WATERVILLE — Former City Councilor Sydney Mayhew is effusive when reflecting on former Mayor Nick Isgro’s six years in office.

He points to Isgro’s help in revitalizing the downtown, supporting construction of a new Waterville exit off Interstate 95 on Trafton Road, and advocating for those on a fixed income during budget time.

“Nick was involved with fostering those relationships we had with Colby College and business relationships we had with private entrepreneurs, downtown business people and the DOT,” Mayhew said.

A Republican, Isgro, 39, served two, three-year terms as mayor until Jan. 5, when Jay Coelho, a Democrat, was sworn into office. Isgro was elected mayor in 2014 when Mayhew, also a Republican, was elected to the City Council to represent Ward 4.

Isgro said he will continue to be vice chairman of the Maine Republican Party until Saturday, when his term is up, and says he is not running for reelection for that post.

“I am happy to report full retirement from politics,” Isgro said Thursday in an email.

Then mayor-elect Nick Isgro walks with Dana Bushee and Mayor Karen Heck out of the American Legion hall on College Avenue in Waterville on Nov. 4, 2014. Heck, the independent outgoing mayor, supported Isgro’s first bid for the post but became a vocal critic later on. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel file

Isgro began his first term in January 2015, and would soon be on a political roller-coaster as some supporters became vocal critics. He publicly mused about running for Maine governor in early 2018 (ultimately deciding not to), survived a mayoral recall effort in June 2018 (stemming from controversial social media posts), and opted not to run for reelection in November last year. Mayhew lost his council seat to Democrat Rebecca Green.

Sydney Mayhew Michael G. Seamans

Unlike some other councilors, Mayhew shared Isgro’s views on most issues and stood by him when Isgro started to alienate others with bombastic social media comments, his insistence that Columbus Day not be changed to Indigenous Peoples’ Day and his support for denying Colby College students’ right to vote in Waterville.

Mayhew excuses Isgro’s actions, saying he was a unique mayor and a proud, Italian-American who has strong and strict beliefs.

“He just held on to traditional ideas and culture, and sometimes it would become abrasive to cultural modernization that is going on now,” Mayhew said.

Isgro was instrumental in working with Colby President David A. Greene in 2015, as Greene held meetings with business owners, city leaders, advocates for the arts, and representatives of nonprofit organizations, to discuss what Waterville’s downtown would need to thrive. Greene could not be reached for comment this week.

But out of those meetings with Isgro and others emerged a determination that to be successful, the downtown must have more people living and working there, vacant and dilapidated buildings should be addressed, existing arts venues needed to be supported and expanded, and more businesses drawn to the heart of the city.

Isgro spent the next few years advocating for that effort and helping to draw businesses to the city. Colby invested millions of dollars in downtown, building a mixed-use residential complex and a hotel and renovating a former bank building at the corner of Main and Appleton streets into offices and businesses. Colby is now building an arts collaborative at the south end of Main Street downtown and expects to start construction on the $18-$20 million Paul J. Schupf Art Center for art and film next to City Hall. Others, including Bill Mitchell, the DePre family and Tom Nale Jr. and his sister, Tracy, followed in Colby’s footsteps by investing in buildings downtown.

Colby College President David Greene, left, and Waterville Mayor Nick Isgro addressed more than 100 onlookers during a ceremony at the college’s new mixed use complex building in The Concourse in Waterville on Sept. 28, 2017. Morning Sentinel file

Isgro said in a recent interview that he is proud of the work that emerged from the vision he helped develop in 2015.

“I feel great,” he said. “I think a lot of things that we wanted to see come to fruition, obviously, have.”

As Isgro’s time in office progressed, though, his comments and actions increasingly drew controversy and stoked division.

The first hints of the rancor to come emerged in 2015, when Isgro took to Twitter to slam Planning Board members for postponing a decision on a proposed car wash. Isgro, with 72 Twitter followers at the time, said the board members’ actions “exposes the depth of their indecisiveness and ineptitude.” Two days later, he mailed handwritten notes of apology to board members and said in an interview that he was sorry for the divisive nature of his social media comments.

SECOND TERM CONTROVERSIES 

A more explosive social media controversy erupted during Isgro’s second term, in April 2018, after he tweeted a comment to David Hogg, a Florida school shooting survivor, in response to a story about Fox News commentator Laura Ingraham’s losing sponsorships for disparaging remarks she made toward Hogg. Hogg had appeared on national television calling for gun control legislation after the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting that left 17 people dead. Isgro quote-tweeted a new headline, “Fox News president backs Laura Ingraham despite advertiser boycott over Parkland controversy,” and Isgro wrote: “Eat it, Hogg.”

