Brunswick council forms task force, resolves to oppose bias

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BRUNSWICK — The Town Council on Monday night established a task force and adopted a resolution to deal with harassment and discrimination in town.

Chairwoman Sarah Brayman said the proposed motion, which originally included just forming a task force, was the result of three meetings between councilors and community leaders.

The meetings, held in August, October, and December, were all convened based on reported incidents of bias in Brunswick, mainly involving Bowdoin College students.

In a September letter, college President Clayton Rose wrote that “over the last few months several members of our community – students, student guests, staff and faculty – all persons of color – have been subjected to racial invectives of the worst kind.”

“These incidents have generally involved the N-word being hurled by people in cars passing near campus and in town,” he added.

Also, in November, a Bowdoin student reported being raped in her college-owned Belmont Street apartment by an unidentified intruder. In the following weeks, two more women reported being grabbed by unidentified men while walking in the neighborhood around the Bowdoin campus.

Brayman said that a council task force could explore whether recent bias events are isolated, or “may be an indication of a larger pattern.”

The group could play a “facilitating role” with community organizations, she said, and report its findings back to the council by the end of June.

Other action could include organizing a Town Hall-style meeting to discuss issues such as race, class and gender in Brunswick.

“(These) incidents are so rare it’s memorable,” said Councilor John Richardson. But he said he supported Brayman’s proposal, because “just one is too many.”

Before the council could fully discuss the task force, though, the process was complicated when Councilor Dan Harris asked councilors to agree to sign a draft resolution he had written.

“Let it be known that (harassment) will not be tolerated here in town,” he said. “I feel strongly the impetus should begin with the council.”

The document, if adopted, would resolve that “it is the policy of the Town of Brunswick, that harassment, abuse, derogatory comments, and discrimination … directed towards individuals and groups of individuals based on race, gender, sexual preference, religion, or national origin … are incompatible with the welcoming and inclusive character of (Brunswick).”

Councilors then embarked on an hour-long conversation clarifying the motion to include both the creation of the task force and the adoption of the resolution.

At various points, councilors elicited skepticism about “legislating against ignorance.” Some councilors were wary about signing a document they had first seen that night, and was not included in the agenda.

Town Attorney Stephen Langsdorf was asked for his legal opinion several times during the proceedings. He clarified that a resolution is an “expression of sentiment” by a body, and recommended that a paragraph Harris included about specific council action be struck.

He also recommended the categories Harris had identified as targets of bias be broadened to include all classes protected under the Maine Human Rights Act in both the resolution and creation of the task force.

But even after the motion was clarified to include Harris’ new proposal, along with Brayman’s original task force, not all councilors were sold on the idea.

“I don’t know how much control any (legislative body) has over bonehead-ism,” Councilor Suzan Wilson said.

Councilor Jane Millet, who had originally supported the task force, said she found the direction the motion had taken “bizarre.”

“It’s not fair,” she said, “to vote on something I saw for the first time at 5 o’clock tonight.”

But other councilors supported authorizing both items.

Councilor Kathy Wilson spoke of her experience growing up gay in Maine during the 1970s. “People would ask … why the hell do you have to be like that?” she said.

But Wilson said she had personally seen open conversations with people around her change individuals’ actions.

“We all have prejudices,” she said. “We have to change (our) actions.”

“It’s tough to fix stupid with groups like this (task force),” Councilor Steve Walker said. “But the task force is … an opportunity to learn what tools are out there.”

The council ultimately voted to create the task force and approve Harris’ document by a vote of 6-3, with Councilors Millet, Suzan Wilson, and David Watson opposed.

Brayman appointed Millet, Kathy Wilson and herself to serve on the task force.

“While this is not what we started with, and while I prefer material to be provided to council and public with enough advance to consider what’s before us, I am happy with what came out of the meeting and believe we have a firm foundation for moving forward,” Brayman said after the meeting.

The task force will report back to the council in June 2016.

Walter Wuthmann can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or Follow Walter on Twitter: @wwuthmann.

Brunswick/Harpswell reporter for The Forecaster. Bowdoin College grad, San Francisco Bay Area native. Follow for municipal, school, community, and environmental news from the Midcoast.