When some Waterville residents were unhappy with Mayor Nick Isgro’s use of social media and a controversial tweet a few months ago, they decided to do something about it.

They filed paperwork at City Hall and started a petition calling for the mayor’s removal. They gathered over 800 signatures and got a question on the ballot: “Should Nicholas S. Isgro be recalled?”

Around the same time, another recall petition was started, this time to remove Councilor John O’Donnell, D-Ward 5, who, some felt, was appointed unfairly by a City Council that ignored the will of residents. That petition also gathered enough signatures and appeared on the ballot.

Neither effort was successful at the polls this week, but those involved in organizing the recalls said the effort was well worth it. Results in both were nearly tied and useful in sending a message to city officials about residents’ concerns, they said.

Recalls are hard to pull off, but they also have grown more popular nationally over the last decade, according to a pair of experts, who said changes in the way people engage in the political process and a few high profile recalls have contributed to their growing popularity.

But they also cautioned about when and why a recall can and should be used.

“People who do pay attention to politics, while that’s a minority of the population, they are pretty energized right now,” said Ronald Schmidt, associate professor of political science at the University of Southern Maine. “As people get more involved, they can usually read up on the recall process in half an hour. It’s an easy way to mobilize around issues they feel can’t wait until the next election.”

Recalls are not common in Maine, according to the Maine Municipal Association, though there have been a few recent examples in addition to Waterville.

In Scarborough, residents recently removed three school board members after fallout over the resignation of Scarborough High School Principal David Creech.

And in York, an effort to recall school board member David Bachelder was defeated in April following allegations he had violated an ethics policy.

The state statute on recalls, developed after Chelsea Selectwoman Carole Swan was convicted of extortion and fraud, is narrow and applies only to elected officials who have been convicted of a crime against the municipality in which they serve.

But the law also gives communities freedom to institute their own recall ordinances, something many of them do, or include provisions on recalling school board members in municipal charters, which is more rare, according to the MMA.

The recent recalls in Waterville have led to debate over what circumstances warrant a recall, with some saying recalls should be reserved as a means of addressing criminal behavior, while others have cited recent concern over the mayor’s behavior on social media as enough of a justification.

The city charter’s only criterion is a requirement of the number of signatures that must be gathered to start a recall. It is 15 percent of the number of voters who participated in the last gubernatorial election.

The recall effort aimed at Isgro was started after he tweeted, “Eat it, Hogg,” in response to a news story about Florida school shooting survivor David Hogg and disparaging comments directed at him from a Fox News commentator. It was defeated 1,563-1,472.

“To some people, the mayor’s tweet caused an outrage, and for others it was, ‘Whatever, it’s a tweet,'” said Jay Coelho, who voted to keep Isgro in office and also started the recall on O’Donnell.

He said residents should be able to start a recall process whenever they are unhappy with their elected officials, but the number of signatures required should be higher.

“I know a recall is a pain, but there’s no other recourse unless you did something else super-duper wrong,” he said. “If we elect you and decide you’re doing a bad job, we should be able to remove you.”

Generally, recalls are reserved for cases of wrongdoing or instances where an official is not performing his or her job, said Jim Melcher, professor of political science at the University of Maine Farmington.

“If somebody is completely incompetent — I don’t mean just disagreeing with them — but they can’t do the job, that’s legitimate,” Melcher said. “And if they disagreed with you all along, I don’t think a recall should be an opportunity to have a rematch. That’s what a new election is for.”

At the same time, Melcher said if voters end up with something completely different from what they expected during the official’s campaign, it could be the basis for a recall.

“If you got something really different from what you ordered, that’s grounds for considering a recall,” he said. “But it should be saved for relatively serious things and not just ideological differences, like if somebody goes back on what they promised or voters feel they were deceived.”

Jim Chiddix, one of three residents who started the recall effort in Waterville, said while Isgro’s behavior wasn’t criminal, a recall made sense.

“I think recall should be about more than something involving money or something that rises to the level of murder,” Chiddix said. “I think a recall should be to say, ‘We the people have ethics and if you don’t live up to them, we would like you to not be in office.’ I believe in ethics, and Isgro doesn’t have ethics.”

Isgro and some of his supporters have argued differently.

“The recall process is intended for addressing criminal acts and failing to perform city duties; it’s not a process for personal political disagreements,” he said Wednesday in a statement on Facebook. Isgro did not respond to a phone call or email seeking comment for this story.

He has said while he respects the voices of those who voted to recall him, he also thinks those who started the recall and city councilors involved should apologize and reimburse the city.

Coelho said he would reimburse the city for the recall he started if asked, but didn’t think it was necessary.

“I wouldn’t force that on anyone because I wouldn’t want somebody to not do a recall for fear they’re going to be saddled with a bill,” he said.

The fact that both recalls made it to an election is remarkable, because most recall efforts don’t even get beyond the signature-gathering stage, Melcher said.

A successful recall at the polls is even harder to pull off.

“Even during a presidential election year, getting voters to notice and getting them energized can be hard to do,” said Schmidt, the University of Southern Maine professor. “There’s a certain amount of wariness on the part of the public. People might think it’s just an effort to litigate an election.”

Recalls are also risky because if it doesn’t work out, you still have to work with the person you sought to remove.

“That’s why groups outside the government often lead these efforts,” Melcher said. “It’s pretty risky if you’re on the council and you go after the mayor.”

Historically, recalls have emboldened some leaders who feel vindicated if they come out successful, while it has brought others to humility and an effort to make amends.

One of the most high-profile recalls in recent years took place in California, where Gov. Gray Davis was recalled and replaced by Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2003.

That brought attention to the recall process and contributed to its growing popularity elsewhere, Melcher said, although some state still don’t authorize recalls.

The Tea Party movement around 2009 also brought a new wave of political activism that included more grass-roots movements, such as recalls, rallies and petition drives to the forefront, according to Schmidt.

The process is still not common, but when recalls happen, they tend to come in clusters, the two experts said. Recalls are often driven by an issue, so people might seek to remove, for example, several members or an entire board for voting a certain way.

Seeing a recall happen also can remind others of the process and motivate them to do it if they’re unhappy with their elected officials.

Though it wasn’t his primary reason for the recall effort against O’Donnell, Coelho did say at the time he was influenced by the Isgro recall process. Andy Roy, whose family started a third recall effort to remove Councilor Jackie Dupont, D-Ward 7, said at the time it wasn’t done in response to the movement to oust Isgro.

However, he did say one reason for starting the petition was related because Dupont failed to stop those gathering signatures on the Isgro recall from knocking on the doors of elderly residents.

Melcher said the attention the Waterville recall received and the polarization around it could lead to more recalls popping up around the state over the next year or so, but he said communities should be cautious.

“After a recall, there’s a lot of bitter feelings,” he said. “It really has the potential to polarize, especially if it fails; and it’s hard not to take it personally, in a way that’s different from a regular election.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

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Twitter: @rachel_ohm

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