Halsey Frank: Tempest in a teapot, or in this case, a South Portland coffee shop

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Photo: Jimmy Emerson, DVM / cc/ Flickr)
Photo: Jimmy Emerson, DVM / cc/ Flickr)

How can we end the cycle of recrimination from which we are suffering and restore faith in our government? We tend to focus on big, national issues like gridlock in Congress, the abuse of presidential authority or the politicization of the judiciary. They seem intractable. The solution may be closer to home.

In that regard, an item in the newspaper in January caught my eye, “Accusation that South Portland councilor abused power is partly substantiated.” I got a copy of the outside attorney’s report, a copy of the city’s statement, and I read what I could find about the matter online.

Here’s what I learned.

Sarah Williams and Brooke Bolduc are women of color, roommates, and residents of South Portland. Katelyn Bruzgo and Naomi Hall are married. They own and operate a coffee shop named Omi (I had coffee at Omi a few times when it was located on the edge of the West End and found it pleasant). Bruzgo is also a member of the South Portland city council.

Bruzgo and Hall may have employed Williams prior to the events at issue. The report alludes to Hall complaining about a former employee harassing her and to an allegation that Williams harassed Omi staff in the past. Those are just some aspects of the situation for which I did not find an explanation. (They may explain the animosity.)

At some point last year, on social media, Williams and an associate criticized Omi for bad service and for being transphobic. Initially, both Bruzgo and Hall complained to the police that they were being harassed. Bruzgo eventually dropped the complaint, but Hall pursued it. A South Portland Police officer investigated and issued a protection from harassment order to Williams and her associate.

Thereafter, it appears that the criticism escalated. The material available online includes a picture of a flyer posted on a telephone pole that accuses Omi of invading customers’ privacy, stealing money, wasting police resources and terrorizing and endangering people.

At a Zoom city council meeting on October 12, 2021, Bolduc, using the name Brooke, complained that Bruzgo had weaponized her power, racially terrorized people, and had inappropriately weaponized the police against Black and Brown people. The council asked the state’s Attorney General’s Office to investigate, but it declined on the grounds that the matter wasn’t criminal.

The council then hired an outside attorney with experience in harassment, discrimination and retaliation matters. She investigated and concluded that Hall was acting on behalf of Bruzgo when she pursued the complaint against Williams, that the officer who issued the protection order was aware of Bruzgo’s involvement and that Bruzgo was a city councilor, that Williams’ posts were not harassment warranting a protection order but rather were opinion based on experience, and that the protection order wasn’t justified because Williams did not make at least three intimidating posts.

In order to obtain a cease harassment order under Maine law, at a minimum, a victim must have experienced at least three acts of intimidation that were intended to cause fear, and did cause fear. The attorney found concerning Hall’s continuous allegations that were not supported by the material provided to the police.

The South Portland Police conducted their own internal investigation, revoked the protection order and apologized to Williams.

Bruzgo maintains that she is neither racist nor transphobic. The city manager released a carefully worded statement that Bruzgo did not abuse her authority as a councilor when her wife complained to the police about the alleged harassment.

The situation brought to mind French observer of democracy in America in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville. He thought that small, New England town government was the epitome of democracy. It teaches citizens how to use and enjoy freedom and popular sovereignty; the balance of powers, duties, and rights; the limits of government and the need for self-control and individual initiative. 

We don’t seem to be living up to de Tocqueville’s image of us these days.

A complaint about poor service at a place of public accommodation like a coffee shop is not a crime. It is not a true threat to scare or harm. As the outside attorney found, it is an opinion based on experience. Opinions are not defamatory.

A complaint that a business owner is transphobic or racist isn’t a crime either, even if it’s untrue. Speech that demeans someone because of what a critic considers their unenlightened attitude may be spiteful, but it is protected by the First Amendment.  It too is an opinion and not defamation.

In Maine, municipal officials are supposed to avoid conflicts of interest. By way of illustration, Maine state legislators are not supposed to use their position to get preferential treatment over members of the general public.

Even so, government officials are entitled to be free from criminal harassment like anyone else, and to appeal for the help of the police if they believe that they have been the victim of it. That doesn’t mean Bruzgo should have complained to the police or that the police should have honored her complaint with an investigation or a protection order. Elected officials need to exercise self-restraint. Law enforcement officers must handle complaints with judgment and discretion.

Citizens need to exercise self-restraint too. Bolduc’s comments at the city council meeting seem intemperate at least. Although it is not impossible, it seems unlikely at this time and place that Bruzgo would be racist or transphobic. It seems even more unlikely if, in fact, Bruzgo and Hall had previously employed Williams. On the other hand, Bolduc’s complaint about Bruzgo making inappropriate use of her power is a matter of public interest and appears to be what the outside attorney partially substantiated (although that attorney did not respond to my email request for clarification of this point).

The amount of animosity within such a small and liberal circle is remarkable. Portland has been experiencing something similar in recent years. Such is the nature of the times we inhabit. Once unleashed, anger is hard to control and leads from bad to worse.

On the positive side, the episode demonstrates that we are all human, even if it is in the respects that we are all imperfect, we all make mistakes, and we all overreact. I am and I do. These things are within our power to control. If so, then the key to making things better is within our reach.

Photo: Jimmy Emerson, DVM / cc/ Flickr)

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Halsey Frank was born and raised in and around New York City and nearby Englewood, NJ. He graduated from the Dwight Englewood School, Wesleyan University and the Boston University School of Law. After law school, Halsey worked for the Department of Justice for 34 years, first as a civil litigator and later as a criminal prosecutor and civil attorney in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia. In 1999, Halsey moved to Maine where he worked as a civil attorney and criminal prosecutor in the U.S Attorney’s Office until 2017, when he was nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate to be Maine’s U.S. Attorney, the chief federal law enforcement officer for the District of Maine. Halsey retired from the Department of Justice in February 2021. Prior to becoming a U.S. Attorney, Halsey was active in local affairs, including the Portland Republican City Committee, the Friends of Portland Parks, the Friends of the Portland Public Library and the Maine Leadership Institute. He previously authored a column entitled “Short Relief” that appeared in The Forecaster regional newspaper. His views are his own.

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