"I had a big turn of politics then," he said. "I understood overtly we were using our war machine to get more from poor people."

He sold his house and started living on the interest from his assets, which totaled about $5,000 a year. He penned the how-to guide, "Radical Simplicity," and got involved in volunteer community action projects. While living on the West Coast, he repeatedly saw large corporations taking advantage of small communities, using a combination of smooth sales pitches and "dirty fighting."

When Nordic Aquafarms appeared in Belfast, he quickly recognized the strategy. Looking back, he believes his background could have helped in the vetting process.

"The City Council (with Nordic Aquafarms) has been assuming everything's going to go right," he said. "My training tells me to assume that everything is going to go wrong, and design for that."

Merkel said he would like to see the city restore the wild fishery by removing dams or installing fish ladders on Goose River, Little River, Wescott Stream and the Passagassawakeag.

"We could have a million alewives, and that's the base of the food chain," he said. "When the economy's bad, people grow vegetables in Maine, and if there were fish in the bay, they would be catching them. … You don't have to buy a fish. You can catch a fish."

As a city councilor, he would pursue expanding low-cost broadband internet, explore microfinance, and improve the city's sidewalks and bike lanes for people who can't or don't want to drive a car — he currently serves on the city's Pedestrian, Hiking and Biking Committee.

Most importantly, he said, he wants the council to foster the kind of community discussion that has been lacking in the standoff over Nordic Aquafarms. Updating the Comprehensive Plan with a similar amount of community participation to the last time around, he said, would be a good start.