Tense moments, accusations of bullying at Knox County Commissioners meeting

Thu, 10/14/2021 - 7:00pm

    ROCKLAND – Knox County Commissioner Dorothy Meriwether leveled charges of “bullying” against members of the Midcoast Internet Coalition and called their actions, “disheartening.” She further said that it was making her consider giving up public service after 25 years.    

    The meeting held in chambers at the Knox County Courthouse Tuesday, October 12, was off to a rocky start when Commissioner Meriwether asked Chairman Richard Parent, Jr., to suspend public comment on any broadband-related issue. The first minutes of a meeting are generally reserved for the public to comment on any related agenda item.  

    This evoked the ire of those present, and who included not only members of the general public, but also select board members from Thomaston, Camden, Rockport, and a Rockland City councilor seated in the gallery.   

    Camden Select Board member Matt Siegel and Rockport Select Board member Denise Munger also serve with the Midcoast Internet Coalition. 

     “Under public comment, many people raised their hands and I am requesting respectively of the chair that we do not let people discuss the subject of Midcoast Internet Coalition because I believe there has been more than enough opportunity of the organization to talk with us about their plans and we have a long agenda and need the opportunity to talk about the other requests,” said Meriwether.

    From the audience, one unidentified person said, “As a member of the public I was not privy to any of those conversations and I’ve taken time out of my day to be here today and I think it is your responsibility to help inform the public, so I think those comments are irrelevant and inappropriate.”  

    Meriwether said: “I think we have been threatened by this organization enough. And I think we have been told by this organization how they perceive we should be doing our jobs enough. And I would ask again that we deny their requests to speak on the subject of Midcoast Internet Coalition.”  

    Munger provided clarification.

    “We have the Midcoast Internet Development Corporation, which is a regional utility which is formed to bring broadband services to all of Knox County,” she said. “There’s also the Midcoast Internet Coalition, which is an ad hoc group a number of towns that have been discussing the problems with internet in this region and what can be done to improve them.” 

    The unidentified person in the audience continued: I do recognize the council persons' frustration with the length of this discussion, but it is incumbent upon you to allow questions and comments from the public who have not thus far been part of this process.” 

    Meriwether said: “Mr. Chairman, we are under no obligation to allow the public to speak at any point.” 

    At issue was the Town of Rockport’s application to the county for a portion of the county’s American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds in the amount of $750,000.  

    Commissioner Sharyn Pohlman spoke to the need to limit comments.  

    “We have heard a lot of comment,” she said. “I have 15 pages of conversation with Denise Munger regarding this topic. I spoke with her on the phone for an hour and a half. I have read every single letter that we received. I am aware that everybody has a different opinion. I have tried to respect all of those opinions, but to that point they had a presentation, they have an application. We have heard a lot of comments and I’m sorry everybody didn’t get to participate; these meetings have been going on for some period of time and I respectfully defer to the chair and the vice-chair to move this meeting along.”  

    Refusing to hear further comments and with the approval of consent items on the agenda, commissioners got down to the task of witling down the list of applicants for ARPA funds.  

    Going through each request the commissioners decided through consensus if it was principled and in keeping with the parameters set forth by the federal government for disbursement of the $3.5 million in funds the county has.  

    Proposals that addressed housing, homelessness, and food distribution to the needy received the highest priority. Broadband, of which there were several requests from different towns, received a low priority.  

    Pohlman said: “I think we all agree these are needed items, but we are all also aware that we don’t have nearly enough funding to fund everything including taking care of our interdepartmental needs. Unfortunately, we need to go through this process of narrowing it down and deciding ones that we feel we would like to get more information on.” 

    Amanda Methot, an attorney with the Portland-based law firm Burnstein Shur, is to go over the list to make sure it meets all criteria. After the meeting, Knox County Administrator Andrew Hart said the list would be finalized and distributed at a later date.

    Commissioners deferred to Friday going through interdepartmental requests. Those requests if funded by ARPA will be removed from the county’s upcoming budget.  

    Following the approval of a priority list of potential projects to be considered as eligible projects under ARPA, commissioners moved on to discussion items, and first on the list was a discussion of services Spectrum (Charter Communications) offers throughout Knox County and opportunities, plans for future expansion, and low-cost broadband programs for low-income families.  

    Both Midcoast Internet Development Corporation and MidCoast Internet Coalition expressed concerns that Spectrum would be giving an informational presentation. Commissioner Meriwether said following the meeting that it had been Spectrum who had approached the commissioners about getting on the agenda.  

    This was confirmed by an email from Lara Pritchard, Senior Director of Communications, NE for Charter Communications. She stated that it was Spectrum that reached out to the commissioners to provide an overview of the company’s services and discuss low-income broadband services.  

    Commissioner Meriwether asked Regional Senior Director for Charter Communications Melinda Kinney if she still wanted to give her presentation given the tone of the meeting thus far. She did. Her presentation was not related to any of the ARPA funding.  

    Though the presentation was statistical in nature Kinney did say that they are trying to get broadband into rural areas.  

    “The eight communities we are in the process of working with now,” she said, “in exploring opportunities for broadband expansion and potentially utilizing ARPA funds to help get to those unserved areas.”  

    Pohlman asked several questions concerning internet service to the islands and broadband hotspots.  

    Siegel spoke without asking to be recognized: “Point of information, I thought this was not a sales pitch, so I’m very confused...” 

