Waterville heads to the polls a year after midterm challenges to Colby voters

On Nov. 5, Waterville residents voted in the State of Maine Referendum Election and Regular and Special Municipal Elections. Waterville voters cast their ballots on City Council seats, Board of Education seats, Kennebec Water District Trustees, and Charter Commission seats. All voters in Maine voted on transportation investment and amendments to the Constitution of Maine regarding allowing people with disabilities to be able to sign petitions in an alternative manner.

Polling took place at the Thomas College Field House from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Colby students living on Mayflower Hill could vote in Ward 3, and those living downtown in the Alfond Commons are in Ward 6.

These elections follow a memorable midterm election in 2018, which saw around 150 Colby students’ votes challenged. The challenge was based on the students’ failure to input their addresses correctly. The confusion came from both the P.O. box system that the College uses and the fact that those living in the then brand-new Alfond Commons downtown were in a different Ward than those on campus, although none voted in the wrong ward.

The challenge efforts were led by then-candidate for Maine State House District 110 Republican Mark Andre. In an interview with the Echo, Andre reflected on this year’s election. With regards to a repeat of last year’s debacles, Andre said that he’s “not concerned.”

Andre explained that during the effort he led to challenge the Colby votes last year, “We asked the clerk to perform a simple task to verify proper address and ward in the city.” He said that the clerk decided that “they didn’t have to do that” and that this sort of decision “disenfranchises voters” because they may not be registered correctly. 

Andre said that the challenge’s “consequence is that this year, state wide, clerks are required to ask the names of addresses of voter . . . Statewide we have a policy that’s mandatory . . . we’re very proud of that.”

Andre reflected that he is “grateful to the students who participated in the hearings,” and that he always thought that their votes “should count regardless of the outcome” of the hearings.

When moving addresses, “people are forgetful,” Andre said, emphasizing that it’s not just college students who make such errors.  Andre expressed concerns about students who had rented off-campus housing but still used their PO boxes when registering to vote.

Andre also focused on the issue of residency. “Residency is established, not chosen,” he opined, adding that “you should be voting where you’re registered as a taxpayer.”

Andre said that residency is important because, according to him, at the College there are two different philosophies. “[Colby] Democrats say that if your feet are in Waterville on election day, you should vote.” However, Andre said, the Colby Republicans don’t support voting in local elections in the way that the Democrats do.

Andre has run for office four times, but he lamented that, as a Republican, “I didn’t have the ability to have an organization on your campus.”

“These two things have a profound impact on elections,” Andre noted, saying that Republican candidates had a “natural disadvantage” because of them. 

Andre said his goal is to make a “fair playing field” for candidates. To do so, he wants Republican students to understand the impact of their stance and would encourage them to vote locally as long as the current understanding of residency is upheld.

The United States, Andre said, is based on representation by district, which necessitates clear residency requirements. “Let’s say there’s not a lot going on in Waterville this year, but there is in Oakland or another nearby town,” Andre joked that he could stay at a friend’s house before election day and say that he resided there and then vote.

Andre asserted that it “comes down to where you have an interest.” He gave another example of someone wanting to vote in a contested election in Arizona this year. “That’s why we have to have residency requirements related to voting.”

Addressing Lutie Brown’s `22 candidacy for the City Charter Commission’s Ward 3 seat, Andre stuck to his emphasis on residency. “If Lutie Brown wants to stay here, I encourage [her and] anyone to run.” Andre repeated that if Brown has a long-term interest in becoming a resident, indeed, if all Colby students decided to stay in Waterville, he would be supportive of their running for local office.

“But if she intends to leave, boy, that City Charter Commission is a very important thing,” he stipulated. “I hope her intention in joining was honest.” If Brown wants to be on the Charter Commission in Waterville but “is still going to be a tax payer in New York, that’s a funny thing to want to be on the Charter Commission . . . ”

In an interview with the Echo, Brown seemed to address Andre’s comment on her intentions: “I’m doing this with pure intentions of just being the most engaged and best resident that I can.”

Addressing those who oppose her candidacy, Brown explained that she hasn’t had anyone come to her directly from the Ward who disagree with her besides her opponent. “I have gotten some slack from the Mayor and with that I would just say that I know that he’s running for his own Charter Commission [seat] in his own ward, and I wish him luck in his race but I’m going to stay in mine and it’s not going to faze me.”

Revealing how she got into the Charter Commission race, Brown recalled that “we had to submit our petitions to be on the ballot on Friday [Sept. 6] and I heard Wednesday night [Sept. 4] after my class ended at 9:30pm that the person that was originally running had just dropped out. So people were trying to encourage me to run and try and get the petition signed and make it onto the ballet within 48 hours or so. I slept on it, I thought about it, and I thought it would be a good decision because of my commitment to the city and my involvement so far and how much I care about it.”

