WATERVILLE — Local government decisions might play out differently in 2019 with a majority new City Council in place following a year of divisive ups and downs that included a failed attempt to recall Mayor Nick Isgro, heated budget discussions and a controversial vote on banning plastic bags from certain stores.

The changes on the seven-member City Council — which include two new councilors to be sworn in this week and two others sworn in earlier this month — have newcomers optimistic about the chance for leadership, although retiring officials warned about divisiveness and the challenges that lie ahead.

Tackling a new city budget with the pressure not to repeat this year’s 8 percent tax increase, a review of the city charter and long-term solutions to reduce the tax rate are all on the agenda.

There’s also the momentum of revitalization, including a recent $7.37 million grant to convert Main Street to two-way traffic and partnerships with Colby College for downtown development.

“We have a brand new council with four new people on there,” said Mike Morris, a Democrat and new councilor representing Ward 1. “I think it’s going to be good. Hopefully we can put a lot of stuff to bed that really kind of dragged on through 2018. Hopefully we can put that aside and really just move forward.”

Other new councilors include Margaret Smith, D-Ward 3; Jay Coelho, D-Ward 5; and Erik Thomas, D-Ward 7, although Thomas previously served as a councilor in Ward 4 and is a former council chairman.

A fifth council seat is also up for grabs after Nathaniel White, D-Ward 2, announced earlier this month he will be resigning to move to Fairfield.

Morris and some others said they are hopeful the change can improve the relationship between the council and the mayor in 2019.

Jabs between them occurred frequently in the past year, with the mayor blaming the council for the effort to recall him, accusations that the council was trying to surreptitiously raise taxes and attacks for putting before voters a question on whether to ban plastic shopping bags.

Several councilors, meanwhile, condemned Isgro’s social media comments, including a tweet telling the survivor of a Florida school shooting to “Eat it,” and signed a petition supporting his recall. In June, Waterville residents by a 91-vote margin rejected the recall of Isgro, an effort that was led in part by former Mayor Karen Heck.

Former Councilor Lauren Lessing, D-Ward 3, was accused by the mayor of employing scare tactics after distributing a flyer at the community swimming pool warning residents of the mayor’s proposal to cut funding for the facility.

“I think the old council was divisive,” said Waterville Board of Education member Julian Payne, a Democrat and supporter of Isgro through the mayoral recall effort. “They didn’t listen to the community. I see a much brighter year for this council, hopefully. The bar is set very low. I think you can only go upwards from the previous bunch.”

Ward 4 Councilor Sydney Mayhew, who is starting his fifth year on the council and is currently the only Republican, also said the recall and its aftermath contributed to some of the most divisive council meetings he has seen in his time serving as a public official.

“It was unfortunate for both sides,” Mayhew said. “I think it created bitterness and division and divided the city in a way that was compromising it sometimes. I do believe, though, that there has been some healing that has taken place and more to come with fresh faces on the council.”

Isgro declined to be interviewed last week but said in a Facebook post Friday the new council “is a great opportunity to have less divisiveness, since most of the councilors who supported the failed, divisive mayoral recall are gone.”

Yet others have said it was not the recall or former councilors, but Isgro’s social media comments and his refusal to apologize that contributed to a year of divisiveness.

“The whole problem was not with the council; it was with the mayor,” said Jim Chiddix, one of three residents who started the effort to remove Isgro. “He’s a very childish person. You know how he’s been on Facebook. I think the new council members will go more easy on him at first and try not to raise his ire, but I think there will always be turmoil and disruption as long as he’s in office.”

Councilor Winifred Tate, D-Ward 6, who along with Mayhew will be the only incumbent on the council, would not comment when asked if she sees the relationship between the mayor and council improving and said only, “I am looking forward to working with anyone who has constructive proposals on how to conduct the business of the city.”

Outgoing Councilor John O’Donnell, D-Ward 5, said he thinks Isgro has learned to “rein himself in” when it comes to the comments he makes on social media.

But with a Democratic majority still on the council, O’Donnell said he doesn’t foresee major changes in the way the council and Republican mayor interact.

“I think Nick has extremely right-wing political ideas,” he said. “Unfortunately, this is a predominantly Democratic town. Traditionally it’s been that way, and I think it’s still that way. Although a lot of his lower-tax rhetoric makes sense to everyone, he’s going to have trouble convincing the general Democratic populace that his Republican ideas are correct. I’m convinced of that.”

