2015-09-03 / News

Pledge at center of apparent misunderstanding

By Ben Meiklejohn Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD – A decision to forego reciting the Pledge of Allegiance at last week’s Public Safety Committee meeting has created a social media uproar.

The Aug. 24 meeting began when At-Large City Councilor Marc Lessard, who is chairman of the committee, announced, “We’ll dispense of the Pledge of Allegiance and make sure we manage that at our next council meeting.” Although nobody in attendance protested the decision or requested that the pledge be recited, people have been sharing their dismay with Lessard’s decision on Facebook. As of the Courier’s deadline, Terry Belanger, a resident who is also a veteran, had been organizing a rally to happen before the city council meeting at Biddeford High School on Tuesday, Sept. 1, in protest of the omission.

Lessard, who will run for re-election this November, said the furor is being blown out of proportion because the pledge is not even recited at most committee meetings, and is mainly reserved for council meetings. The pledge, he said, was added to the Public Safety Committee meeting agenda by mistake.

“It’s not something that I recall being part of the agenda on meetings we’ve had in the past, and I knew there was a full slate of agenda items and folks looking to speak to certain items,” Lessard said. “I wanted to be able to get the work done, knew it was a full agenda, knew there were people waiting, and we stand up and make the pledge at least a couple times a month.”

Belanger said in response to Lessard, “That’s wonderful to say something like that, but what about what the flag represents? What about the people who have died or been badly maimed? We can’t devote 13 seconds in their honor? The flag represents our country. To show respect for that 13 seconds doesn’t take away from their meeting at all.”

Matt Lauzon, who has been in the news recently for his repeated requests to have Police Chief Roger Beaupre placed on paid administrative leave, was one of the first to post his dismay about the pledge issue on social media.

“I’m still trying to understand why Councilor Lessard and Chief Roger Beaupre felt they could disrespect our nation and refuse to do the Pledge of Allegiance as is custom at every meeting,” said Lauzon, whose post was shared with multiple other users and pages.

Lauzon has targeted Beaupre amidst allegations that a retired Biddeford police officer sexually abused Lauzon, a former Biddeford resident, as a child.

Beaupre, who attends the Public Safety Committee meetings as a staff member, said he doesn’t understand why he was targeted because he has nothing to do with the agenda or with running the meeting.

“I’m just a staff member attached to the committee to take minutes,” Beaupre said. “I don’t set the agenda. I make recommendations, but I can’t vote. Not every committee has (the pledge) … There’s no consistency with that. As a matter of fact, I was kind of surprised to see it on this (agenda). The only one that usually has it is the Policy Committee.”

Biddeford resident Dennis Munroe said Beaupre and the councilors present should have piped up about the omission.

“To think that Beaupre was there and did not condemn it, never said anything, and other councilors who were there didn’t do anything – (Michael) Swanton, Clem Fleurent, (Roger) Hurtubise – that’s a sad day,” Munroe said.

Lessard said skipping the pledge wasn’t an act of antipatriotism, but was merely correcting the agenda, since the Public Safety Committee hadn’t previously been in the habit of reciting the pledge before meetings.

“Trust me, I believe in the red, white and blue as much as anyone that serves the city or country,” Lessard said. “If somebody would have brought it up (at the meeting), I would have been more than happy to take the time and stand up and recite it. It was time to do the people’s work and nobody raised the question of the pledge. It’s not about being unpatriotic. We’ve had such a hard time getting the work done for the citizens because of these distractions.”

In recent months, since Lauzon first publicly alleged he was abused by a former officer, crowds of people have attended city council meetings, angry about what they characterize as inaction on the part of the city. Several council meetings have been adjourned early due to disruptive conduct.

On Tuesday morning, before the city council meeting, Munroe said, “They blame us for disrupting the meetings and stopping them. It’s not us. They trigger us … I expect a lot of police presence again tonight. It’s a waste of money. We don’t promote violence. If the mayor would have just listened to us and done what was right months ago …”

On Facebook, posts about the Tuesday, Sept 1 council meeting claimed councilors were planning to vote to eliminate the Pledge of Allegiance from all council meetings, but the council agenda did not indicate any such vote was scheduled to take place.

Belanger said on Tuesday that he and other veterans planned to attend the council meeting to let the council know that removing the pledge would be unacceptable to them.

Belanger, who is running for city council in Ward 4, said he didn’t use Facebook until he became a candidate, and plans to delete his account after the campaign. However, the social media site has been an effective tool in getting the word out about the protest.

Belanger said the protest has been shared by people in California and Florida, and a person from Washington, D.C., called him to discuss the issue.

Because of social media, Belanger said the omission has escalated in the community to the point where veterans from across the region were planning to attend the Sept. 1 city council meeting to speak.

Joseph Armstrong, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 1044 in Sanford, said he prepared a speech that he intended to read to the council during public comment.

When asked what he thought about Lessard’s response – that the placement of the pledge on the agenda was a procedural inconsistency – Armstrong said, “I think he’s just trying to cover his tail. He realized that he opened Pandora’s box with this and the veterans community is outraged.”

Armstrong, Belanger and Munroe all said that even if the pledge is not recited at every committee meeting, it should be.

“The pledge of allegiance only takes 13 seconds to recite,” Armstrong said. “How much business can you transact in 13 seconds? Not much, so it’s not a waste of time.”

Munroe said he’s gone to other committee meetings where they do recite the pledge.

“I think they should,” Munroe said. “This is city government … You take the oath to represent. To me, the Pledge of Allegiance is as important as that.”

Lessard said the people who are upset about omitting the pledge are the same people who are upset with the city council, and are looking for ways to get people angry at the council.

“Whatever it is that you do, there are always going to be some folks that take issue with whatever you do,” Lessard said. “The real story is them trying to make stories out of nothing.

“Honestly, a lot of (whether the pledge is scheduled to be recited) depends on where the agenda came from and who was typing it up that week, whether it was copied and pasted from another committee meeting or not. It’s literally that, that’s all.”

Armstrong said choosing not to recite the pledge at a public meeting infuriated a lot of veterans, but he still hoped to attend the council meeting with positive intentions.

“Hopefully it will be a positive meeting,” he said. “On a personal note, I want to keep this on a positive level. I want something constructive to come out of this. I want veterans to feel good, the community to feel good, and I want the councilors to feel good.”

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