Mayor, council reconcile one week after dramatic confrontation

Council rescinds votes to leave Mayors' Coalition, bar mayor from speaking for council
By Ethan Andrews | Dec 05, 2018
Photo by: Ethan Andrews A portion of the overflow crowd at Belfast City Hall on Dec. 4 watches Mayor Samantha Paradis on television from a conference room across the hall.

Belfast — The city's elected officials on Tuesday night buried their hatchets, reversing contentious votes from a week earlier and pulling a switch on an overflow crowd at City Hall that came loaded for bear.

Tensions between Mayor Samantha Paradis and city councilors have been building since Thanksgiving weekend when Paradis wrote an op-ed in The Republican Journal stating that she had experienced sexism, ageism and bigotry in her capacity as mayor.

Councilors, believing the comment was directed at them, called an emergency meeting on Nov. 27 and voted to bar Paradis from speaking on behalf of the council. Additionally, the council voted to withdraw from the Mayors' Coalition on Jobs and Economic Development, in which Paradis had represented the city.

At the special meeting, councilors said they were responding to a pattern of self-centered behavior by the mayor that culminated with the unsupported accusations of her op-ed. Paradis and her supporters, some of whom attended the Nov. 27 meeting, described it as politically motivated punishment that could cause other problems for the city.

On Tuesday, it appeared that each side took some of the other's criticism to heart.

Paradis opened the meeting with an olive branch, saying she "did not fully appreciate the impact" of her column.

"My intention was never to say that any of you are ageists, sexists or bigots," she said.

Responding to a comment from the previous week, Paradis said she hadn't anticipated the effect the column would have on Councilor Eric Sanders' young daughter, whom Sanders previously said had asked if the column was about him.

Paradis apologized to Lee Woodward for overshadowing his recognition as the Chamber of Commerce's Citizen of the Year with a column that was critical of his remarks at the annual awards dinner.

"We're all imperfect; each of us here is imperfect," she said. "What I ask is simply to be treated as imperfectly as everyone else. Most importantly, I want to move forward together for the good of the city. Let's find common ground. Let's get back on track."

Sanders followed the mayor's comments and moved to rescind the two votes from the previous week, in the interest of putting the city first.

"Some of the ink we've gotten in the last week could affect the city of Belfast and I don't think that's necessary," he said.

Additionally, Sanders suggested diversity training to re-establish trust between the council and mayor. "Something where can all come out unified as the city's elected leaders, including the mayor," he said. "She is part of our team, too."

Councilor Neal Harkness said the city's elected leaders have worked well together on policy. The conflicts have been over style, communication and procedures, he said, and should be able to be overcome.

"Somebody asked me the other day, 'Can the council and the mayor meet each other halfway?'" he said. "And I said, I'll go a mile if she'll come an inch. And she's come much more than an inch, and I really appreciate that."

The sudden turn of events appeared to surprise many in attendance Tuesday night.

Councilor Mike Hurley said he had come to the meeting prepared to stand by his earlier vote but was moved by Paradis' "very generous statement" and planned to support the motion to rescind the earlier votes.

When the floor was opened to the public, speakers were slow to come forward. Many reframed arguments directed at one of the two sides as food for thought for the reunited officials. Others spoke of a weight being lifted from the city.

"I think people all over town right now are breathing a huge sigh of relief," resident Glenn Montgomery said.

Kit Thomson Crossman recalled having been called out for behaving in racist and classist ways "when that was the furthest thing for my intent," and said the council appeared to have recognized the courage of Paradis to write the column, "knowing what the response was likely to be," to preside calmly over the special meeting a week earlier and give the response she gave on Tuesday.

Breanna Bebb of Northport recalled being hired at age 25 to be executive director of Our Town Belfast, "which is kind of like being the mayor of downtown Belfast," and said she was surprised by what Paradis described in her op-ed, because she had found the city to be welcoming toward young people. She thanked the city officials and said it was good to see them getting back to work.

"It's kind of fun watching the drama," she said, "but it's more fun to watch you iron out the important things like Nordic Aquafarms and whether we're going to have a bed race in May." A request from Waldo County Search and Rescue to race beds down High Street for a fundraiser appeared later on the agenda.

Joanne Moesswilde said in Paradis' column she heard the question, "Who will stand with me?" Moesswilde stood in the audience a week earlier after the vote to bar Paradis from speaking for the council and was joined by others in a show of solidarity for the mayor.

"Tonight, what I see is that the council stands with the mayor," Moesswilde said, "and so do I."

Several speakers expressed concern about online comments related to the dust-up between the mayor and council, and cautioned that news of the reconciliation at City Hall might take time to reach a wider audience.

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