Brown, looking to the future, said that she never planned to run for office but preferred to be more behind-the-scenes. She doesn’t plan on running for office again but, she said, “I feel like this was a good moment for me to step up.”

This sentiment can be seen in Brown’s work as the Local Engagement chair for the Colby Democrats and the Chief of Staff for Maine College Democrats (MCM), through which she works towards supporting the President and Vice President in “giving people resources they need as young democrats in Maine.”

Reflecting on the 2018 ballot challenges, of which Brown was a target, “it seemed like an insult to my basic right to be a resident of Waterville. I’m very engaged with the community so it hurt last year when I was contested for not being a resident enough, so I fought that, I ended up in the paper for that . . . people do bring it up when I talk to them. They ask if I was contested or they remember that I was in the paper for it. It’s actually been a pretty good unifying factor because most people were supportive of me and of Colby and the fact that we do live here and we are members of this community so people are actually supporting me because I was contested . . . they’re empathizing with us in our struggles with voter disenfranchisement.”

In campaigning for this election, Brown said that she knocked on doors and tabled at the College. “I’ve really enjoyed just walking down random streets in the ward and finding people walking their dogs or cleaning up their leaves and yesterday I did some door-to-door work and it was just really fun meeting people with their kids and hearing about their concerns in the city and trying to see if I can address those if elected.”

Brown’s goals are to keep the Ward system, impose limits on city councillors, and to consider removing the mayoral position. Of keeping the ward system, Brown argued that “this way it’ll keep each neighborhood represented equally in the council and in the Charter in a way that is very important so that way people aren’t silenced.”

Of the Mayoral position, Brown explained that she would consider its removal “because the City Manager has taken on a lot of the roles that the Mayor was expected to or that we would normally think of a Mayor as taking on and a lot of decisions that residents are passionate about go through the Council and I think that having a Council Chairperson might be a more democratic way to go about that.”

Term limits are of value to her because “that way we don’t have anyone in perpetual power and we don’t have career politicians. People can cycle in and out, there can be fresh voices and new ideas could be brought across.”

Brown said that her opponent, Neal Robert Patterson, is not someone who she knows personally. “In his bio he mentioned that he feels more qualified because he’s been here for more than a few months, unlike me, but I would just like to say that I’ve been here for over a year and I’ve really found a home here and thrown my heart into this city.”

Joan Phillips-Sandy ran uncontested for the Board of Education for Ward 3. She’s served in the role since 1997, when “the person who held the seat before me resigned, leaving a partial term. I was interested in education issues and local schools, so I thought a partial term was a good way to find out if it was something I enjoyed and where I could make a contribution so I ran. I have never had an opponent, either at the caucus or in the election.”

Phillips-Sandy said that the most difficult part of her position is determining the budget. “We can’t afford to do all that we’d like or think is needed for our schools,” she shared. “We develop our budget in several meetings, open to the public, where every cost center is reviewed and explained. Cuts are discussed. Hardly anyone from the public shows up. Then people go to City Council meetings and complain about our budget.”

The hardest decision she’s been involved in was “when we fired a principal accused of misconduct by a student. We held a hearing in executive session and then voted in public. It was a very divisive time, he had several supporters who did not believe the allegation. But I believe we followed the evidence and did the right thing.”

In her next term, Phillips-Sandy hopes to “continue to look for ways to do more with limited resources, and support efforts in our schools to improve student achievement. Almost two-thirds of our kids are from lower income families and we need to make sure all students receive the best education possible.”

The Board meets two Mondays a month. They deal with the budget, hiring the Superintendent, and approving other hires. Phillips-Sandy relayed that this work isn’t generally influenced by having Colby in her ward.

On being a candidate on election day, Phillips-Sandy explained that “since I’ve never been opposed this is all I’ve known as a candidate. I hope I’m not embarrassed by a dreadfully low total vote count! My fingers are crossed and prayers said for my friends and colleagues in contested races.”

Addressing the hot topic of removing the ward system or not, Phillips-Sandy remarked that “I don’t think that’s a good idea. On the other hand, the population of Waterville has declined over the years, and maybe seven wards are too many. I could see something like five or six slightly larger wards and one or two at large seats. I just hope the Charter Commission approaches all issues thoughtfully, without any particular partisan agenda.”

The results of the Ward 3 and 6 elections are as follows: Margaret Smith was elected uncontested to the Ward 3 City Council seat, Claude Francke won over Thomas DePre for the Ward 6 City Council seat, and Joan Phillips-Sandy won uncontested for the Ward 3 Board of Education. The Charter Commission was approved by voters. Lutie Brown won over Neal Robert Patterson for the Ward 3 seat and Arthur Finch beat Thomas DePre for the Ward 6 seat. The transportation investment question and constitutional amendment both passed.