WATERVILLE — A candidate for Ward 1 City Council who lost the race by four votes is asking the Maine Commission on Governmental Ethics and Election Practices to investigate an anonymously distributed flier that she says created “fear and anger with the residents” and unfairly influenced the election outcome.

Catherine Weeks, the Republican Ward 1 candidate, lost the race to Democrat Mike Morris and earlier this week requested a recount of the ballots. The tally was 346-342.

Two days before the vote, Weeks said, she estimated “hundreds” of flyers were distributed in the ward, encouraging people to vote against her without any indication of who paid for or authorized the flyer.

“The attached letter was sent not only to one street, but to the neighborhood in Ward 1 creating fear and anger with the residents,” Weeks wrote in a letter Friday to City Clerk Patti Dubois, asking the ethics commission to look into the complaint. “Originally the thought was that only one street was targeted under the cover of night on November 4, 2018. Now it has been brought to our attention that it was the neighborhood.”

Dubois said the complaint will be forwarded to the commission. Its executive director, Jonathan Wayne, said Friday he had not received a copy of the complaint yet.

The commission has jurisdiction over campaign finance and the disclosure of who pays for and authorizes campaign materials, but it does not regulate content.

“Because of the First Amendment, the state does not have any role in judging the content of political campaign materials,” Wayne said. “People are free to express themselves as they wish.”

There are also some exceptions to the disclosure rules, including low-cost handbills distributed independently of the candidate that cost less than $100, Wayne said.

The flyer in question includes a disclaimer that it was “not paid for by any candidate or committee” but does not indicate who paid for or distributed it.

Weeks said that was a problem to her, as was the content of the flyer, though she realizes that the the ethics commission canot address the content.

“All of it (was a problem),” she said. “The content was total lies. The fact it was sent to houses in the dark of night with no identification as to who bought and paid for it — all of it.”

The flyer includes references to points made by Weeks at various City Council meetings over the past year. “Catherine Weeks has called Waterville a ‘disgrace’ and ‘circus,'” it says, referencing remarks she made in defense of Mayor Nick Isgro during an effort to recall him last spring.

Weeks acknowledged she did call Waterville a “circus” in response to former Councilor Lauren Lessing distributing flyers at the municipal pool last summer saying the mayor wanted to cut funding to the point the pool would be closed and in response to a viral news story about patrons of a local restaurant threatening violence over a decision to change the cut of the french fries there.

“I had people calling me from the Midwest and Western states saying, ‘What is going on with Waterville?'” Weeks said. “That’s when I said we’re in the middle of a circus and we need to focus on the residents and the residents’ concerns over tax increases.”

Weeks, a political newcomer who said she was inspired to run for council after attending meetings for more than two years, also has requested a recount of the Ward 1 election results after the race was decided by just four votes. The recount of the ballots is scheduled to take place Thursday.

Her opponent, Mike Morris, said Friday he had not heard about her request to have the ethics commission look at the flyer.

“It’s not something I condone and it’s not something I support,” Morris said of the flyers, adding that he did not know who distributed or paid for them.

Weeks said she “absolutely” felt the flyer made a difference in the election’s outcome, but Morris said that doesn’t necessarily mean it benefited him.

“There’s nothing to say I wasn’t going to win by 75 votes and it cost me 71 because people didn’t like the way it went out and they’re assuming it was me,” he said. “What can you do? There’s nothing I can do except say I had nothing to do with it.”

Dubois, the city clerk, said it’s unlikely a review by the ethics commission would change the election result, though she said it could result in a fine if the commission is able to track the flyer’s origin and find a violation occurred.

Meanwhile, Morris said he respects his opponent’s right to ask for the recount and a review by the ethics commission. Regardless of who wins, he said, that person will have a lot of work to do.

“There’s a lot of work left to do to unify the ward,” he said. “At the end of the day, (the vote) was pretty much 50-50. I’m going to have to win people over, and that will be a tough job. There’s a lot of divisiveness in the ward and the city.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm

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