He later deleted his tweet, but screenshots of the social media comment circulated across Twitter, drawing nationwide attention and condemnation in the ensuing days.

The then-mayor refused to apologize for the tweet and, echoing the language of President Donald Trump, called local reporters “Fake News” when they questioned him about the controversy outside a City Council meeting. He brushed the controversy aside as anonymous Twitter trolls and the liberal advocacy group Maine People’s Alliance attacked him, and also criticized an “elitist majority on the City Council.”

Isgro was fired from his job as assistant vice president and controller at Skowhegan Savings Bank after the controversy erupted over his “Eat it, Hogg” tweet. He has since become a real estate agent, a job he says he loves and wishes he had started sooner, and was elected vice chairman of the Maine Republican Party.

The “Eat it, Hogg” controversy snowballed into a mayoral recall effort, which ultimately failed by 91 votes on June 12, 2018. During the months in between, council meetings were often packed as people came to denounce and defend Isgro.

In the fall of 2019, Isgro drew more criticism for issuing a mayoral proclamation recognizing Columbus Day, despite the state government, under Democratic Gov. Janet Mills, recognizing the holiday as Indigenous Peoples’ Day. An angry resident and Isgro got into a shouting match over the issue during the next City Council meeting, with the mayor ultimately slamming down the gavel, declaring the meeting over and leaving.

Former Mayor Karen Heck was a leading voice in the citizen-initiated mayoral recall effort, even though she had endorsed Isgro for mayor when he ran for his first term in 2014. Heck was a Democrat who changed to independent when she ran for mayor and then, in 2016, reregistered as a Democrat to vote in the caucus.

“The Nick Isgro I knew in 2015 is not the Nick Isgro he is now,” Heck said this week in response to a request for comment on his time in office. “Sadly, he currently believes a misogynistic, homophobic man who has done nothing but divide us along racial, ethnic and religious lines is fit to lead despite the loss of a legal election.”

Former mayor Karen Heck, right, confronts then-current Mayor Nick Isgro after a contentious City Council meeting at the Council Chambers in Waterville on April 17, 2018. Heck, who originally supported Isgro’s bid for mayor, was among residents who helped initiate a recall petition on Isgro over his controversial social media posts. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel file

Heck was referring to Trump, whom Isgro has long supported and who was impeached for a historic second time on Wednesday by the U.S. House of Representatives with a charge of inciting a violent insurrection at the Capitol last week. Isgro has stuck by Trump in recent months as the president peddled claims of mass voter fraud without substantiated evidence and lied that he won reelection. Isgro tweeted after the election: “He did win, he won’t concede, he is our president,” as well as “Eight more years!” with a photo of Trump. (The latter is a reference to the president once tweeting a “Trump 2024” meme, suggesting he’d try to extend his presidency beyond two terms.)

Interestingly, Isgro was a two-term Republican mayor in a largely Democratic city, a feat not seen since the previous terms of former Republican Mayor Paul LePage, who later became Maine governor. Waterville has 6,151 registered Democrats, 2,403 Republicans, 4,332 unenrolled voters and 512 registered Green Party voters.

Reflecting on the controversies that emerged during his time as mayor, Isgro said he thinks it is important people stand up for their beliefs.

“At the end of the day, I think that, especially where we live in a world where everyone wants to scream louder than everyone else, it’s important to remember that there are other world views, that there are other belief systems out there,” Isgro said. “Regardless of what any individual person’s beliefs are, you have to stand for what you think is right, you have to be true to yourself first.”

Mayor Nick Isgro, seen here during a May 2018 Waterville City Council meeting, decided not to seek reelection this year. No replacement was selected during the Republican caucus. He has been mayor for six years. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel file

The controversies that sprouted while he was in office drew a lot of people on both sides of issues, but at the end of the day, “those were really minor things in Waterville’s greatest story,” Isgro said.

He did not apologize for any of his actions or comments during that time.

“I don’t think I’d take any of it back,” he said.

A DIFFICULT TIME

Heck draws connections between the national political language and Isgro’s later actions as mayor. She thinks he allowed his political tendencies to decide it was OK to “bully” Waterville councilwomen when they disagreed with his political statements.

“While Nick may point to his work to revitalize downtown, that work was underway before his election,” Heck said. “And his work to disenfranchise Colby students, his insulting tweet about David Hogg, his refusal to accept Indigenous Peoples’ Day, worked against promoting Waterville as a forward-looking city open to everyone.”

Like Heck, Rien Finch, a Democrat who is a community volunteer, a member of the city’s former Charter Commission and who attends most council meetings and follows city issues, said he voted for Isgro in 2014. But over time, he came to regret that decision. Finch said that at first, Isgro seemed to be a middle-of-the-road conservative who wanted to partner with Colby.

