Norridgewock Town Manager Richard LaBelle, shown in 2016 at his office, said Monday an off-the-cuff remark about not having to work Columbus Day while having to work on Indigenous Peoples Day had been blown out of proportion on social media. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel file photo

NORRIDGEWOCK — Signs posted at the Norridgewock Town Office saying it will be closed Oct. 14 were correct, but references to Columbus Day were apparently incorrect to some people in what the town manager says was a communication error compounded by a joke and enflamed on social media.

A town resident claimed on Facebook that Town Manager Richard LaBelle “can not honor Indigenous Peoples’ Day due to some Union restrictions about inability for town employees to get paid” for the day.

“(The comment) was a joke that was said to a small group that if we call it Columbus Day, you don’t have to work and that you would have to work if we changed the name (to Indigenous Peoples’ Day),” LaBelle said. “It was taken so far out of context. A small group of folks took extraordinarily tremendous offense to my communication error and did not directly talk to me, which is especially unsettling.

“People don’t understand that social media does not supplement face-to-face communications. … For me, the personal attacks that I have been subject to are beyond the scope of reasonable discourse. … A quick phone call or email could have resolved a lot of things.”

On April 26, Gov. Janet Mills signed a bill into law that established a holiday to recognize the indigenous people of Maine, replacing Columbus Day as an official state holiday. The change in the holiday is to recognize the historical, cultural and contemporary significance of indigenous people, according to the bill.

Maine has four Native American tribes: Maliseet, Passamaquoddy, Micmac and Penobscot.

On Monday, the signs were taken down from the Town Office and removed from the town’s website.

The union contract states Columbus Day is the federal holiday that will be observed, LaBelle said.

“Per contract, they have the day off,” said James Mackie, the staff representative of AFSCME 93, the union that represents Norridgewock’s municipal employees. “There is nothing to the contrary and I haven’t heard anything else.”

The contract, which indicates the days that are paid holidays, went into effect in 2018, LaBelle said, and remains in effect until 2020.

LaBelle said he was attacked personally on social media regarding the matter, but declined to talk about specific comments.

“My job is to communicate to the public as effectively as possible, which is not always an easy conversation,” he said.

LaBelle said many are not aware of the change in the holiday.

“(There’s an) educational gap,” he said. “Different communications say different things. Calendars still label it as Columbus Day. This can be an education(al) opportunity for folks to realize that the name has changed in the state. I understand that (personal attacks) are something that I’m subject to in my position. It’s something that you just hope it doesn’t come down to. It is coming back on me and it’s not fair to me, but it is what it is.

“Everybody makes mistakes. It evolved into name-calling and harassment on social media, which is indicative of the times. (If there is an issue,) pick up the phone or send an email. Social media is counter to anything of progress.”

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