Waterville Mayor Isgro discusses hopes for the year

Since 2014, the mayoral office of the city of Waterville has been held by Nick Isgro. The mayor, an active member of the Maine Republican Party, is known around the city and state for his outspoken social media presence. In the 2018 midterms, for instance, he had a newsworthy involvement in opposing the referendum on banning plastic bags in the city and for voicing his doubts about the voting rights of Colby College students from outside of Maine. Isgro sat down recently for an interview with the Echo.

Isgro grew up in Waterville, as did his mother, who comes from the city’s French community, and his father, whose family moved from Upstate New York in 1860. Isgoro left Waterville to attend the University of Maine at Farmington and work in coastal Maine before returning to raise his family. 

Isgro traces the genesis of his political career to the 2014 pay-as-you-throw trash program. Many city residents protested the addition of the program to the municipal budget and demanded a referendum after its passing. 

“I was one of the angry residents who went down to City Hall, started going to City Council, Isgro told the Echo. “Afterwards, I got engaged with Mayor Karen Heck and different City Councillors… I realized that these are just people, and anyone can do this, so I decided to run for mayor and it worked out.”

He pointed out that his view on the pay-as-you-throw actually changed during that election cycle. “But,” he said, “I think that’s good. I think that people too often get stuck in their position, they don’t want to be called the flip-flopper. I think, if you’re an intelligent human being, you can be presented with new information and actually change your mind. My views change all the time, on all kinds of things, just based off new information.”

In terms of his role, Isgro quipped that “the mayor has about no power.” This is in part due to the council-manager form of government in Waterville, in which the mayor serves as the part-time elected representative of the people and a separately hired city manager serves as the chief executive officer of the city. The manager reports to the seven-person council.

Isgro has the ability to make committee appointments and veto the council, which they have the converse ability to override.

This current structure of government began under former Maine Governor Paul LePage during his term as Waterville mayor in 2003. Isgro sees the value of limiting the role of the mayor. “The person running the day-to-day business [of the city] shouldn’t be concerned with the political winds of the day. I would say that I would probably lean towards siding with how we have it now rather than a more powerful mayor. Everybody wants a more powerful mayor when it’s their guy that’s in the office, but that knife cuts both ways.”

Isgro, besides being mayor, is also the Vice Chair of the Maine Republican Party. He describes it as “not a huge role, it doesn’t consume a [lot of time] day-to-day.” His responsibilities include planning for state-wide elections and travelling to speak with groups around the state. Isgro expressed that his mayoral responsibilities take up much more time than those for the Vice Chair.

Reflecting on how his job has changed since he was first elected, Isgro felt that there has been a significant increase in partisanism tied to national politics. He cited the 2018 recall election for his office which was prompted by his insulting Parkland school shooting survivor David Hogg over Twitter by telling him to “eat it.” Isgro said that “The farther we get away from the recall, the better things get.”

After that election, “the city was just on fire, people got burned out.”

Isgro feels that this year has seen a downturn in partisanship but that the upcoming November election will bring it back up. He stated that he would prefer an end to partisan elections, which he sees as unique to the municipality of Waterville.

He views the designation of Democrat or Republican next to candidates’ names in elections as having negative consequences. 

“I find that in the city council everyone works well together throughout the year. Then we have caucuses late summer. Candidates are selected and then everybody’s politicking and being really weird and not really working, I think, for the best interest of the city because of that.”

Partisanship has also been influenced heavily by the election of Donald Trump and national issues, “Which is crazy, when you think about it, that national politics, [which] have nothing to do with what’s going on in Waterville, trickle in and…become this driver that really is unrelated to talking about paving roads and how we handle our municipal waste.”

The political nature of the mayoral office is the hardest part of the job, Isgro reflected. It’s challenging “when it feels like things are happening for outside political purposes other than the issue that are right in front of us. It’s a difficult situation just trying to navigate those waters.”

The people of Waterville are  the best part of the job for Isgro. He feels he has been able to learn much more about the nuance of the city, the “neighborhoods and sometimes streets that have their own individual character and identity. It’s awesome to be a part of that.”

Waterville itself presents unique challenges in Isgro’s opinion. He mentioned that between the two colleges, two hospitals, and various churches, about one third of the city is tax-exempt, creating a limited tax base.

Financially, a “pretty wide socioeconomic divide” exists, which Isgro attributes to an industrial vortex left after the closure of the city’s mills in the 1990s. This caused a “generational devastation” which Isgro said has contributed to the large enrollment in Maine’s free and reduced lunch program. As of 2011, the Maine Department of Education reported 54% eligibility in the city for free lunch, which requires a household income at 130% of the federal poverty line, and 130% eligibility for reduced lunch, which requires 150% of the same metric.

Waterville’s status as a service center, with mental health facilities, a methadone clinic and a homeless shelter, are an added element to what makes governing Waterville unique, Isgro stated. He said that this contributes to the police department being one of the city’s largest budget expenditures because, according to him, “during the day, our population doubles and that just brings a whole host of issues.”

Isgro said that he gauges public opinion through social media and through face to face interactions. He sees a danger to relying on these modes of connection, however, because “a handful of local people can give the impression that 16,000 other people feel that way when that’s not the case at all. It’s a difficult thing to navigate. At the end of the day, we are elected to do what we think is the best in the long term…If you come to city council it’s the same people, on both sides, of every issue…if a whole neighborhood shows up and these are people you never see at city council, chances are that this is a group you should listen to.”

Isgro relayed that the complaint he receives most often from constituents is that taxes in the city are too high.

If the city were to receive more tax dollars, Isgro would focus on infrastructure. He said that every time the city invests in growth and expansion, it becomes more difficult to maintain the existing infrastructure.

Regarding his favorite spots around town, Isgro said that Lebanese cuisine on Temple Street is “amazing,” as well as The Villager Restaurant on Concourse, which is the “only place in town you can spend seven bucks and still get a great big lunch. It’s a piece of the old Waterville,” he reflected.

Among Isgro’s best-loved traditions are the Christmas parade and the Kringleville festivities. He lamented that there is no such event in the fall.

In the November 2017 elections, Waterville residents voted on a plastic bag ban. Isgro was a strong opponent of the ban, using his mayoral veto to try to block the placement of the question of the ban on the ballot.

Of the ban, which went into effect on September 1 of this year, Isgro conceded that “people are just going to have to get used to it. It is what it is at this point, we lost that fight, we’ve got to move on.”

Of the college’s recent investments downtown, Isgro was very positive. As Isgro recalled, “one of the more exciting reasons for running for mayor was that [President] David Greene had just come aboard. It was apparent from the get-go that he intended to engage with the community. I fought really hard to get the dormitory downtown…it sparked an interest that we desperately needed.” 

When asked about the relationship of the College and the city, Isgro’s immediate response was “it’s complicated.” He continued, “There’s an impression that ‘Nick’s anti-Colby.’ Are you kidding me? I love the investment, I love working with Paul Ureneck downtown, I’ve really enjoyed working with David Greene and will continue to do so. We have to understand that there are political issues and we have to talk about them.”

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