“He seemed to really understand this is a college town, and it didn’t make sense to antagonize this institution that helped Waterville be what it is now,” Finch said.

Waterville Mayor Nick Isgro and City Manager Mike Roy, back right, speak as the Waterville City Council meets in the Chace Community Forum, in the new Colby dorm downtown on Oct. 2, 2018. Michael G. Seamans/Morning Sentinel file

He said he also found Isgro to be affable and likeable when they met on the street, but on social media and at council meetings, Isgro could stoke the flames and become antagonistic toward those who did not agree with him.

“Controversy is always an attention-grabber, but one good deed does not outweigh the tens of bad deeds that Nick engaged in,” Finch said.

Former Waterville City Manager Michael Roy, who retired in December after 16 years but is employed by the city through Jan. 31 to help with the transition to his successor, said he didn’t see any value in his commenting on “past turbulence,” though he acknowledged it occurred during Isgro’s tenure.

“Nick came in at a difficult time, right toward the end of the Great Recession,” Roy said in a phone interview. “There were a number of initiatives that the city was involved in that had been controversial. One was construction of the police station a year or so earlier. Second was the property revaluation and lastly, a proposal for a pay-per-bag trash system.”

Roy said Isgro was opposed to that trash system when he ran for office, but then came to support it.

“I have to give him a lot of credit, because just a few months into his time here, he realized the idea of people paying for what they use was a fair approach and that it had a very significant financial benefit to the city,” Roy said. “I give him credit for being open on that  initiative.”

Erik Thomas

Roy also praised Isgro for his involvement soon afterward in helping launch downtown revitalization efforts. “Nick played a very important part of that, all the way through to the end of his term,” he said.

Council Chairman Erik Thomas, who had run against Isgro for mayor in 2017, also gives Isgro credit for some of the things he did, including working with Colby on revitalization efforts. But Thomas steered clear of commenting further, particularly on the controversies Isgro prompted.

“It’s interesting because I do kind of see Waterville as a microcosm of the country as a whole — where we are right now,” Thomas said. “We need leaders who bring the temperature down, not bring the temperature up.”

NEW LEADERSHIP

The City Council on Jan. 5 voted to hire Stephen J. Daly as the new city manager. A municipal management contractor with more than 30 years experience as a chief administrative officer, Daly, 73, of North Reading, Massachusetts, signed a three-year contract with the city.

“I’m really excited about the new city manager,” Isgro said Monday. “I think he is going to work out great for the city of Waterville. It’s just what Waterville needs to get through this period. I think the residents of this city will be very pleased when they get to meet him and get to know him.”

Though Isgro and Roy had their differences, Isgro says they were always able to close the door, hash things out and move forward.

“I consider Mike a friend and someone who I will probably keep in touch with as long as I can,” he said. “I have a lot of respect for Mike, and he obviously has dedicated a lot of his life and time to the city of Waterville. I’m glad I was able to have this job working with him.”

Isgro, who was mayor when Coelho was elected in 2018 to the Ward 5 council seat, said he thinks now-Mayor Coelho will continue his own legacy of fiscal responsibility with an eye toward a tax rate that residents can afford. In 2020, the city was able to avoid a tax increase while still being able to maintain strong city departments, produce a budget that was accountable, and keep the city in a strong financial position, according to Isgro.

“I know Jay — he’s pretty tight,” he said. “I think he’ll probably follow a similar path when it comes to the budget. I do believe that Mayor Coelho has the right focus right now. He’s focusing on roads, sidewalks, critical infrastructure — really the basics of what city government is for.”

Nick Isgro served as the mayor of Waterville for six years. Isgro is seen on Main Street in downtown Waterville on Tuesday. Rich Abrahamson/Morning Sentinel Buy this Photo

Isgro recommends Coelho and other city officials think about seniors on fixed incomes, retired mill workers and young families just starting out when making decisions.

“If you keep those things in mind and weigh those with an open and honest heart, you will typically make the right decisions,” he said.

Isgro also recommends the city not wait another 20 years to do a citywide revaluation. “It really should be done sometime in the next several years is my recommendation to the city,” he said.

When reflecting on his time in office, Isgro noted said he always tried to bring balance to City Council discussions.

“When you’re the mayor, people know who you are. When you go out and about — to the grocery store, downtown, people stop and they talk to you. You meet great people. You get a really keen sense of who the everyday, middle-of-the-road resident is. You break out of that echo chamber of the council chambers.”

Isgro said it is important not to forget the taxpayers, including those who have lived in Waterville a long time.

“I feel to this day that if you’re not doing something beneficial to residents, question whether you should be doing it.”

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