2016-04-14 / Front Page

Residents work with DOJ to help with ‘discourse’

The committee has met since fall but plans for community forums delayed
By Ben Meiklejohn
Staff Writer

BIDDEFORD – A group of residents have been meeting since October with assistance from the U.S. Department of Justice, hoping to host community forums to discuss local issues. However, organizing the forums has proven a difficult task for the group, which calls itself Biddeford Speaks. The group originally intended for a series of forums to be held in March, but the events never occurred.

Mayor Alan Casavant said he initiated the effort last year after he met Frank Amoroso, a Saco resident and conciliation specialist for the Community Relations Service of the U.S. Department of Justice.

Casavant said the idea of holding the forums with the help of the U.S. Department of Justice was borne out of the contentious dialogue that arose last year out of allegations of sexual abuse by two former police officers, but the intent of the forums wasn't to directly address the allegations.

“We recognized the polarity in the community when people get divisional, and are talking at each other,” Casavant said. “It spilled into a lot of different events. I don't think it's unique to Biddeford, although we have our own brand of polarization. If you look at it nationally, it's there, too. The DOJ has a model in which people have to talk to each other.”

Casavant said he invited more than 20 residents to work with Amoroso to organize the forums.

“I chose all of you based upon your personality and skills, and, of course, because I know you,” Casavant said in an Oct. 6 email obtained by the Courier through a Freedom of Access Act request.

“I got it going, was trying to get the wheels on the ground,” Casavant told the Courier last week. “The original idea was to have a short, narrow window to schedule a number of discussions. I did not want to be a part of this whatsoever. (The U.S. Department of Justice) didn't want anybody directly involved in the political discourse – they wanted it to be people who were objective.”

Members have left the group since October, but as of March 31, Casavant emailed the group that he believed the current members of Biddeford Speaks were: Norm Allaire, Pat Boston, Judy Cadorette, Tom and Tina Callahan, Susan Deschambault, Ryan Fecteau, Tammy Fleurent, Carolyn Gosselin, Martin Grohman, Fr. Ron Labarre, Mike Laverriere, Kim Loranger, Sheila Neault, Ron Peaker, Craig Pendleton, Megan Rochelo, Charlene Saucier, Giselle Roy, Jenn Scavuzzo, Jeremie Sirois and Todd Turgeon.

Siriois, who is principal of Biddeford High School, said he receives the emails but is not a member and does not attend meetings. Sirois said his only role is to schedule space at the high school for the group to meet.

Roy said she also never got involved because she is a full-time grandmother and didn't have time to contribute.

“I thought they wanted people who are involved in different aspects of the city, not just government,” Roy said. “There were a lot of people on that list. I've never gone (to a meeting), but the people that are on it, I would look at as a lot of good people – no troublemakers. We need positivity, that's what they're trying to do. There's so much negativity, people don't even want to read the papers and they hope to turn it around.”

Fleurent said she wasn't involved either and she thinks her name was added to the list, because at the time the group was forming, she was a member of the school committee.

In the Oct. 6 email from Casavant, the group also included Alex Agreste, Natalie Angers, Roger Beaupre, Jen Burke, CJ Dubois Cote, Steve Gorton, Michael Leclair and Paul Lebrecque, who are no longer listed as members. In addition, the representative from the Department of Justice met with city department heads, about the same time.

“I do not in any way shape or form want to make this political, so I cannot serve on this group,” Casavant said in the Oct. 6 email. “If one of you has the time and inclination to be the organizer/leader, please let me know. I am willing to help in any way that I can, but I am sure that you understand that if this is perceived as being political, which it is not, there is an unnecessary battle that would have to be fought.”

The group ultimately selected residents Pat Boston and Todd Turgeon to be the group's leaders. Neither Boston nor Turgeon returned calls from the Courier to talk about the group, even though several other people, including Muhammad Ali-Salaam, another conciliation specialist from the U.S. Department of Justice, Deschambault and Pendleton referred the Courier to talk to them.

Casavant said the group has had diffi- culty organizing in recent months and will have to reassess whether the forums are needed or not.

Pendleton, who is director of the Biddeford Saco Chamber of Commerce & Industry, attended about a dozen meetings. Pendleton said the group hit a snag when Amoroso unexpectedly retired at the end of December and moved out of the area.

“Frank was the one who was really bringing the process to the group, he was the guy everyone was leaning on,” Pendleton said. “It was a matter of convenience of having a local person that worked there, as well as it does help to have some established process when getting people together to talk about touchy subjects and longstanding issues in the community.”

Pendleton said when the Civil Rights Act was passed, a division of the Department of Justice was established to go into communities and do mediation and reconciliation around civil rights. The division has helped mediate differences in communities across the nation, Pendleton said, and was intending to use the same process for the community forums in Biddeford.

