Residents ask mayoral candidates to keep Belfast great

By Ethan Andrews | Nov 01, 2017
Photo by: Ethan Andrews Mayor Walter Ash, second from right, responds to a question from an audience member at a forum for Belfast city government candidates at Belfast Free Library Oct. 26. The panel included, from left, moderator Jay Davis, mayoral challenger Samantha Paradis, Ash, Ward 4 City Councilor Mike Hurley and Ward 3 Councilor Eric Sanders, not pictured.

Belfast — A little more than a week before Election Day, the city's two candidates for mayor appeared alongside two uncontested city councilors at a candidates' forum at Belfast Free Library.

Mayor Walter Ash and challenger Samantha Paradis shared their accomplishments and visions with of a crowd of 50 people and fielded questions from attendees who repeatedly praised the city, and in the same breath, voiced concern that its popularity would be its undoing.

City Councilors Eric Sanders and Mike Hurley both attended and answered questions from the audience, though neither is being contested in this election.

Belfast is in the middle of a well-publicized shortage of affordable housing, and the mayoral challenger Paradis listed this problem among her top priorities if she is elected. Among other priorities, she listed the city's continued leadership in the transition to renewable electricity, and the need for greater broadband access.

Paradis highlighted her work with local senior citizens — through Aging Well in Waldo County, an organization she founded, and also as a nurse at Waldo County General Hospital — to bridge the age gap between the incumbent and herself.

"That work honors the legacy of the people who came before me," she said, "and it's the kind of work I want to continue as mayor."

Ash pointed to a long list of improvements the city has made during his tenure as mayor, including the Harbor Walk and rail trail and the reconstruction of several downtown streets. These projects have been underwritten by more than $5 million in state and federal grants, he said.

The five-term mayor traced his family's roots back to the Mayflower and credited longtime residents like himself for the underlying character of a city that has attracted waves of devoted newcomers. Many of those in attendance described themselves as fairly recent arrivals, who had fallen in love with Belfast.

"I was part of all of that reason you want to come here and make it your home," Ash said.

One of the defining factors in the race for the mayor's seat has been the contrast between Paradis' first-time-candidate status and Ash's extensive experience in government, which includes terms on the City Council and in the state Legislature and service on many city committees.

In this vein, several attendees questioned whether Paradis has the time and skills to step into the role of mayor, with one going as far as to suggest that her bid for mayor was motivated by a millennial's sense of entitlement.

Paradis again cited her experience as nurse, through which she has advocated for local residents, in particular the elderly. Councilor Eric Sanders, who has not formally endorsed a candidate in the mayor's race, said Paradis' claim to have knocked on 2,000 doors during her campaign should answer any questions about her commitment. "It's what you do with what your intentions are that I look at," he said.

Asked how the city could keep from becoming a victim of its own success, Ash said the city has done well when it has set proper limits on growth, as the council did by designating a single property for a potential big box store. On the other hand, he said the council's decision to allow variances for certain businesses looking to locate in the business park has been short-sighted.

Paradis said property taxes would be a factor. If they continue to increase, she said, longtime residents would be forced out, which wouldn't be good for the city, and younger people wouldn't be able to afford to move here.

Asked how she distinguishes herself as a candidate from Ash, she answered cheerfully, "I would take the lead."

At press time, city councilors were divided on who should lead the city. Councilors Mike Hurley and Neal Harkness have endorsed Paradis. Councilor John Arrison endorsed Ash. Councilors Mary Mortier and Eric Sanders have not made public endorsements.

The candidates' forum was hosted by Belfast Community Radio (WBFY 100.9 FM) and Belfast Community TV Channel 2. Watch the video of the forum from BC-TV, or listen to the audio from WBFY.

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