ELLSWORTH — An effort to paint crosswalks in rainbow colors in the city of Ellsworth has hit the wall.
A committee formed to study the issue was disbanded last week after two meetings after failing to reach agreement to move forward with a recommendation to the City Council. The City Council last August denied a request to rainbow-stripe several city crosswalks in support of the LGTBQ+ community because of safety concerns. Instead, the council formed the ad hoc committee to discuss the issue.
Ellsworth High School teacher Carrie Kutny, who oversees a student group that came up with the rainbow crosswalk idea, outlined Maine Department of Transportation crosswalk guidance, which allows municipalities to choose a fill-in pattern different from the traditional white zebra stripes.
“The street, to us, is the street, curbing, the grass, any sidewalk, anything that is in the right-of-way,” Public Works Director Lisa Sekulich explained.
The Use of Streets regulations in the city zoning ordinance does allow sidewalks to be painted “under the direction of a public official or employee for public purposes.”
“There’s nothing preventing us from doing this as far as the ordinance,” Kutny said.
But not without council approval. The council’s August vote to deny the crosswalk request was 3-3, with councilors Dale Hamilton, Robert Miller and John Phillips in favor of the project. Heather Grindle, then-Councilor John Moore and Marc Blanchette voted no and Michelle Kaplan abstained. Pedestrian safety was cited as the main concern. Blanchette repeated those concerns at the Jan. 7 committee meeting, along with the possibility of other groups wanting to paint the crosswalks.
“If we allow rainbow crosswalks, wouldn’t we then have to allow … any other hot-button issue? What do we do then?” he asked.
A number of municipalities around the state, including Bangor, Portland, South Portland and Orono, painted rainbow crosswalks in 2020, and Kutny told the committee she had spoken with three municipal offices where the painted crosswalks have been permitted and heard of no safety issues. In addition, she said, as the council has discretion in allowing the painting of sidewalks, it could deny groups wanting to paint say, swastikas, or any symbols, letters or numbers.
Ellsworth High School and Ellsworth Elementary-Middle School crosswalks were painted in rainbow colors last August with approval by the School Board.
“I’m frustrated,” Councilor Robert Miller said of the city deliberations. “There’s a lot of evidence why we should do it and not a lot of evidence why we shouldn’t. But I understand people have their own opinions and I don’t think we’re all going to agree.”
The inability of the committee to reach a full consensus led Hamilton to move to disband it.
“That doesn’t mean it’s off the table for anybody to pursue,” he said. “It just means this committee couldn’t come to consensus around it.”
Kutny and student Ben Snow also raised the possibility of a Pride parade during national Gay Pride Month, June, and placing rainbow flags on Main Street light poles during that month. The committee will recommend to the council that a new group be formed to discuss ways to bring awareness and create an accepting culture for the LGBTQ+ community.
“This is a very relevant and important problem we’re trying to solve,” Kutny said.
She was prepared with statistics to back that up. Kutny said 13.6 percent, or about 7,500, of Maine high school students identify as LGBT, and experience bullying and discrimination in significantly higher numbers than non-LGBTQ students, according to a survey conducted by the Department of Health and Human Services.
Blanchette questioned why the committee would endorse a community group. While such a public group could bring ideas to the council, he said, “I don’t think it’s within this group’s realm to move beyond what our original charge was.”
Kutny then asked how to keep the painted crosswalk request alive.
“Do I have to bring it back to the council? Do I wait a year until there are different people on the council? What is the protocol to revisit this issue?”
Any citizen can work with the council to bring issues forward through public comment or formally bring it forward as an agenda item, Hamilton explained. However, to request an agenda item for a council meeting, a councilor must first endorse it.
“I can’t stand it when kids are bullied,” Miller said. “I can’t stand it when kids feel they have to commit suicide because it’s their only option. Anything you want me to do, I will help you.”