Ali-Salaam, who worked with Amoroso in helping the group become organized, said he and Amoroso's involvement was more informal than formal.

“We were just asked to facilitate discussion with members of the community,” Ali-Salaam said. “We are basically a set of mediators that go into a situation to help a community work through various problems. In this case, we were asked.”

Ali-Salaam said there were no specific civil rights violations around which the U.S. Department of Justice was addressing.

“Hate crimes, that's a big part of (the Community Relations Service), but in this particular instance here, it was not so much about hate crimes, but to help community members,” Ali-Salaam said. “There were a number of issues, serious issues, but what we wanted to do is help them focus on a range of issues, not limit it in any way, but help determine what the priorities would be rather than having a one-sided conversation – make sure it's all inclusive.”

Pendleton said Biddeford has had a longstanding reputation of being an uneducated populace with a negative reputation and the name of the group – Biddeford

Speaks – reflected a need for residents to step up and speak about their community with pride.

“That was the big picture stuff we're trying to get at – How does Biddeford pick itself up and say, 'We're damn proud to be Biddeford'? Those are the items we really needed to dig into and say, ‘it's time for Biddeford to brag,’ time for the people of Biddeford to recognize they have a really remarkable school system.”

Pendleton said even though the group didn’t plan to hold forums to directly address last year's allegations of sexual abuse, the division created by the issue is a reason the group needs to hold the forums.

“My personal opinion as an outsider was that the sexual abuse stuff was on everybody's mind,” Pendleton said. “What this process tried to do is say there are deeper issues here. For example, one of the things we looked at, is instead of turning it personal, using (Matt) Lauzon's name or (Police Chief Roger) Beaupre's name, can we look at an issue like looking at police-citizen interaction?”

Pendleton met with the Courier in February to talk about media coverage of the forums. When the newspaper called the Department of Justice, it was told that Amoroso had retired and the organization was no longer working with anyone from the city and that it appeared the group had discontinued.

In a Feb. 24 email to the group and Turgeon, Ali-Salaam, wrote: “I just received a call from a young man who asked questions about the Biddeford dialogues. He asked to speak to Frank Amoroso, but I told him that Frank has retired. He didn't ask who I was, but I continued the conversation and answered his questions as best I could. I ended the conversations by mentioning that he should talk with you if he had other questions and he said that he would be following up with you.”

The Courier’s phone call to the Department of Justice prompted an email from Pendleton to the group: “I do feel as though the group was faltering and we didn't have a clear game plan but I also have been busy and didn't give it my 100 percent. The Courier wants to report on this like the National Enquirer. I tried to explain to them the need for appropriateness but they aren't going to do that. They were going to reach out to Mr. Lauzon and ask him what he thought of the group and how he felt about not being part of it from the beginning. I did what I could to dissuade that type of reporting but I guess I failed.”

He added: “My two cents is we had some good meetings but we lack the group passion to fulfill this type of truth and reconciliation and healing that we wanted to try and achieve. That in no way is a negative but mainly a recognition that it is hard work and maybe the time isn't right.”

Rep. Ryan Fecteau (D-Biddeford) said Biddeford Speaks wouldn't have been formed if not for the allegations of sexual abuse.

“Folks remain concerned, as they should be, about what occurred,” Fecteau said. “I think it's important that people are heard in a forum that isn't elected officials sitting at a horseshoe unable to respond. These community forums will be far more impactful and have a potential to drive the community forward in more cohesive ways than speaking at city council.”

Fecteau said Biddeford Speaks forum topics could be police and resident interaction, drug abuse, public discourse and other general issues.

Rep. Martin Grohman (D-Biddeford) said the “big tent” approach the Department of Justice is taking should include opportunities if people feel the need at forums to express concern about the allegations.

“I don't think it hurts that we were in the middle of a community discussion around that, and for people to get it off of their chests,” Grohman said. “I think we would want to revisit that if it's all inclusive – community tension people want to express whatever the source of it is.”

City resident Melissa Bednarowski said Biddeford Speak's attempt to exclude community members who were vocal about the allegations undermines its goals to reconcile differences. Bednarowski is the director of a nonprofit organization, Stand Up 4 Me, that was formed last year to support victims of sex abuse.

“They've been very adamant to not allow anyone associated with Matt Lauzon or Stand Up 4 Me to be involved,” Bednarowski said. “This group continues to pinpoint specific individuals and leave them out of the discussion. If these specific individuals are the ones who started the contention, then I don't know how conversations around making the community stronger or preventing this from happening again can happen if two sides aren't in the same room having open discussions.”

Matt Lauzon, who was the first to publicly allege last year that he was abused by a former police officer, said he requested to participate in Biddeford Speaks but was not responded to.

