Waterville, Scarborough and the Recall Election Phenomenon in Maine

9 mins read
Paul Mills

“Eat it, Hogg.”

These three words have been the flashpoint of one of the most dramatic political episodes in Maine in the last few weeks. When in early April they issued from the Twitter account of Waterville Mayor Nick Isgro they quickly prompted a successful petition effort that will make whether to recall the 36-year old Republican from office one of the hottest issues on the ballot in the June 12th election.

Though voter attention will also be focused on the race to choose party nominees in the contest to succeed Governor LePage, there is also fervent interest in the unusual election in LePage’s own home town that’s occurring the same day as the state-wide primary.

The “Eat it, Hogg” tweet Isgro issued was in reference to Parkland, Florida school shooting survivor David Hogg. Isgro, who himself seriously considered his own gubernatorial bid just a few months ago, made the comment in response to a story that Fox News would stand behind Laura Ingraham. This was after Ingraham had also made comments ridiculing Hogg when Hogg had called for a boycott of Fox advertisers.

Driven not only by twitter etiquette but also by ideology, liberals and conservatives throughout the state are lining up on opposite sides of the question.

Soon after disclosure of the tweet directed at Hogg, the spotlight was also directed to such earlier Isgro tweets that included defense of accused child molester Roy Moore in last year’s Alabama senate election and a vulgar reference to anti-sexual harassment proposals.

Within a week of the anti-Hogg tweet, Isgro and his long time employer, Skowhegan Savings Bank, where the mayor was its controller and assistant vice president, parted company. This occurred in the aftermath of a statement from the bank’s CEO saying the bank was “disappointed and dismayed” by the tweet. This drew the ire of Governor LePage who then wrote to bank president John Witherspoon, that, “You have fallen prey to the leftist hate ideology that refuses to recognize free speech,” calling the bank’s decision one that it “will likely come to regret.” (It’s still unclear whether Isgro voluntarily resigned or whether he was forced out.)

At the same time, former Mayor Karen Heck – Isgro’s immediate predecessor, who had been a one-time Isgro supporter when he first won election in 2014 – initiated a petition campaign to put the issue of Isgro’s tenure before the voters. By the first week of May, Heck and her allies had summoned the 857 signatures required to trigger the election, one that will be held the same day as the state-wide primary.

Also simultaneously confronting a recall election will be a recently appointed member of the city council, John O’Donnell. Those seeking to give O’Donnell the boot complained that other councilors in appointing him to fill a vacant slot in its membership, did not pay enough heed to backers of a losing candidate for the job, Julian Payne.

The Waterville recall elections are coming in the fresh aftermath of those that were just completed in Scarborough only a few days ago. They are part of a recent upsurge in voter utilization of the procedure.

There, in Maine’s tenth most populous municipality (a “town” with almost as many people as the city of Augusta) a recall campaign succeeded in eliminating three school board members, by which some two thirds of the 4,600 who voted favored their ouster. The trio was targeted because they had been accused of standing in the way of high school principal David Creech’s efforts to rescind his resignation.

It’s now a bit unclear whether removal of these board members will pave the way for Creech’s return since the authority to restore Creech lies with School Superintendent Julie Kukenberger, who has so far indicated no interest in reinstating him. That’s due in part to Creech’s perceived objections to the mechanics of Kukenberger’s proposal to institute a later start time for high school students – accompanied by an earlier time for lower grades – and their apparently conflicting positions on how to roll out a proficiency learning program. (Both Kukenberger and Creech have been reticent about the actual basis for and extent of their policy differences, something that has not by any means prevented activists on both sides from attributing positions to each of them.)

To put Creech back on the job, the remaining four board members and eventually the three as yet un-named replacements for the removed members would then likely have to buy out Kukenberger’s contract and then find a replacement willing to reinstate Creech in order to accomplish the recall’s objective. (Running out the clock until Kukenberger’s contract expires a year from now is another alternative, though there would of course be no guarantee that Creech would still be standing in the wings.)

Thickening the plot too is the fact that all four remaining school board members must now – under the town’s charter – unanimously agree on all their decisions until the three new members are elected, a process that could take several months.

The Scarborough experience is a reminder that few spoons stir the political pot as tempestuously as who gets the thankless job of being a high school principal. Such was also the case in Portland when five school board members there were forced into a recall election stemming from their action in filling the top job at Deering High. The outcome there, however, led to the retention rather than the removal of the board members whose fates were put in play. This was the 1967 controversy over the board’s decision to fill the principal’s position with a Massachusetts school administrator Donald Hale despite a groundswell of public support for promoting popular sub-principal John Ham. In a 2 to 1 outcome, voters sided with keeping the board.

Other Maine communities in recent years have also been the venue for recalls. Among them:

* Old Orchard Beach where in 2013 six of the seven town councilors were successfully recalled over a vote to fire its manager;

* South Paris, also just five years ago, where two selectmen were recalled – though two others were retained – over a decision to oust its town manager;

* Poland, where in the same year as those in Old Orchard and South Paris, three of its five board members were also recalled also over a vote to fire a town manager;

Recall at the state level would require a constitutional amendment, something that neither Maine nor some 18 other states have chosen to enact.

It is a spirited phenomenon that the state has nevertheless been witnessing in two of the state’s largest communities, that particularly in the case of the upcoming Waterville plebiscite, may have state-wide implications.

Paul H. Mills, is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of public affairs in Maine. He can be reached by e-mail: pmills@myfairpoint.net.

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