Lewiston City Council tension rises with more accusations of political maneuvering

LEWISTON — At this week’s City Council meeting, members of the public urged councilors to send a message to the community by voting unanimously on a resolution that reaffirmed Lewiston’s commitment to equity and diversity work. After all, the council hadn’t been able to agree on much lately, one person said.

The council did so, but later in the meeting, several councilors read written statements about the controversy that led to the resolution being introduced. They also repeated accusations aired earlier Tuesday that Mayor Carl Sheline previously asked a sitting Planning Board member to resign so he could make his own appointment.

The tense back and forth between elected officials highlights a continuing rift within the City Council stemming from issues like the shelter moratorium, wrangling over Planning Board appointments, and a draft resolution related to school diversity programs that was made public through a Sun Journal Freedom of Access Act request.

The four councilors who have often sided together on recent issues — Robert McCarthy, Rick Lachapelle, Larry Pease and Lee Clement — each read statements condemning what they said has been misinformation spread about them by their fellow elected officials, and being “vilified” on social media and in the press.

While the previous actions of the councilors prompted criticism and raised ethical questions, they argued the mayor and fellow councilors are guilty of their own political maneuvering. Both sides are claiming that the drama has sidetracked the city from conducting real work.

During public comment Tuesday, former Planning Board Chairwoman Pauline Gudas said she’d recently found out that longtime Planning Board member Roger Fuller was “asked to resign” by Sheline in order for the mayor to make his own appointment.

Gudas said there had been “so much conversation about ethics” in the city lately, and that it is “probably one of the most unethical things I’ve seen in city government.”

Sheline said this week that he wanted Fuller, who had an associate seat, to take a full member position, but that Fuller declined.

“Roger was a valued member of the Planning Board,” he said. “Earlier this year, we had a conversation where I offered him a full member position on the board because I appreciate his perspective and service, but he declined.”

It’s unclear why it led to Fuller’s resignation. Reached Friday, Fuller declined to comment for this story.

The mayor has the power to appoint associate members of the Planning Board without council approval, but due to a recent charter change, the council must approve full members.

The City Council had previously blocked Sheline’s nomination of Leigh Albert to the full member role, and ultimately appointed Michael Marcotte to the seat. Marcotte’s appointment came on the same night that councilors originally planned to introduce a draft resolution regarding diversity programs for school staff. The council suspended the rules to make the appointment, giving fellow councilors moments to consider the nomination, a tactic that was subsequently criticized.

Sheline appointed Albert to the associate seat vacated by Fuller. According to the City Clerk’s office, Fuller resigned Feb. 24, and Albert was appointed March 2.

Leading off a round of statements late Tuesday, Councilor Robert McCarthy said he and some of his fellow councilors “did not follow standard procedures” when making Marcotte’s appointment to the Planning Board, and as a result have been “vilified.”

He said Sheline “colluded” with political party members to “remove a sitting board member.”

“Quite frankly I’ve had enough,” he said. “We have real work to do here in Lewiston, and the unwarranted attacks on myself and some of my fellow councilors, along with all the pumped up charges in the media, has to end. I took ownership of my mistake, they need to own up to theirs.”

Councilors Clement and Lachapelle took the opportunity to respond to the public release of their draft resolution, and to what Clement said has been “blatantly false and defamatory” comments from Sheline and others.

Referring to the draft resolution, Clement said, “Nothing that occurred was illegal, unethical or wrong,” adding that there has been a “rush to label some councilor members as intolerant or racist.”

Lachapelle and Clement were referring to a social media post from Councilor Scott Harriman over the weekend that said the pair were “writing resolves to stop equity and diversity training in our schools,” which Lachapelle said “is a flat out lie.”

The councilors’ draft resolution said Lewiston schools appear to be having discussions about “establishing curriculum” based on ideas from organizations including the Educators of Color Collective and Building Anti-Racist White Educators, and that the groups align with ideologies “that many believe are distilled from Critical Race Theory, the 1619 Project and similar things which contain radical thinking.”

School officials said the programs are optional after-school affinity groups for teachers that have been active for two years, and that they are not part of curriculum building.

On Tuesday, Lachapelle repeated comments he made to the Sun Journal explaining his issue with the organizations, which centers on the Educators of Color Collective program meant to support Black, indigenous and people of color staff members only.

“To characterize the draft resolution that Councilor Clement and I were working on as racist when in reality it is racism we are standing against is wrong,” he said.

School officials have said that Educators of Color Collective has helped the school district retain a more diverse staff, which is a priority for Maine’s second most diverse district.

“From an employee wellness and retention perspective, we have found that educators of color often find themselves feeling a bit isolated, and like they have no one else to talk to because of their lived experience,” Superintendent Jake Langlais said.

Clement questioned the resolution that he voted to approve earlier in the meeting, stating, “Why are we resurrecting this dead horse? We need to stop these needless affirmation resolutions and move the city and its business forward.”

“Enough already, we’ve been chastised and belittled in the most condescending, pompous and arrogant manner by the current ceremonial head of city government, who himself, along with the backing of a city political committee, informed a sitting Planning Board member that he needed to resign so the mayor could appoint another person to that position,” Clement said.

Sheline said Friday that “some city councilors have spent significant time and city resources on divisive and unnecessary initiatives that have only reinforced Lewiston’s negative image,” and that citizens need officials “to come to the table in good faith to get the job done.”

“We have a lot of work to do,” he said.

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