“I believe any initiative that will promote healing in the community is something I'd love to see happen,” Lauzon said. “I'd love to be a part of the group and do whatever I can to help bring the community together.”

On Feb. 28, Boston emailed the group to update them on a forum that was being scheduled in a senior facility.

“The concerns of these residents appear to focus on safety matters, and it was suggested that Chief Beaupre might provide staff to meet with them. He has agreed to do so,” she wrote. “We can confirm with Chief Beaupre whether or not a note taker is needed from our group.”

Beaupre is a defendant in three suits against the city involving allegations of sex abuse by former police officers that plaintiffs claim Beaupre “knew and/or should have known” about.

On March 17, Boston forwarded to the group members an email containing Facebook posts from Lauzon. Lauzon's post read, “Must admit, one of the most bizarre things I've seen or heard of in the last year (and that's a high bar) is that the The United States Department of Justice has a group operating in Biddeford to promote 'healing.' … Has anyone taken part of any of the group's efforts? I'd love to volunteer if it's real.”

Ali-Salaam responded to Boston by email, saying, “Thank you Ms. Boston. I have never met Mr. Lauzon and have never before used his name in a sentence. He is free to say whatever he wants, as he is simply exercising his freedom of speech and I applaud him for that and I hope he gets satisfaction.”

According to emails exchanged between members of Biddeford Speaks and Casavant, the issue of the sex abuse allegations has been a significant factor in strategy of how to move forward.

On Feb. 23, Boston emailed the members, “There are some members of the group who brought up whether the mood in Biddeford is very different from what it was when we began discussing this initiative and whether we might be rekindling a dying flame.”

Boston also said that she had become busy helping Susan Deschambault's campaign for the state Senate in the March special election. Boston did not respond to the Courier as to why the March forums were cancelled.

Casavant responded to Boston's email, saying, “I do not, by the way, think that the climate has changed. There is still a considerable display of anger and hate out there. Some of it is clearly political. Importantly, this group is not supposed to focus solely on the abuse issue, but to consider other areas of discussion within the community that sparks fear, frustration, controversy, anger, etc. I remain steadfast that the membership of this core committee cannot be perceived as a polarizing, biased person. That is one reason why I chose not to be an active participant, as there is a faction that clearly views me as the enemy (and I am being kind).”

On Feb. 23, the Courier attempted to reach Boston. Although she did not return the Courier's call, she emailed Turgeon, Pendleton and Casavant that day: “I got home this afternoon after running errands and had a phone message from Ben, a reporter from the Courier, who wants to talk to me about this 'committee that has been formed with some people in the local area to discuss issues in the community… Apparently the Department of Justice was going to play a role in this committee but apparently they might not be part of it anymore… I want… to get a little more info about (the) committee, what departments or city governing agencies are involved, and what the plan and objectives of the group are.’ I do not plan to respond to the contact.”

When Pendleton was asked why members of Biddeford Speaks were evading the press, Pendleton said, “I don't believe that at all. We had gotten to a point where Pat and Todd had become the anointed leaders and Mohammad had turned the process back to us in a general sense, and Mohammad became just guidance, until we were going to do five meetings in March and he would play a greater facilitator role.”

Biddeford resident Ron Peaker attended the Biddeford Speaks meetings through December, but had to leave the group early this year because of other commitments.

“It was my opinion that we didn't move as fast as I would have liked to, to get to the forums. It got all tangled up,” Peaker said. “We never got anywhere, and because we never got anywhere, it got so people weren't able to come to meetings … We never reached a consensus on issues … We never got into bringing in a whole bunch of other people. We never got into what we're going to talk about.

“There was a lack of focus on getting to a problem we could work on,” Peaker added.

This week, Ali-Salaam said of Biddeford Speaks, “They definitely lost steam and they had other priorities, so it was put on hold and there has not been any rescheduling.”

While Casavant didn't want to play a role in organizing the group, Casavant continuously inquires of members' availabilities and when a meeting can be scheduled, as indicated in emails from the mayor.

Fecteau said with summer fast approaching, Biddeford Speaks will likely have to put off forums until fall, if it is going to organize them at all.

Casavant said he is uncertain whether the group will continue or not, but he doesn't want to be relied on as an organizer because he wants to keep an objective and neutral role.

Grohman said it would be a missed opportunity to not use the services of the Department of Justice.

"I don't have a good answer for you," Pendleton said on why the March forums never happened or if Biddeford Speaks would organize future forums. "It's clearly stalled. Alan's in a bad spot because the whole process called for him to stay out of it ... Clearly we didn't find anything that pressed everyone's button that said, 'Every Monday, we're going to be at the meeting.'”

"It was not having enough of the right people consistently in the room ... Some people came because they felt honored to be asked by the mayor, so it was a civic duty for them instead of in their heart, they wanted to be in the room. If the heart's not in it ... "

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