WATERVILLE — An environmental group that has raised thousands of dollars to provide municipalities and area residents with energy saving services and educates the public about recycling and other sustainability efforts will move out of a small space it has used free of charge in City Hall after Mayor Nick Isgro complained it is a special-interest group.

Sustain Mid-Maine Coalition for several years has used a corner of a small room on the first floor of City Hall so that its coordinator, Linda Woods, could have a desk and computer there. Woods, the only paid employee of the nonprofit organization, is paid for 10 to 12 hours a week at $20 an hour and last year earned just under $10,000, according to Michael Heavener, chairman of Sustain Mid-Maine’s board of directors and the town manager of Winslow.

Heavener said Wednesday that Sustain Mid-Maine has decided to move the desk and chair out of City Hall and Woods now will work from her home in Waterville.

“I think we’re aware that as time progresses, there may be other issues that come up that we may feel compelled to take a position on; and in light of that, we felt it prudent to move out of City Hall and get our own post office box number,” Heavener said.

Isgro on Tuesday posted a message on his mayoral Facebook page calling on Waterville and City Manager Michael Roy to give notice to the Sustain Mid-Maine Coalition that it no longer can have free office space inside City Hall. Isgro called Sustain Mid-Maine a special-interest group that works to influence elections, city policy and local ordinances.

Roy said afterward that Isgro had not talked to him about the Sustain Mid-Maine issue, that he does not conduct city business on Facebook and that he wished Isgro had talked to him before posting the message.

Sustain Mid-Maine is a grass-roots initiative created to conserve resources, sustain a healthy environment, and promote economic prosperity for the Mid-Maine region.

It also proposed a plastic bag ban that would prohibit businesses that are 10,000 square feet or more in size from dispensing plastic carryout bags, a move Isgro opposed, though voters in November appeared to approve the ban.

Isgro paid the city a $250 deposit to conduct a recount, saying the numbers were skewed by Colby College students who gave post office box numbers instead of physical addresses when they registered to vote. Isgro at the time referred to the Colby students on Facebook as “illegally registered persons.”

Isgro’s Facebook post on Tuesday said the city needs to be impartial in dealing with lobbyists and special interest groups and Sustain Mid-Maine should not be in City Hall.

“Even when there are no bad intentions, it is important to be cognizant of any appearances of impropriety or special favors,” his post said.

Isgro claimed the issue was not a partisan one and said groups such as Sustain Mid-Maine “who work to influence elections, city policy, and local ordinances should not be given a free base of operations inside the very institution they are trying to influence — especially when they receive occasional out-of-state funding.”

AGENCY RESPONDS

The only money that Sustain Mid-Maine garnered from out of state was $750 it received from a grant it applied for from New England Grassroots Environmental Fund, based in Newmarket, New Hampshire. Sustain Mid-Maine, a 501(c)(3) organization, in 2010-11 was awarded a $170,000 grant from Efficiency Maine Home Energy Savings Program, which enabled 345 homes in mid-Maine to be weatherized and receive energy consultations. The weatherization effort resulted in an estimated annual reduction of 53,000 gallons of fuel oil that cost $3.50 a gallon, saving the residents $185,000 each year.

In 2011, Sustain Mid-Maine received the Hastings Award from Efficiency Maine Trust for its leadership in making a significant contribution to energy efficiency in Maine and the state’s environmental stewardship.

In 2013-14, Sustain Mid-Maine got an $80,000 grant from Efficiency Maine to train home energy volunteer consultants to help homeowners and landlords identify weatherization opportunities, present public workshops to educate people about energy efficiency and weatherization involving heating, air sealing and windows and doors.

Sustain Mid-Maine’s list of accomplishments and projects is long. It hosts speakers who educate the public about sustainability; provides volunteers to teach people about recycling, nutrition, gardening and permaculture; and offers internships for college students. The organization helped develop 10 vegetable gardens at the Alfond Youth Center.

