Jan. 4—LEWISTON — After a lengthy debate that some councilors said amounted to "airing the council's dirty laundry," City Council members tabled a proposal that would prohibit the mayor from engaging in debates unless he or she relinquished their role as presiding officer.
The unanimous vote to table the item came after nearly two hours of back and forth among elected officials during the first meeting of a new year that saw continued political divisions in Maine's second-largest city. In the end, officials agreed to continue the discussion in an upcoming executive session with the city attorney, hoping to come to an agreement without the need for changing council rules.
The proposal brought forward by Councilor Lee Clement would require the mayor to remain "neutral and detached" during debates and would prohibit them from expressing opinions on agenda items. Only by stepping down as presiding officer could the mayor make statements on an item and, following the discussion, resume the role.
Some said the proposal was simply a political move to make things difficult for Mayor Carl Sheline, and was only being introduced because Sheline has long disagreed with a majority of the council on several issues, especially homeless policy. Under the city's charter, the mayor is considered a member of the council, but does not vote on items unless another councilor is absent.
However, Clement and those in support of the language said the proposal became necessary after several unsuccessful attempts to stop Sheline from making "improper" and "belittling" comments after council votes.
In a statement, Clement said the mayor is meant to be "unaligned" and not take sides, managing the meeting in a "neutral and fair manner" without making comments or "putting his thumb on the scale." Clement has also argued that the proposal was meant to simply clarify the mayor's role using Robert's Rules of Order, the standard for government meetings. However, several people disagreed with Clement's interpretation and said elected bodies can use Robert's Rules as a guideline and not "gospel."
Opening discussion, Sheline read a statement arguing that the proposed amendment is an attempt to "eliminate civil debate and impair citizen representation."
He said it was a political move, and one that goes against years of precedent with past city councils.
"It's no secret that the council and I have different opinions and views on the best way to move Lewiston forward," he said. "Rather than engage in open debate and discussion they seek to change the rules to silence dissenting views and restrict the mayor's long-standing role as a member of the council. The council wouldn't be attempting to change the rules if we were ideologically aligned."
"It is not mutually exclusive for a mayor to participate in agenda item discussions while also managing the debate in a neutral and fair manner," he added. "Every single mayor has done so before me."
Sheline also said that as written, the amendment could make council meetings "longer and less productive," with a mayor potentially stepping down and returning as presiding officer multiple times in order to make comments.
Councilor Rick LaChapelle said he and others have "repeatedly tried" to curtail Sheline's "snide remarks" during executive session discussions.
"I take no pride in sitting here and airing our dirty laundry in public," he said, adding that the mayor, as presiding officer, is supposed to be held to high standards.
Later on, other councilors echoed the same sentiment.
LaChapelle signaled an impending discussion on the issue during the council's previous meeting in December, when, prior to the council's vote to approve new restrictions on public camping effective this spring, Sheline said, "It's a bad idea now and it will also be a bad idea April 1."
Councilor Bob McCarthy said Sheline is "constantly making negative comments after councilors speak," and that the proposal was "a long time coming and not taken lightly."
"There appears to be no other way to address this," he said. "If he doesn't agree, he pipes in. It belittles the councilors and their views."
Councilor Stephanie Gelinas agreed with the majority of the public who spoke Tuesday, stating it was unfortunate that the council was engaging in more divisive issues that don't solve city problems. She also said that during her first term, then-Mayor Mark Cayer "spoke and shared opinions on every single item."
"If you take the opportunity to watch others, you'll see the same," she said, adding that because the mayor is elected citywide, she wants to know their opinion. "It's been years of operating this way. I can't help but wonder if he was agreeing, would we even be having this discussion?"
Councilor Scott Harriman said the entire council, while agreeing to discuss the issue, was not consulted on the drafted language by the city attorney. He also said he was surprised to see the issue coming up now, given that Lewiston has essentially had the same charter "longer than I've been alive."
During public comment, Jim Howaniec, a Lewiston attorney and former mayor, said during his time in city government in the 1990s, there would be tense fights between officials, but there was still a level of respect.
"We used to have knock-down drag-out fights in here, and then we'd go out and have a beer afterwards," he said, adding that the proposal "strikes me as very personal. Imagine telling John Jenkins that he can't speak at a council meeting."
Lewiston resident Alex Pine said it appeared the amendment was only "being used as a way to censure the mayor for behavior."
"Changing the rules to signal that displeasure is not going to change behavior, but merely adds procedural time," he said.
Councilor Linda Scott, who earlier in the meeting was appointed the new council president, said she struggled with the issue. She said she agreed that Sheline often makes "pejorative statements" that do not mirror an impartial presiding officer.
"No member should feel the presiding officer takes sides," she said. "It's extremely unfortunate we're here today. We have to work on this together, in order to get business done together."
Scott said the way to move forward is for Sheline to recognize his previous comments and for the council to discuss it further in executive session. She said she also believes the council should return to its previous public comment policies that didn't restrict speaking time to three minutes.
Former council President Michel Lajoie also spoke during public comment, telling councilors to show "professionalism" by tabling the item and discussing it in executive session.
On Wednesday morning, Sheline said that "while sometimes we have differing views about what's best for our city, the council has my respect and I look forward to putting this behind us and working together for the good of Lewiston."