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. These elections follow a memorable midterm election in 2018, which saw around 150 Colby students’ votes challenged.

Waterville voters cast their ballots on seats for the City Council, Board of Education, Kennebec Water District, and Charter Commission. All voters in Maine voted on an amendment to the state’s Constitution which would allow people with disabilities to sign petitions in an alternative way and on statewide investment in transportation.

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.

When students voted in 2018 midterms, some of their ballots were challenged because they registered with an invalid address. The confusion came from the P.O. box system that the College uses for student mail. Voter registration must be done with a physical address, not a P.O. box, but many students put their P.O. boxes on their registration forms.

There was also confusion because students living in the then brand-new Alfond Commons downtown were in a different Ward than those on campus, although none actually voted in the wrong ward.

The challenge efforts were led by then-candidate for Maine State House District 110, Mark Andre. In an interview with the Echo, Andre, a Republican, said that he is not concerned that last year’s debacle will be repeated, but expressed concerns with students’ voting habits nonetheless.

When moving addresses, “people are forgetful,” Andre said, adding 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 said. “You should be voting where you’re registered as a taxpayer.”

Andre said that residency is important because, according to him, there are two different philosophies in the College’s respective Democratic and Republican groups. “[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 said that, as a Republican, “I didn’t have the ability to have an organization on your campus.” He believes that the different approaches of the Colby Republicans and Democrats impact elections, and said that Republican candidates in Waterville 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.

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 said. “I hope her intention in joining was honest.” He doesn’t like the idea of Brown serving on the Charter Commission in Waterville but paying her taxes in New York.

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.”

Speaking of those who oppose her candidacy, Brown said that she hasn’t had anyone come to her directly from the Ward who disagrees 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,” she said.

Brown said that she got into the race because, two days before petitions to be on the ballot were due, the Democrat who was going to run dropped out. So, she said, “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.”

Looking to the future, Brown said that she never planned to run for office but prefers 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.”

Brown works as the Local Engagement Chair for the Colby Democrats and as the Chief of Staff for the Maine College Democrats.

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.”

Brown’s testimony in the ballot challenge was covered by the Portland Press Herald, which she said people have remembered when she knocks on doors around the city. “It’s actually been a pretty good unifying factor because most people were supportive of me and of Colby…they’re empathizing with us in our struggles with voter disenfranchisement.”

To campaign 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.”

Brown’s goals are to keep the Ward system, impose term 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 said that she would consider replacing it with a City Council chairperson instead “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.”

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,” she said. “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 and has run unopposed since then. The Board meets two Mondays a month and deals with the budget, hiring the Superintendent, and approving other hires. Phillips-Sandy told the Echo that this work isn’t usually influenced by having the College in her ward.

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 firing a principal accused of misconduct by a student, which she said “was a very divisive time.”

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.”

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, Phillips-Sandy said that she doesn’t agree with that idea but that, because of Waterville’s population shrinkage, maybe the number of wards could be reduced from its current seven. “I just hope the Charter Commission approaches all issues thoughtfully, without any particular partisan agenda,” she said.

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 against 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 against Neal Robert Patterson for the Ward 3 seat and Arthur Finch beat Thomas DePre for the Ward 6 seat. The statewide transportation investment question and constitutional amendment both passed.

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