The organization operates on a shoestring budget and relies heavily on many volunteers, according to Heavener.

“It’s low-maintenance; it’s mostly volunteers,” he said. “If we need something, somebody volunteers to do it.”

Sustain Mid-Maine was created in 2009 following a three-day catalyst in which area municipalities and some 65 area residents talked about the need for sustainability in their communities.

A Colby College intern who was studying the carbon footprint of Waterville and other area municipalities was provided a tiny space in City Hall from which to work, and that space, the corner of a small room, later became Woods’ base.

“When the organization first started, it didn’t have much at all, and I think the city, the town of Winslow and other area municipalities worked closely together,” Heavener said. “I think we all thought that sustainability was important and we wanted to address the issue together. It just seemed like a natural fit to have Linda there, and the city had the space to do that.”

In 2007, some Waterville Rotary Club members concerned about climate change had approached Roy to talk about sustainability, and Roy, in turn, approached Colby to discuss acquiring an intern. Funding for Sustain Mid-Maine comes from donations and grants, some as small as $500.

Sally Harwood is vice chairwoman of its board of directors, Tom Tietenberg is secretary and Heavener, in addition to being chairman, is its acting treasurer. The board has eight members, including Fairfield Town Manager Michelle Flewelling.

Harwood said Wednesday that she had not seen Isgro’s Facebook post, but she was anxious to talk about what Sustain Mid-Maine has done for the mid-Maine region. She cited the 345 homes that were weatherized as a result of the $170,000 grant and noted that the organization a few years ago started the first agricultural commission in the state, in Winslow, to assist farmers. It also helps municipalities that do not have the money to use for sustainability efforts.

“It’s an amazing effort by a lot of volunteers working to give their time and expertise to the mid-Maine area,” Harwood said.

Heavener said he would not comment on Isgro’s post, but said he could understand his position.

“And we are going to leave City Hall because we do think that would be appropriate,” Heavener said. “The organization, obviously, when it started out, worked very closely with the city and municipal offices.”

Over time, Sustain Mid-Maine did take more of an advocacy role in the plastic bag ban issue, which was out of the norm for the organization, according to Heavener. Most of what it did was related to education and providing information. It developed a guide for municipalities, for instance, that taught them what first steps to take if they decided to use LED lights.

Roy, who met with Heavener and Harwood at 3 p.m. Wednesday in Heavener’s office to discuss the Sustain Mid-Maine issue, did not immediately return a call seeking comment.

The Sustain Mid-Maine board meets once a month at the Winslow Town Office. Its five teams, which work on issues including education, energy, growing and supporting local foods, rethinking reducing, reusing and recycling, and transportation, also meet when necessary, about once a month.

The organization seeks to reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions in municipal facilities as well as in area homes and businesses, recommend appropriate alternative energy technologies to elected officials and staff for implementation, and help make education and resources available to the public to help the community reduce energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.

Waterville City Councilor Jay Coelho, D-Ward 5, is on board with Isgro in wanting Sustain Mid-Maine out of City Hall. In an email Tuesday to the Sentinel, Coelho wrote that no one should use city property for purposes that are not city business.

“My larger concern is that there are files kept in the same space that belong to the city,” Coelho said. “Are there sensitive files in there? Who else has access to those files other than government employees. Waterville never ceases to create news for obvious blunders.”

But Sustain Mid-Maine supporter Rien Finch said he thinks Isgro wants the organization out of City Hall for political reasons and wondered why the mayor did not raise the issue months ago. The documents filed by parties in a court case involving the challenged ballots of Colby students in the plastic bag referendum were due in court Monday, and Isgro would have access to those documents, Finch said.

“That does make the timing of this very interesting,” he said. “And I am wondering if there’s information in those briefs that he doesn’t like, and now he’s kicking them out because they said things he didn’t like.”

Heavener said Woods will move out of City Hall “as soon as possible.”

Amy Calder — 861-9247

[email protected]

Twitter: @AmyCalder17

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