SOUTH PORTLAND — Mayor Tom Blake sent a New Year’s Eve message to fellow city councilors Thursday, urging them to be more respectful of each other and the public after several days of caustic communication related to a proposed propane depot at Rigby Yard.

It’s unclear whether the mayor’s entreaty will have any effect, however, especially since four councilors at the center of what Blake described as apparent dysfunction defended their positions after reading his letter.

Mounting tension flared Monday evening during a council workshop on suggested amendments to the city’s fire protection and prevention ordinances. The 18-page document was drafted by residents who oppose the depot proposed by the NGL Terminal Supply Co. for distributing propane, which is liquefied petroleum gas.

During the televised meeting, some councilors criticized and questioned the qualifications and actions of municipal staff members who have reviewed the NGL proposal over the last year. Other councilors criticized the suggested fire code amendments and questioned the credentials of community members who drafted them.

The controversy continued through the last few days, via email and other means, among city officials and community members, prompting Blake to email his message Thursday, hoping to quash the discord and bring some decorum back to the council.

“I have heard from numerous members of the public that we are not doing a good job when it comes to professionalism, respect and understanding,” Blake wrote. “We are being watched and we are being scrutinized.”

Blake said the council’s behavior has hurt citizens and city staff members. He asked councilors to “rise above any name calling and accusations” and to address concerns about municipal employees or operations through the city manager.

“I believe it is unprofessional to argue with staff or (members) of the public in an email or in public,” Blake wrote. “We, as trusted public officials, must rise (above) this and strive to be positive, professional and productive.”

HEATED MEETING, STRONG CRITICISM

For nearly a year, city officials and residents have wrangled over a proposal to build a $3 million propane depot at the rail yard off Route 1, between the Thornton Heights and Cash Corner neighborhoods. The project is proposed by NGL Terminal Supply Co., a subsidiary of NGL Energy Partners of Tulsa, Oklahoma, which includes Brunswick-based Downeast Energy.

NGL wants to build the depot because the company must leave its existing location on Commercial Street in Portland by next spring, when the state plans to start expanding the International Marine Terminal. The company submitted an initial proposal in February, then a modified version in September. A proposed moratorium on propane facilities goes before the Planning Board on Jan. 12.

Monday’s conflict continued Tuesday morning, when Councilor Brad Fox emailed all seven councilors and City Manager Jim Gailey, telling him to “put a hold on” posting the video of the meeting because it contained personal attacks.

Gailey reminded Fox that the video is a public record of a public meeting under Maine’s Freedom of Access Act. The video was posted throughout the week on the city’s website.

On Wednesday, Fox again emailed all councilors, this time asking Blake to stop the personal attacks. “You have the authority to end this kind of talk, and you need to use it,” he wrote.

Blake’s letter didn’t mention Monday’s meeting, but it clearly addressed the seething discussion that took place.

Fox presented the suggested fire code amendments with input from Devin Deane, a Thornton Heights resident who is a trial lawyer with Norman Hanson DeTroy in Portland, and George Corey, a resident of the Willard Beach area who formerly worked as a corporate lawyer in Massachusetts.

The suggested amendments would require propane facilities to be developed at least 1,257 feet from “critical infrastructure,” including the Cash Corner Fire Station near Rigby Yard.

Councilor Claude Morgan said the suggested fire code changes were a “sloppy” and “sleazy” attempt to block the NGL proposal based on inaccurate, misquoted, unreliable and opinion-based information.

Fox fired back, attributing the “real distortions” of city ordinances to NGL and “unfortunately sometimes some of our city staff.” He said councilors swear to protect the health, safety and welfare of citizens, “not the cash flow of a multibillion-dollar corporation.”

‘CRISIS OF FAITH’ IN CITY STAFFERS

Councilor Eben Rose leveled even stronger criticism at city staff. He chastised code enforcement, planning and fire officials for allowing the NGL proposal to advance at all because he believes it violates existing ordinances.

When Blake and other councilors recommended that city staff polish the suggested fire code changes, Rose said he had no confidence in city staff. Though he didn’t name individuals, he accused city staffers of “neglect of duty,” which he said was a “punishable offense.” He also said they had manipulated, delayed and withheld information related to the NGL proposal.

Rose, who was elected in November, praised Fox for enlisting experts in the community to develop the suggested fire code changes.

“We don’t have that kind of expertise on staff,” Rose said. “I have a crisis of faith in these staff members who are reviewing this.”

Councilor Maxine Beecher challenged the notion that unvetted community members are more trustworthy or qualified than city staff. She said any outside assistance in developing city ordinances should come from independent, established experts who don’t have “a stick in the fire.”

Beecher noted that Corey, an opponent of the NGL proposal, is “basically the author” of the suggested fire code changes. She also referred to Corey’s professional status as a lawyer, which is listed as “administratively suspended” with “no record of public discipline” by the Massachusetts Board of Bar Overseers.

Corey said Thursday that he hasn’t practiced law since 2004 and has no special expertise in the design or safety of propane distribution facilities. Admitted to the Massachusetts bar in 1975, Corey said he worked for a gas company many years ago, so he’s familiar with the industry.

REACTION TO MAYOR’S REQUEST

Beecher said Thursday that she regretted her approach in publicly questioning Corey’s credentials, but she was upset by unjustified public attacks on city staff.

After reading Blake’s letter, Fox said the mayor is a “great guy” who keeps trying to unite the council, (but) “we’re tired of hearing how the time we’ve devoted to making South Portland a safe place is part of an (evil) conspiracy.”

Rose said he appreciated Blake’s letter, but he stood by his criticism of city staff. “I didn’t join a club,” Rose said, adding that his fidelity is to the voters who elected him to hold city officials accountable.

“We can all be nicer,” Morgan said after reading Blake’s letter. “But it’s my job to vet material that comes before the council and I would be remiss if I didn’t critique it that way. If it hurts your feelings, you probably shouldn’t be in the public arena.”