WATERVILLE — Tensions flared at this week’s City Council meeting during a debate about mask mandates in schools, with Mayor Jay Coelho ultimately slamming down his gavel to halt discussion.

But matters further escalated afterward when members of Maine Patriots With Attitude followed a couple outside where one member repeatedly used a vulgar term to insult a woman.

The founder of the group, Waterville resident Nick Blanchard, had attended Tuesday’s council meeting at Coelho’s invitation after Blanchard earlier said the group planned to protest outside the homes of people who sit on the board of directors for school districts in the region. Blanchard said his intention was not to be violent but to hold board members accountable for imposing a mask mandate and for other decisions they make.

“Can we get some help?” Blanchard asked. “Can we start talking about this?”

Coelho said he had no issue with Blanchard protesting but disagrees with his approach. People discuss issues in Waterville in a civil way and don’t resort to going to elected officials’ homes to protest, he said.

“I would urge you to go to a school board meeting first,” Coelho said. “I’ll go with you. I’ll have that discussion.”

Coelho said Blanchard may not get the answer or solution he wants but the school board in Waterville would not dismiss Blanchard’s concerns out of hand.

“I assure you that if you come to ours, nobody’s bouncing you out as long as you’re being respectful,” Coelho said.

“Well then let’s do it,” said Blanchard.

Blanchard said he would be respectful, as he has been at school board meetings in neighboring towns.

Council Chairman Erik Thomas, D-Ward 7, told Blanchard that not everyone agrees with him.

“This is a really hard time to be a school board member,” Thomas said. “And every one of those people are elected and they’ll be up for reelection and if people don’t like what they’re doing they can vote them out. And that’s the way you handle it. You don’t go in front of their house and harass them.”

Councilor Thomas Klepach, D-Ward 3, noted there are record numbers of people hospitalized for COVID-19 and health care workers are under tremendous strain.

“At no point in this pandemic have we been at this critical stage,” Klepach said. “People now, pretending that the pandemic is over and that precautions are not necessary, are not paying attention to the data. They are not paying attention to the lives that are being lost. We can have discussions about freedom of choice, but assuming that an elementary-aged child is sufficiently capable of weighing all of the health care implications of their behavior at school is not understanding what a child is and the responsibility that adults have to those children.”

Klepach said protesting outside homes is not using appropriate channels and is not the Democratic process.

“Protest is a resort when the Democratic process has failed,” he said.

Nick Blanchard, 32, founder of the group Maine Patriots With Attitude, points as he has an exchange with City Councilor-elect Thomas McCormick after being confronted during Tuesday’s council meeting about protest tactics Blanchard’s group uses. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel

Ward 7 Councilor-elect Thomas McCormick, voice raised, chastised Blanchard and another member of his group.

“You with your phone, sitting here recording me right now, and you with the ‘Save America’ hat,” McCormick said, “I expect to see your names with a petition, walking around just like I did in the last election and running for those positions, or quit making noise.”

In a loud, terse exchange, Coelho warned McCormick that people were not there to argue. McCormick denied that he was arguing.

Coelho slammed down the gavel.

“Everyone, stop,” he said. “I said that we are going to have a civil conversation and that is what we have had. I will not let this deteriorate into nonsense.”

“I will see you, sir, at the next school board meeting,” he said to Blanchard.

After the meeting adjourned, McCormick and his wife left The Elm building and entered the parking lot, with one of Blanchard’s group members directing a crude, vulgar term at McCormick’s wife. McCormick became angry before his wife tried to calm the situation. Police were called but things had already de-escalated.

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