WATERVILLE — Tensions came to a head this week as a group of residents critical of some Democratic city councilors slammed the council for appointing former Councilor John O’Donnell to the vacant Ward 5 council seat instead of their preferred candidate, Julian Payne.

O’Donnell on Tuesday beat Payne, George Thiboutot and Jay Coelho, despite Payne’s packing the council chamber with supporters who yelled “Sham!” as they left the meeting.

O’Donnell, a Democrat and Waterville attorney, got four votes. Payne and Coelho received one vote each and Thiboutot received no votes.

Councilors voted by paper ballot, with Councilor Jackie Dupont, D-Ward 7, Winifred Tate, D-Ward 6, Lauren Lessing, D-Ward 3, and Nathaniel White, D-Ward 2, voting for O’Donnell; Council Chairman Steve Soule, D-Ward 1, voting for Coelho; and Sydney Mayhew, R-Ward 4, casting a vote for Payne.

O’Donnell, 60, said after the meeting that he looks forward to being back on the council and he thinks Democrats really wanted someone on board who served their principles.

“And, I’m afraid, although Julian claims to be a Democrat, he may not espouse a lot of Democratic principles that normal Democrats would do,” O’Donnell said. “I understand he has quite an attraction for those who want to cut taxes, but we all want to cut taxes and there are events outside of our control that cause taxes to be high in our city.”

It was standing room only in the council chamber as the candidates stood, one by one, to talk about why they wanted the seat.

O’Donnell, who served on the council about 10 years before opting not to seek re-election in 2016, said he is willing to be the Democratic alternate for the council, filling the spot most recently held by Nick Champagne, who resigned to become the city’s engineer. O’Donnell will serve until the seat comes up for election in November, and whoever is elected would take office in January. O’Donnell could decide to run for the seat in November.

He told the council that if the city wants to revitalize, one of the things it needs is strong schools.

“We can’t lay this burden of the financial crunches on the backs of our students,” he said.

O’Donnell, whose wife is a teacher, said more than 50 percent of people do not own their own homes and the city must have an association to represent landowners and tenants to help correct that situation. There are too many broken-down homes, he said. He also said people must not blame the council for the rising tax rate, because taxes are rising everywhere. While state law says municipalities are to get 5 percent of revenue sharing, they get $1.5 million less than that, he said.

“Unfortunately, the Republican governor has decided revenue sharing is municipal welfare and he wants to wipe it out,” he said.

Payne, a Democrat and member of the Waterville Board of Education, was critical of O’Donnell when O’Donnell served on the council, asserting O’Donnell shouldn’t vote on certain matters involving schools, such as school funding, because his wife is a teacher. Voting as such represented a conflict of interest, Payne maintained.

Payne said Tuesday that he walked his ward to reconnect with residents he met while running for the school board last summer and asked for their feedback. He said he got 134 signatures of residents on a petition asking the council to appoint him to the seat; he also collected 34 letters.

“That’s an unprecedented amount of support,” he said.

He said he was seeking to give Ward 5 residents a voice until November, when they get the opportunity to vote. Payne also said he studied the city charter, attends every council meeting and budget meetings and he shares the same economic views as Champagne.

He said that he visited 700 homes in his ward during the time he ran for the school board and council. Lessing noted that the signatures Payne collected represented about 1 in 5 registered voters in the ward, but on Wednesday, she clarified her figures, saying that if, as Payne claimed, he knocked on every door and spoke to every household in his ward over the last year, then the 134 supporter signatures he brought to the meeting Tuesday represents not 20 percent, but roughly 10 to 11 percent of voters in the ward. Lessing said that, “presumably, the other 89 percent of people with whom he spoke said no thanks to his bid for a council seat.”

Coelho, a Libertarian, said he owns a business and home in the city, has four children in school and knows what it’s like to see tax bills increase. It is time, he said, to put people first and special interests on the back burner. Thiboutot, a Republican, said he is a bus driver who has lived in the city all his life and asked why the city would try to sell land at Head of Falls instead of leasing or renting it and collecting the money.

Several people stood to speak in support of Payne and when Mayor Nick Isgro asked how many people in the room supported each candidate, most hands in the room flew up when he named Payne.

After the meeting, Payne said he was disappointed for the people of his ward that he was not chosen.

“The support was so overwhelming, it was tough not to get choked up,” he said.

He said he was involved in the group called the People’s Council and advocated for residents.

“I’ve served my community diligently in Ward 5 and it’s a shame that they didn’t get a chance to have me carry on and serve them,” he said.

His supporters left the room after the vote, shouting statements including, “People don’t respect our opinion at all,” and “They don’t uphold the people’s democratic role.”

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17

filed under: