BELFAST — Even among the notoriously left-leaning communities of southern and midcoast Maine, Belfast has proudly held itself aloft as among the greenest, crunchiest and quirkiest of the lot.

After all, it’s not every town where residents would embrace the pejorative label “Moonbat Kingdom,” splashing it across bumper stickers, signs and even incorporating it into business names.

So Mayor Samantha Paradis’ recent statements of “sexism, ageism and bigotry” in Belfast – followed by councilors’ rebuke of the 27-year-old mayor, who unseated an incumbent in November 2017 on a 1,234-964 vote – further frayed nerves among municipal leaders and residents already divided over other issues.

“It just seems to be that, every few weeks, something becomes a power struggle,” said Anne Saggese, a bakery owner and Belfast resident for 13 years. “It’s not one councilor, and it’s not just the mayor. They just couldn’t get their feet under themselves.”

Samantha Paradis, the 27-year-old mayor of Belfast, says she believes “there is always a space for growth.”

Tensions have been rising in Belfast for well over a year, fanned by both the simultaneous arrival of the new, ambitious mayor and a controversial proposal to build the world’s largest land-based salmon farm in the coastal city.

The combination has stressed politics and governance in the city of roughly 7,000 residents.

Council meetings that would typically last two to three hours stretched well into the night, delaying work on even routine municipal matters. Councilors who have sat behind the council horseshoe for years rebuffed proposals from Paradis, a nurse, for mandatory bathroom breaks and a facilitated meeting.

This most recent power struggle began after Paradis – a self-described “young, queer woman” with an unapologetically progressive agenda for her adopted city – wrote an op-ed Nov. 22 for The Republican Journal, Belfast’s weekly newspaper, accusing a community leader of “hurtful comments” during a joke-filled awards ceremony.

But it was Paradis’ non-specific claims of “sexism, ageism and bigotry” – and the ensuing speculation about to whom she was referring – that prompted a unanimous City Council vote on Nov. 27 forbidding the mayor from speaking on behalf of the council in the future.

At Bella Books shop and café just off Belfast’s main drag, owner Gary Guida said last week that seemingly everyone in town was talking about it. And most people had strong opinions.

“People are coming here and they are split as to who is right and who is not,” Guida said. As for himself, Guida wasn’t taking sides but said he was confident that, eventually, the quarreling would die down.

“I know the City Council, I know the city manager and I’m familiar with the mayor (because) she was my first customer here” at his latest location, Guida said. “From my perspective, they are all very good people doing the best they can for the city.”

NO DIVIDE ‘WE CAN’T CROSS’

By the time of the next council meeting on Tuesday evening, Dec. 4, tempers had eased.

Paradis said she had shared her uncomfortable experience in hopes of raising awareness so that, in the future, “another young, queer woman elected to the Belfast City Council will feel welcome among us.” But she acknowledged her role in the ensuing high-profile flap.

Councilor Neal Harkness speaks in support of a motion to rescind earlier votes to bar Belfast Mayor Samantha Paradis from speaking on behalf of the council and to withdraw from the Mayor’s Coalition on Jobs and Economic Development, on which Paradis had represented the city. Harkness said: “Somebody asked me the other day, ‘Can the council and the mayor meet each other halfway?’ 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.”

“While I take serious issue with the (council’s) response, I also take ownership of my part of what happened,” Paradis told council members and the audience, which filled the chambers, the hallway and an overflow room. “I felt a pressing and still do feel a pressing need to raise public awareness of my concerns, but I did not fully appreciate the impact that what I wrote would have on you, fellow council members, and your families.”

Councilors, meanwhile, voted to again allow the mayor to speak for the City Council and to continue participating in the Maine Mayors’ Coalition on Jobs and Economic Development.

“There is very little daylight between the mayor and the members of the council on policy,” Councilor Neal Harkness said during Tuesday’s meeting. “We have had clashes over style, over communication, over procedures. There is no great divide that we can’t cross.”

Yet the vocal factions that emerged from the incident – composed largely of supporters or critics of Belfast’s young mayor – highlight the growing pains that even liberal bastions like Belfast can experience as waves of young, engaged and highly driven progressives win elected offices across Maine.

Elected in November 2017, Paradis made headlines when she defeated a longtime incumbent for the job of Belfast’s mayor. The Aroostook County native is among a growing number of young political activists – mostly progressives but some Republicans as well – who have been elected to municipal office, district attorney and the Legislature in the past several years.

Maddie Thomson Crossman was among those who came out to Belfast City Hall last Tuesday to speak in support of Paradis, whom she called “a role model for me, for women and for people of all ages and genders.”

