Council, mayor come together on procedures, remain divided on style

Facilitated workshop clarifies some disagreements, leaves others unresolved
By Ethan Andrews | Aug 30, 2018
Photo by: Ethan Andrews City Councilor Mike Hurley and Mayor Samantha Paradis laugh during the first hour a workshop on Aug. 30 that later became tense.

Belfast — A workshop on Aug. 28 of the mayor and City Council opened with facilitator Pam Plumb asking the group to envision themselves flying in a hot air balloon over Belfast, looking down on a well-oiled city government machine.

Three hours later, she described them as being in a hole in the ground with tools that might get them out if used properly.

The meeting was requested by Mayor Samantha Paradis earlier this year after verbal exchanges between councilors and opponents of a proposed land-based salmon farm. Paradis expressed concern about how elected officials interact with the public.

In the months that followed, a rift developed between the mayor and councilors, most of whom opposed having the workshop. Paradis, at one point, said she felt unsafe. Councilors begrudgingly agreed to the meeting but accused the mayor of making demands beyond her authority.

These sentiments lay dormant for much of Tuesday night's workshop as the group hammered out procedural details, often laughing and joking. However, the conversation grew tense on the topic of when to take breaks in meetings and the boundary between civil disagreement and an atmosphere of hostility.

City Attorney Bill Kelly read the descriptions of the elected offices from the city charter, noting that the council holds all the power, including authority over how the mayor presides over its meetings. He added that the mayor often adds a "personal style" to the job.

"They've all sort of put their own stamp on things," he said.

While the law considers the mayor a ceremonial post, several councilors pushed back, saying the mayor should be involved in debates at council meetings. Councilor Neal Harkness said the mayor often can speak from an area of expertise and "has a very important power of persuading."

New ground rules for public participation at council meetings approved on Tuesday are likely to look similar to what exists today.

The group agreed to give an overview of the rules and expectations of both the public and the City Council at meetings, and ask speakers to limit their comments to three minutes, with more time allowed at the council's discretion.

Harder won was an agreement on when to take breaks during meetings.

Paradis instituted five-minute breaks every hour when she took office, citing research about how prolonged sitting negatively affects people's ability to make decisions. Councilors later objected, saying the breaks added time to meetings and disrupted the natural flow of business.

Harkness on Tuesday said the mayor should be able to take a break when she needs to, just as councilors do, or call a five-minute recess. He objected to scheduled breaks.

"It's not the mayor's business whether or not I'm getting enough exercise or stretching or whatever," he said. Harkness said the breaks wouldn't have become an issue if Paradis had listened when councilors said they didn't want them.

Councilor Mary Mortier accused Paradis of needing "to be in control of the situation."

Paradis said it wasn't a matter of needing to be in control but that presiding over meetings is one of the specific duties of her position. She added that she didn't feel comfortable leaving a meeting in progress.

Paradis said she started calling for breaks every 90 minutes in response to councilors' objections. Councilor Mike Hurley responded that this concession, like the original policy, was made by Paradis alone without asking the council's opinion.

Hurley said taking a break every 90 minutes, "or whenever it feels about right, is fine by me."

"But also, just because you don't feel comfortable about what five councilors are doing," he said, trailing off and shrugging his shoulders. "You don't feel comfortable. Period. That's it."

The city officials agreed to take breaks when Paradis called for them. Plumb offered a "hallelujah," before prompting the group into its most loaded subject for the last 14 minutes of the meeting, which Councilor John Arrison described as "understanding the difference between an environment of criticism and an environment of hostility."

He later replaced the word "criticism" with "disagreement."

Arrison, who is serving his second term, said the council has disagreed in the past but never faced questions of safety until Paradis was elected.

"Is the sense of hostility a true experience of hostility, or is it an experience of just being in an environment of disagreement?" he asked.

Paradis objected to Arrison speaking for the whole council. She said she has attempted to get to know the councilors, "But I haven't felt welcomed."

She chalked up many of the concerns raised at the work session to a different style of leadership from her predecessor, Walter Ash.

"I'm almost 50 years younger than the last mayor," she said. "I'm a woman. I'm a registered nurse. I have a different life experience. I bring a different experience to the table. And I look much different than everyone here sitting at the table.

"I haven't felt that what I've brought to the table has been heard, in a lot of ways," she said, adding that she was concerned that her perception was being questioned.

"In the day and age of #metoo, we think about how women's voices are authentic and important," she said. "There's no need to question if someone is saying, hey, this is what's happening."

Paradis said the work session was meant to help the city officials find a way to work through their problems. She expressed hope that the group could come together, despite their differences.

"I get that it's hard to hear that somebody you felt you did welcome isn't feeling that way," she said. "What I'm asking for is some respect and compassion and an ability to be not judged and criticized for bringing that up."

Plumb asked Paradis what would make a difference? Paradis said she was encouraged by what the group accomplished in the first part of the meeting.

"I guess continued dialogue would be helpful for me," she said.

Plumb asked the councilors what would help them work together as a group. The question prompted a full 20 seconds of silence, after which Arrison again noted that the group worked well together in previous terms.

"What you're hearing is one person's reality," Plumb said. "So what can be done to shift that?"

Mortier attributed the dysfunctionality to a lack of communication between councilors and the mayor outside regular meetings. She added that she was not referring to "backroom politics," but informing one another and exchanging ideas.

"That's not happening," Mortier said. "That came to a grinding halt in this administration. It's by email or nothing. It's very limited."

Paradis said she had met with councilors after the election. She added that she works night shifts. When Harkness suggested the conversations could be less formal, Paradis said, "It might be a personality difference. I don't small talk."

"That's a problem," Harkness said. "Because that's how a lot of things work."

Plumb interrupted to end the meeting. The group had made a good start, she said. She encouraged them to keep talking to each other.

"You've built yourself some ladders out of the sinkhole tonight," she said, "but you need to use them."

Speaking on Aug. 30, Paradis was positive about the work accomplished at the meeting.

"I felt it went really well," she said. "I'm really hopeful this will be an ongoing dialogue."

Asked if there was a specific event that contributed to her feeling uncomfortable at council meetings, she said it is "personal," and she said didn't want to "discuss it through a news article."

Comments (2)
Posted by: Michael Corden | Sep 01, 2018 11:59

The facilitator who had been running a somewhat rigid by-the-book meeting did not appear to recognize the significance of the mayor’s statement 15 minutes before the scheduled end of meeting, did not shout “Eureka,” did not allow the group to take an extra lap to drill down and hear all the councilors’ responses and the mayor’s take on those responses.  After almost three hours of fishing, the facilitator finally hooked a big one, but let it get away.



Posted by: John E Marshall | Aug 31, 2018 18:43

As a long time MSAD Board member and Planning Board Chair, I'd like to see  training of the public to be respectful on elected officials when being in attack mode. If she can't make small talk, she doesn't belong in government. Small talk is the lubricant for the gears of government.



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