Government Spotlight

“Mask Resolution” sparks debate, Board’s Charter Commission appointments challenged

| Joanne Cole |

With a resolution challenging state pandemic orders topping the agenda, more than 70 participants joined the select board’s May 3 meeting on Zoom. Attendees heard pointed criticism of the resolution, some support of it, and a quieter challenge to the select board’s charter commission appointments last month, among other items.

“Mask Resolution” sparks debate.  Fourteen residents spoke about a proposed Board resolution declaring unconstitutional the Legislature’s delegation of emergency powers to the Governor and the Governor’s resulting pandemic orders and rules, including any mask mandate. The four-page, twenty-five-Whereas-clause document concludes with a directive that no town official, employee, or funds be used to enforce pandemic orders or rules. 

Three residents spoke in favor of the resolution. Dorene Libby cited constitutional freedoms and added that as a nursing student she has been taught to rely on evidence-based practices. “There is substantial evidence that masks cause more harm than good,” especially to children, Libby said. “Being forced to wear a mask for hours at a time may have worsened health conditions or may have created health issues where there were none previously.”   

Another supporter, Caleb Dunn, a veteran with 13 years’ service, said the resolution is really about “restoration of individuals’ freedom in our community.” He urged the board to restore “individual choice.”

Robin Fleck pushed back regarding freedom. “I’ve never seen anybody question why they don’t have the freedom to go into a store barefoot.” If that’s not a problem, Fleck suggested, why is covering the mouth where germs are expelled considered so objectionable?

As a person with health issues, said Patricia Morris, “If you implemented this during this pandemic, it’s arguably more of a violation of my rights under the ADA than of those who claim it suffocates them.” She noted, “We could potentially open ourselves up to some lawsuits there.”

The resolution reflects “a fundamental misunderstanding” of rights and liberties, sais social studies teacher Adam Gilman.  An individual’s exercise of rights doesn’t extend to the point of threatening someone else’s safety, security, and liberty. Reminding listeners not to try shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater, Gilman cited the principle of ‘pragmatic limitations’ long accepted by the Supreme Court.   

Residents Diana Dowd, a microbiology instructor at UNE, and Tom Jordan, in R&D at Idexx, spoke about mask efficacy. “Masks do work,” Dowd said.  “The science is there.” Jordan pointed to the virus’s rapid mutations as a reason to “keep our foot on the gas” and continue with masking and other mitigation measures.

Resident Scott Morelli, city manager of South Portland, didn’t mince words.  “I’m not sure I’ve seen anything as irresponsible or flat-out ignorant as the proposed resolution” during 16 years in municipal government, Morelli said. The resolution “sends a message to your employees and the general public that you don’t value their health or safety.” Morelli called the resolution “a political play.”

When it was the board’s turn, discussion was brief and subdued, with little apparent enthusiasm for the resolution.  Chair Karen Gilles quickly suggested tabling it, given only three members present (Tammy Donovan was absent) and no prior legal review. Peter Bragdon wanted to know what effect, if any, the resolution would actually have.  Linda Chase acknowledged that, without a police force, it would be hard to enforce a mask mandate.  “Basically, it’s just giving people a choice,” she said.   

Chase said the impetus behind the measure was hearing from several people in town who “would like the opportunity to decide for themselves.”  The resolution text was taken from a similar effort in Androscoggin County, she said. 

Would town employees and the public would still be expected to wear masks in town buildings as currently required if the resolution were adopted, deputy clerk and acting town manager Sharlene Myers wanted to know.  No one seemed sure.  Bragdon wondered about possible costs and liability if town employees became ill.  That, too, was inconclusive.  Agreement was reached on one point: to table the resolution.           

Charter Commission appointments.  Revisiting prior action, Peter Bragdon questioned whether the board’s vote last month appointing Don Libby, Steve Libby, and Linda Chase to the charter commission was legally effective.  The April 7 vote was two in favor, one opposed, and one abstention, Chase herself.  To pass, it needed a majority of the membership–three votes–Bragdon said, citing town bylaws and state guidance.  He asked for the matter to go on the next agenda with an invitation to those who had applied for appointment.  Gilles and Chase did not respond or comment. 

Earlier, resident Jane Sturgis had asked the board to reconsider their charter appointments, not on legal grounds, but because the board in her view bypassed applicants with charter-writing expertise in favor of appointees who might resist measures residents have supported, like term limits.  Under Maine law the select board appoints three charter commission members; voters will elect six on June 8.     

A tired culvert and a talkative brook.  In other action, the board consented to a request from Tambrands of Auburn to upgrade at its own expense a stream crossing an abandoned section of Woodman Road that’s now used to access Royal River Conservation Trust trails.  Project engineer Rick Jones told the board that Tambrands is expanding its Auburn facility and wants to offset the resulting environmental impact with a restoration project elsewhere in the watershed.  The Woodman Road work fits the bill, Jones said, as replacing the existing failed culvert will enhance fish passage and wetlands. 

The board also supported a request from residents Michael and Julie Fralich to formally name as “Talking Brook” a tributary of Meadow Brook, near Woodman Road and Meadow Lane.  Michael Fralich recalled camping out nearby as new property owners decades ago and dubbing the unnamed brook “Talking Brook.”  The stream may not have had a name, Fralich said, but “it had a voice of its own.”  USGS naming policy requires first checking with indigenous peoples for previous naming, he said; town support is helpful for final approvals.  No prior Native name having been discovered, and with the board’s unanimous consent, Talking Brook will now literally be on the map.

Fire Rescue update.  Fire Rescue chief Jon Kiernan shared an upbeat update on the department.  “Things are really going well,” he said, “I’m really excited.”  Of note, Chief Kiernan said more people are training and making calls, and a new paramedic is coming on board on the per diem side and a firefighter/paramedic on the on-call side.  The call count is 180 so far this year, he said.

Watch the May 3 select board meeting at this link. Access the full agenda packet, including the “mask resolution” here.