WATERVILLE — A citywide ban on plastic shopping bags is headed to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court after a recount of the referendum reversed Election Day results, defeating the controversial measure by seven votes.

In the recount Friday, the ban on bags was defeated 2,918-2,911, with five disputed ballots, 64 blanks and 164 challenged ballots not counted. It originally passed 3,052-2,906 and now will head to the court to determine if the challenged ballots are valid.

Mayor Nick Isgro, who tried to stop the referendum from going before voters and has opposed the ban on bags, led the effort to recount ballots on grounds the 164 challenged ballots could change the outcome.

Nearly all of the challenged ballots were cast by Colby College students and some faculty members whose voter registrations were questioned for including mailing addresses rather than physical addresses.

Critics say the mayor has tried to silence the voice of college students by questioning the election’s integrity, though he said the recount is about making sure election laws are followed.

“To me, this isn’t even about college students,” Isgro said after the results of the recount were announced. “It’s about making sure our election laws are followed. It’s my understanding there were a couple ballots challenged outside of (Colby College). It’s not about making a judgment. This is about following our election laws and not any certain group of voters.”

The Sustain Mid-Maine Coalition, which is dedicated to sustainability and conservation efforts, led the initiative to ban plastic shopping bags at retail stores of 10,000 square feet or more and asked the City Council to put the item on the ballot.

To date, 19 other municipalities in Maine have passed similar restrictions, according to the Natural Resources Council of Maine.

Todd Martin, a member of the coalition, said Friday they believe the supreme court should uphold the original results that passed on Election Day.

The city has asked voters whose ballots were challenged to come to City Hall with proof of residency and update their voter registrations, though it was not clear Friday if the updated registrations will mean the votes are valid.

City Clerk Patti Dubois and City Attorney Bill Lee said that will be up to the supreme court to decide.

Still, Sustain Mid-Maine is asking voters whose ballots were challenged to comply with the city’s request, as it could affect the final results.

“I think it was a misunderstanding on the part of Colby students and faculty that they put their Colby mailbox down,” Martin said. “I’m not going to speculate whether it was intentional by the mayor (to question their integrity), but we’ve certainly heard in the past they feel quite strongly that college students in Waterville shouldn’t be able to decide local issues, and I would disagree with that.”

In early November, three Waterville voters — Cathy Weeks, Jonathan Weeks and Shaun Caron — joined Mark Andre, of Oakland, to challenge about 150 ballots with Colby addresses. That number rose after Election Day to 164 challenged ballots. It includes two ballots not affiliated with Colby addresses that were challenged by an election clerk, Dubois said.

Among the challenged ballots, 151 were in support of the ban, 12 were against it and one was blank.

After Election Day, Isgro led the way in gathering more than 100 signatures needed to start the recount process and paid a $250 deposit to the city that will be reimbursed if the vote ultimately is overturned.

The cost to hold Friday’s recount was about $500, and if the vote is upheld, the city will cash the check and also collect an additional $250, Dubois said.

An opponent of the ban on plastic bags, Isgro vetoed a move by the City Council to send the item to voters, saying in August the referendum would invite special interest groups and “dark money funded influence peddlers” into Waterville as well as further divide the community.

“Friends, right now, political insiders and special interest groups — including people who do not live in Waterville — are lobbying Our City to retroactively change the voter rolls in order to conceal mysterious voter registrations that illegally list P.O. boxes for a physical address,” Isgro wrote in a Facebook post Thursday. “This lobbying is an attempt to generate their desired outcome on the referendum to ban reusable plastic bags. Do you think this is moral or ethical?”

Isgro would not comment when asked Friday what special interest groups and outsiders he is referring to.

Earlier in the week, a student at Colby whose ballot is being challenged said she felt the post was an attack on the integrity of college students, who she said are interested in voting correctly and legally.

Asked to comment on that, Isgro said, “I’ve posed questions that I get asked myself as mayor. I feel we should be having open and honest dialogue, and there’s nothing wrong with asking questions to generate conversation.”

The case is only the second in Maine’s history of a municipal election being sent to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, according to Lee, the city attorney. The other case occurred last year in Winslow.

In that case, the court ruled that the intent of a voter who filled out a sloppy, disputed ballot could not be determined and handed Town Councilor Jerry Quirion a one-vote victory over challenger Lee Trahan.

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm

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