Opinion: Susie O’Keeffe

Hoping for Democracy on November 6

Wed, 10/31/2018 - 9:45pm

I am not a Belfast resident, but Belfast is “my town.” I shop there, go out to eat and attend events, meet friends and colleagues, go to the gym.

You get the picture. I am not alone. 

There are hundreds of people like me who live close by on farms and in the woods. We’ve witnessed Belfast’s transformation into a beautiful, prosperous town. Its citizens are engaged, caring and committed to doing their best to make decisions that help those in need while supporting local, independent businesses.  

Large corporations have come and gone. MBNA certainly helped the town, but it was swallowed by Bank of America.

Athena can’t find enough employees, and is seeking tax breaks.

Front Street didn’t lower taxes, but it fits into the community.

There’s no perfection, but overall Belfast’s revival is a success. The town’s been featured as one of the best places to live and visit. If this transformation were to be summarized, front and center is the back-to-land culture. Smart, diverse and committed to “the good life,” these people rejected corporate control of food, and embraced a caring, intimate relationship with land and community. They ignited a successful revival of local agriculture, and helped prove that keeping things close to home and reasonably sized, makes for a vibrant town others want to join. 

Belfast appeared to have healthy democratic process. But, our state and communities are not immune to the slippery maneuvers extractive corporations must use to get what they want. Nordic Aquafarms tiptoed into town last fall. It silently cuddled up to state and town officials in order to stave off the scrutiny of the citizenry, their pesky laws and community process. They promised money. 

It is all part of the game. Everybody knows it. 

Getting local people to fight against each other is another.

We like to think our nation is democratic, but the truth is we’re more of an oligarchy where people often struggle for the democratic process. Webster’s defines an oligarchy as "a government in which a small group exercises control especially for corrupt and selfish purposes.” 

Let me be clear. I am not saying Belfast’s leaders are corrupt and selfish. I think they mean well, but have fallen prey to the marketing of an extractive industry that intends to rake in millions while helping itself to an astonishing water source, and using the bay as a dumping ground. Making sure its taxes are as low as possible, the town picks up most of the tab, and robots do much of the work, will be key to maximizing returns. 

The City Council also seems to be suffering from a fairly significant lack of imagination, and a solid case of amnesia. 

Despite the mind-boggling evidence to the contrary, the City Council has fallen for the false, though repeatedly marketed story that large, extractive schemes solve communities’ challenges. It’s easy, I guess. A little like going to MacDonald’s rather than cooking your own meals. 

They also seem unable to recall that these massive, extractive projects repeatedly wreak havoc on rivers, bays, forests, water sources, creatures and communities. Like the paper companies that flooded Maine’s rivers with dioxin, and Holtrachem’s colossal mercury release into the Penobscot River, corporations like NAF are out to exploit the scantily protected natural “resources” of Maine with as little expense and responsibility as possible. This is what extractive corporations do. It is a good idea to remember it despite NAF’s soothing, clean and green marketing scheme. 

And, speaking of the mercury spill, the community might want to be sure that NAF’s 7.7 million gallons of effluent pumping into the Bay every day won’t stir any of it up. It’s a pretty nasty chemical, similar to the lead in Flint River, just worse. In fact, that mercury is still moving around because, as Dianne Kopec and Aram Calhoun wrote in the BND, “river and slough channels can change course, releasing long-buried mercury into the surface sediment that is swept up and down the river with the tide.” 

The mercury is also throughout the Bay. 

There’s a lot to worry about where fish factories are concerned, but what makes me really anxious is how the town leaders were willing to subvert the democratic process. 

Now, I know it is all the rage these days to openly undermine democracy. Just the same, I was pretty shocked to see Belfast get in on the fun. The list is fairly long. Its starts with the Water District working behind closed doors with NAF, and barely whispering to the public that the forest they all own was for sale. The City, pressured by NAF, demanded the PUC drop their usual eight-month public comment period. Then, even after the Planning Board voted 0-5 that the City’s Comprehensive Plan was violated, City Council still voted to change Belfast’s Zoning—a process protected by both a state and a local law. While the town officials back peddled hard to include the public, it was clear the deal was done.

It won’t be easy, but the town could slow this entire process down. It might even want to consider applying for carbon credits for the forest, and sending NAF down the road. To do this they will need to vote some new people onto their City Council. People who would have the courage to make this move, and defend the democratic process regardless of who comes knocking. Namely, Jim Merkel for Ward 5, Joanne Mosswilde, Ward 2, and Ellie Daniels for Ward 1.

Susie O’Keeffe lives in Montville