    Commission Chairman Parent: “I didn’t mean that you could ask a question. Wait until she is finished and then you may ask.” 

    Siegel: “Thank you, Commissioner.” 

    Pohlman: “I’m trying to gage what services they’re offering.... I would look at all the opportunities to provide affordable broadband services to our county, particularly those who are unserved and underserved, or can’t afford services. This is an informational session, I’m not asking for a sales pitch. I’m just trying to get some information.” 

    After finishing the presentation Kinney thanked the commissioners for their time. 

    Parent to Siegel: “May I suggest that if you have a question for her that you meet her out in the hall.”  

    Siegel: “Commissioner, are we allowed to address the speaker or address the chair?” 

    Parent: “You have to address us. If you want to address her you have to go out in the hall.” 

    Siegel: “No, no, but are you comfortable if I address you for specific questions to Ms. Kinney, or are you done in terms of...” 

    Meriwether: “Haven’t we had enough conversation?” 

    Siegel: “So you’re not interested in points of clarification, or questions about the service? Can I ask...?” 

    Meriwether: “Mr. Chairman I think we’ve had enough conversation, thank you.” 

    Siegel: “In that case, Sir, Commissioner Parent, just a point of clarification to Commissioner Meriwether, who has expressed interest in Spectrum service, I would please ask what is the difference perceived by this group of commissioners in terms of the questions and reception of a corporate entity versus a community based...right now you’ve been very inclusive and supportive of a corporate entity, so again I would address Commissioner Meriwether, what is the difference you perceive between the services that...” 

    Meriwether: “You want to know?”  

    Siegel: “I would, yes please.” 

    Meriwether: “You want to know how aggressive you people have been repeatably for months, from the beginning on Zoom calls, you had a representative cutting right into the middle of somebody...On Zoom, we were having a presentation from somebody from the homeless coalition and one of your representatives was using our chat box to argue with her and argue with us about the value of what she was presenting for the homeless coalition as opposed to your broadband. You have been so inappropriate repeatedly. Your comments, your comments to me today have been incredibly inappropriate. You know I would have actually been much more supportive had you people not thought that you could bully us into providing...You know you started out asking for our entire $7.7 million, I mean that is so outrageous. Give me your $7.7 million and that was the tone from the very beginning. You’ve come down now to a reasonable $750,000 just for Rockport? That’s why you’re getting the hostility from me and you continue to take that stance. You have never reined it back. You have been told by us in simple terms if you want money from people be polite. And you have yet to demonstrate it. All of you. And I personally just don’t intend to support an organization who seems to not even be able to approach an entity for money without bullying.” 

    Siegel: “Commissioner Parent? So apparently again there’s a, just to clarify, it’s a personal issue, not so much again a service or the condition of which we proposed to the county to provide service.” 

    Meriwether: “As I mentioned before; my understanding, which clearly does not coincide with yours, but I’m sitting in this seat. According to what the ARPA guidelines are and what you choose, and this has happened with you people all the way along is that you argue with us. I’m sorry, but we’re the ones sitting in this seat and we need to make decisions based on our understanding and what we feel is right. And if all you do is sit there and argue with us. No. According to my understanding of the American Rescue plan, I do not believe that your project qualifies. And I’m not going to have an argument with you about that. I’m not going to argue about the value of the internet, we all know the value of it, but we have already demonstrated that our priorities go toward what is stated in that rescue plan to support those most vulnerable and in need. And a community that is already being served with over 100 Mb per second is not the greatest need. We’re talking about one of the most wealthy communities in Knox County, I’m sorry, my heart is not bleeding for you guys. Rick, cut me off.”  

    Siegel: “Commissioner Meriwether, thank you for your views and to Commissioner Pohlman I would ask again that Knox County please consider, at this point, you’re not considering, Phase One pathway project, but in terms of alternatives to best serve our communities there are alternative to...” 

    Parent: “Not today, not now, thank you.” 

    And with that said, the meeting was moved on to other business.  

    Anne Just, a member of the South Thomaston Broadband Committee, doesn’t feel that Spectrum would serve rural communities very well.  

    “Because they are a profit-making entity, it is not in their best interest really to serve each and every member of every community,” she said, after the meeting. “People I think they will find that it is not cost-efficient to serve the people who need it most.” 

    From Denise Munger, Rockport Selectboard member in an email dated Oct. 12, said she was appalled at the way the commissioners treated the public and its constituent municipalities today. 

    “I was totally astounded that the Commissioners would treat fellow public servants, not to mention county residents, the way we were treated today. The county commissioners voted to ban public comment from the chair of the Thomaston Select Board, a Rockland city councilor, a Camden Select Board member and a Rockport Select Board member, and a number of county residents who took time off from work to attend the county commissioners meeting. These four towns represent 46% of the county’s residents; we were yelled at by Commissioner Meriwether and accused of bullying for daring to contact her about the importance of high-speed internet to our four towns and our county residents.

    “This abusive behavior by Commissioner Meriwether towards select board members in Knox County was in stark contrast to the incredibly friendly and warm welcome given to the Spectrum government affairs representative.  We and our residents were prohibited from talking about our internet experience in Knox County, while the commissioners asked many friendly and softball questions to the Spectrum rep about internet service in Knox County.”

    Reach Chris Wolf at news@penbaypilot.com