BUDGET CHALLENGE

Chief among the challenges that await the new council is the upcoming budget season, which typically starts with workshops in late March or early April leading up to the start of a new fiscal year on July 1.

The current $41.9 million combined city and school budget was funded with a property tax increase of 8.3 percent and passed after months of debate and an override by the council of the mayor’s veto of the budget.

This also could be a difficult year, City Manager Mike Roy said, though the possibility the state of Maine could restore revenue sharing — by which communities are reimbursed a portion of state-collected taxes — could change that.

Roy said the council is planning to send a letter to incoming Democratic Gov. Janet Mills after she takes office in January, asking her to restore revenue sharing, which has been withheld under Republican Gov. Paul LePage. If it’s successful, the city could have about $1 million in revenue restored, Roy said.

After last year’s contentious budget cycle, Isgro proposed a 3 percent cap on annual tax increases, which he said he will be pursuing as part of this year’s review of the city charter.

He also said he planned to hold “Community Conversations” to bring the public and city officials together outside of City Council meetings to discuss priorities. In an email Friday, Isgro said at the time almost all of the city councilors did not want to participate in the meetings, though he recently brought the idea up again with the city manager.

“I am guessing it was some holdover bitter feelings from the failed coup d’etat,” Isgro said. “At the same time, we lost our finance director, so it seemed prudent to wait until we had a new council seated, which is what others suggested.”

In the meantime, if residents have an interest in learning about the budget or offering feedback, Roy said, all budget workshops are open to the public and might be starting earlier than normal this year because of the large number of new councilors.

Coming up in 2019, the city also will be looking to put in place an ordinance regulating marijuana sales, and a new charter commission will be reviewing the city charter, as is done every seven years.

The process could be contentious, as Roy has questioned whether the city should retain its ward system while Isgro has argued against abolishing it and rejected the idea of at-large City Council elections.

In his Facebook post, Isgro mentioned the charter revisions as well as the $7.37 million grant the city recently received from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s BUILD program for changing traffic downtown from one-way to two-way and making other improvements as opportunities in the coming year.

“The circumstances are ripe for a new era of collaboration to improve the lives of those we represent,” Isgro wrote. “We have a combination of new leadership, opportunities, and funding.”

NEED FOR CIVILITY

Incoming councilors said communication not only with the mayor but with the public will be key as they are looking to change what they’ve seen as a lack of connection between some former councilors and their constituents.

“I think residents want a better perception of what’s actually happening,” said new Councilor Jay Coelho, D-Ward 5. “A lot of time residents feel in the dark. I’m hoping we can be more transparent than it’s been in the past.”

Coelho, a former Libertarian who was elected as a Democrat, said he “won’t always see eye to eye” with Isgro, but “it’s about attacking the issues, not the person.”

“The mayor will always say and do what he wants to do,” he said. “I can only control my own actions. If something is untrue, I wouldn’t care if it’s from the mayor or another councilor, it’s my job to speak up and inform people of the truth, even if it’s ugly.”

Councilor Margaret Smith, D-Ward 3, also said that while City Council business is often nonpartisan, she has “noticed an increase in unacceptable, divisive behavior” recently.

“I want to represent my party with integrity and professionalism,” she said, adding that she wants constituents to know she stands for denouncing racism, respecting the rights of all people and respecting the environment.

Incoming Councilor Erik Thomas, D-Ward 7, said he thinks it’s not productive for officials to hash out city issues on Facebook, as has happened at times in the past.

“I’ve already reached out to the mayor and we’ve gotten together and talked about the budget,” said Thomas, who ran unsuccessfully against Isgro for the mayor’s seat in 2017. “It was a productive conversation. I intend to conduct business face-to-face as much as possible. I think it’s a much healthier way to interact with each other.”

In Ward 1, where Morris narrowly defeated opponent Catherine Weeks for the council seat, Morris said he has met with her and plans to “keep that dialogue open” to unify the ward.

Mayhew said it’s a good idea for the new councilors to walk their wards frequently, knock on doors and look beyond partisan politics.

“Each decision will have those who agree and disagree,” said outgoing Council Chair Steve Soule, D-Ward 1. “The new council and city officials will have great potential moving forward.”

Soule declined to be interviewed but said in an email that downtown revitalization and the budget will mean major decision making in 2019 and it will be hard to find cuts in the budget.

“The mayor and city council have a fresh start,” he said. “They can hopefully find common ground. Their good decisions affect all of us, so I wish them the best. Months of working together can be erased with a day of divisiveness.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm

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