ELLSWORTH — After an extensive discussion, city councilors denied a request on Monday evening of a group of Ellsworth High School students to paint several crosswalks in the city rainbow colors in support of the LGTBQ+ community.
In a separate vote, however, they unanimously supported forming an ad hoc committee consisting of students, council members and city staff to bring a fuller proposal back to the council in the future, a move Chairman Dale Hamilton said was not unusual with such citizen requests.
The request of the students failed in a 3-3 vote after councilors John Moore, Marc Blanchette and Heather Grindle voted in opposition, with Hamilton and councilors John Phillips and Robert Miller in favor.
Councilor Michelle Kaplan abstained from voting, an act that caused a bit of confusion after Phillips received a text from former councilor Gary Fortier stating that abstentions are allowed only in the case of a conflict of interest.
In clarifying the matter, Hamilton read from Robert’s Rules of Order: “To abstain means to refrain from voting, and, as a consequence, there can be no such thing as an ‘abstention vote.’”
“A member does not have to vote and it reduces the majority down to the individuals who do vote,” said Hamilton, which left the final tally at 3-3, not enough to constitute a majority under Robert’s Rules.
The request by the students followed an approval by the School Board at a meeting on Aug. 11. That vote was 4-1 in favor of allowing students to paint crosswalks on school property. School Board member Jennifer Alexander was the sole nay vote, saying she’d received comments from concerned residents and wanted to ensure the voices of those residents were acknowledged.
A number of cities around the state, including Bangor, Portland, South Portland and Orono, have painted rainbow crosswalks in recent months.
Several councilors said they worried about the safety of pedestrians in colored crosswalks as well as the potential that other groups also would want to paint crosswalks.
“In my mind this all comes down to safety,” said Blanchette, who said that in 2019 in Maine there were 17 pedestrian fatalities. “I think this is the wrong message to send. We have to keep them safe for pedestrians.”
Grindle said she was concerned that students are facing bullying and harassment in schools and feel adults don’t support them.
“I’d like to know why,” said Grindle. “Why they feel that way and how we change that.” She said that while she supports the students, “What we allow for one we must allow for all. I think logistically we don’t have enough crosswalks to allow all to come and paint the crosswalks.”
“I don’t think there should be anything except the traditional lines in a crosswalk, along with the markers that are out there,” said Moore. “That’s the sole reason why I’m not in favor of it.”
But some disagreed. “This concept is not new, in the country nor in the state of Maine,” Phillips pointed out. “There’s no data to support that a rainbow crosswalk is any more dangerous.” Phillips said the heart of the issue is whether the council wants to support “this concept to show our support for the diversity of our citizens.”
Kaplan said she’d conducted an informal poll and found that 80 percent of respondents were in favor of the plan, with 20 percent against. She said she had pledged to “abide by the will of the voters” and pondered whether this “is something that can be passed on to the voters.”
The majority of comments read at the meeting on Monday were in support of the plan.
Carrie Richards Kutny, a teacher and advisor to the Gender/Sexuality Diversity Alliance (GSDA), the student group that brought the proposal, said repeatedly that the crosswalks have been approved by the Maine Department of Transportation as safe in areas where the speed limit is less than 25 mph as long as they are painted in a certain way with a particular kind and colors of paint.
The students have gotten a three-year grant to pay for the paint from Healthy Acadia, said Kutny, which may be renewable beyond that. Heart of Ellsworth has agreed to donate supplies.
There were some concerns raised about having students paint the crosswalks. Federal and state rules dictate who can be in a work zone, said Public Works Director Lisa Sekulich. Painting would likely have to be done at night and would likely have to be done by public works crews, per regulation. That is what has been done in other cities, she said later.
Kutny said she was confident the group could raise the funds to pay overtime for city staff if that were the case.
“I thought we were doing everyone a favor by offering to do it ourselves,” she added. “It didn’t occur to me that that would be a point of contention.”
Asked why the group wanted to paint crosswalks, Kutny replied that it was an idea generated by the students, who found it would be affordable and “within our skill set.”
In addition, said Kutny: “A crosswalk is a symbol of safety … The kids were really thinking about on a metaphorical level what could we do to symbolize that this is a safe space.”
The students wrote a grant, raised funds and attended meetings with officials, “an inordinate amount of civic engagement” for a teenager, she noted.
As for concerns over other groups wanting to paint crosswalks as well, Kutny replied that the city has 60 crosswalks and said, “We’re not here to censor anyone.” Other groups also could raise money, come up with a maintenance plan and present projects to the council for consideration, said Kutny. “If other people want to do similar projects so be it, this is America.”
The council, however, must do “some editorial decision making,” said Kutny. “Is this a message the council finds acceptable?”
Hamilton praised the students who brought forward the plans and said that while he understands it is a disputed topic for some, “I really don’t think that this has to be a controversial issue … At the very heart of the request is a message of acceptance. We probably need more of that right now in our community and our country.”
Hamilton did note that the city has an ordinance that discusses painting sidewalks and streets, which the ad hoc group can include in the next proposal it brings forward. “If we don’t set up a good process then we potentially set it up for failure,” he said.
Kutny said she was grateful the council was considering the request and that crosswalks, if they do get painted, would be “extremely visible and everybody who drives through town has to acknowledge it and has to talk about it … I’m delighted that we’ve gotten Ellsworth talking about something that prior to this not a lot of people were willing to talk about.”