“She speaks truth to authority and to power and doesn’t back down when she is attacked,” Thomson Crossman told City Council members after Paradis and councilors extended an olive branch to each other. “She is willing to listen to people who have had different experiences and to engage with different ideas. I think that is what we need and this council needs.”

SHE’S LEARNING ON THE JOB

To others, including some council members, the tensions stemmed largely from what they say has been Paradis’ approach and inflexibility in her role as mayor, not her ideals.

“The ideas that she has are nothing new that anybody else hasn’t brought to the table,” Saggese, the bakery owner, said in an interview before Tuesday’s meeting. “Some of them are works in progress, … but it’s just the way she presents herself. It’s hubris. She thinks she is the first person to have these ideas, that she is going to fix it all. And it has rankled council members.”

For her part, Paradis said she is “the product of a new generation” that sees no differences between themselves and others, regardless of gender, age or sexual orientation. And when her generation sees injustices, Paradis said, they react.

A registered nurse who is studying to be a nurse practitioner, Paradis acknowledged that she is learning on the job as mayor but said there is “always space for growth” in the council as well.

“This is true leadership development on my part, and the councilors have a lot of knowledge and past experience that are valuable to my learning,” Paradis said in an interview. “But we are sort of in a new paradigm where this is an opportunity for what has been ‘the establishment’ – and for people in those roles – to make space” for others.

The flash point between Paradis and the councilors comes at a time when the politics and economics of Belfast as well as other midcoast towns are shifting, as baby boomers age and new residents arrive.

DIVISION OVER SALMON FARM

Along its evolutionary arch, Belfast has been variously known for its shipbuilding industry, chicken farms and processing plants, hippie communes and bustling arts scene, among other things.

Today, Belfast is a midcoast hub of both progressive political activity and economic progress. The city boasts a growing shipyard, a busy harbor and downtown storefronts filled with restaurants, bakeries, a popular microbrewery, eclectic boutiques and three independent bookstores.

It could also become home to one of the largest indoor fish farms in the world. And angst over that prospect has clearly contributed to the tensions between the mayor, city councilors and city residents.

“That brought things into the spotlight,” said Mary Mortier, a city councilor and real estate broker.

Norway-based Nordic Aquafarms wants to build a land-based salmon aquaculture facility where Atlantic salmon will be hatched, reared and processed on-site. Nordic Aquafarms officials project that, after total build-out, the roughly $500 million project could produce more than 30,000 tons of sustainably raised salmon annually.

The aquaculture facility could eventually employ as many as 100 people. But a vocal group of project opponents has questioned the sustainability and environmental compatibility of a large, industrial fish farm in Belfast.

The city has yet to issue any permits for the project, which will also need to pass muster with state and federal environmental regulators before construction can begin. But city councilors heard hours of often angry testimony from residents opposed to a zoning change to allow Nordic Aquafarms to begin the lengthy permitting process.

Things escalated last spring when an opponent accused city councilors of being willing to risk the health and lives of children in order to woo Nordic Aquafarms to town. Frustrated councilors snapped back, prompting Paradis to propose a mediated “civility workshop” for members.

The workshop got mixed reviews. Meanwhile, tensions between Paradis and councilors continued to rise before coming to a head with her controversial op-ed in the newspaper.

DESTINATION FOR YOUNG PEOPLE

Mortier, who is the City Council’s oldest member, chuckled when asked whether the recent tensions were an example of Belfast’s “old guard” progressives versus the “new guard” represented by Paradis and her generation.

As a baby boomer now in her 70s, Mortier said she recalls being part of the power struggles of her younger years and said “this is not unlike that.” But Mortier said it would be wrong to cast her and other councilors as “ornery old people who wanted everything to be like it was in the good old days.”

It’s no accident that Belfast has become a destination for young people, drawn by its welcoming environment and quirky atmosphere, she said.

“One of the goals (of the council) is to attract younger people to Belfast because we identified that we couldn’t leave it to the old folks. We need their involvement and their voices at the table,” Mortier said. “For 20 years, there have been a lot of people working to make the city more attractive to young people, … and we have had a turn-around over the last 20 years where young people are coming back to the city, opening businesses and raising families.”

Paradis said she was drawn to Belfast because of its welcoming environment and still believes it offers that, despite the recent tensions. One of the positive developments out of the controversy, however, is an agreement among the council and herself about participating in a diversity training event.

“There is always a space for growth,” Paradis said. “The work doesn’t ever stop.”


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