WATERVILLE — Mayor Nick Isgro on Wednesday criticized the City Council for placing a proposed ban on plastic bags at large retail stores on November’s election ballot, saying he was “saddened by the misplaced priorities of the council.”

“They voted to have an election this fall on whether or not to ban reusable plastic bags, indicating that they are coming next for straws and take-out containers if their campaign is successful,” Isgro said in a Facebook post. “Like with the failed mayoral recall that they chose to spend a lot of their time on, they acknowledged that they will again welcome outside special interest groups and money descending on Our City in their crusade against reusable plastic bags.”

The post goes on to say the council has been spending too much time on the proposed ban to the detriment of more important issues facing the city, such as the opioid crisis and homelessness.

He also criticizes “outside special interest groups, lobbyists and influence-peddlers” for bringing the issue to the forefront.

The drive to get the question on the ballot was spearheaded by the Sustain Mid-Maine Coalition, a Waterville-based nonprofit focused on sustainability and clean energy use.

Councilors pushed back on the mayor’s post, saying the vote is about giving residents a say in the decision and criticizing the mayor for the way he has framed the discussion.

Plastic grocery bags are shown in 2008 at a supermarket in New York. Americans use 100 billion plastic shopping bags a year, according to Washington-based think tank Worldwatch Institute, or more than 330 a year for every person in the country. Most of them are thrown away. A handful of U.S. cities and states have made moves to cut that number, but critics say the United States is years behind countries in Europe, Asia and Africa.

“I find it sad that this council is trying to do the right thing and there always seems to be some type of push back,” said Councilor Nathaniel White, D-Ward 2, in an email. “Nick states he is saddened by the misplaced priorities of the council on his Facebook post. I find that statement extremely incorrect, the four of us didn’t want to make this ordinance a priority, and we didn’t want to get into a debate with residents over this, so we voted to place it on the ballot so it wouldn’t become a priority of the council.”

Council Chairman Steve Soule, D-Ward 1, also refuted the mayor’s statements, saying “there is no political agenda, no outside influence as some claim.”

“For the mayor to connect a vote on plastic bags to Project Hope and the opioid crisis, sidewalks and middle class families is hard for many to understand,” Soule said in an email. “Will people choose to move out of Waterville because big stores might not have plastic bags? People want their voices heard, now we are giving them the chance to make the decision themselves.”

On Monday, the council voted 4-1 to put the proposed plastic bag ordinance before voters in the Nov. 6 election. The ordinance would ban retail stores of more than 10,000 square feet from using plastic shopping bags within city limits.

White and Soule as well as Councilors John O’Donnell, D-Ward 5, and Jackie Dupont, D-Ward 7, voted to put the ordinance before voters Monday; while Sydney Mayhew, R-Ward 4, voted against it. Winifred Tate, D-Ward 6, was absent and could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

Mayhew said he is opposed to the ordinance because it could be interpreted as not friendly to business and because of the strain it could put on the city’s code enforcement department.

But he said other councilors have not spent an inordinate amount of time on the issue, which has been discussed on and off since about January in conversations mostly driven by the Sustain Mid-Maine Coalition and some residents.

Nick Isgro Reuters

“I know there are more important issues in (Isgro’s) opinion that he would like to talk about,” Mayhew said. “Has it been a distraction? Maybe a small one, but nothing significant. I really believe it was just a system of events since the beginning of the year, with the coalition coming and having meetings with us. It sparked some debate among residents.”

On Monday, Isgro said he was skeptical of the ban, calling it a “slippery slope” to asking for a ban on Styrofoam and plastic straws. In his post Wednesday, he said “reusable plastic bags make up only 0.5 percent of the municipal waste stream nationwide,” but did not say where the statistic comes from.

Isgro did not respond to a phone call seeking comment.

According to the coalition, the average American uses 150 plastic shopping bags per year. Only about 5 percent of bags are recycled, it says.

In the post, Isgro said the city would be better off if the council spent “as much time focusing on improving our community, raising wages and improving our quality of life in order to keep and attract more families to Waterville as they do on going after bags, straws and take-out containers.”

“Do pot holes need filling or do reusable bags need banning?” he said. “Would time and effort be best spent contributing to and promoting Deputy Chief (William) Bonney’s life-saving ‘Operation Hope’ program to curb opioid addiction or on tackling an alleged reusable bag epidemic?”

White said the council does care about priorities such as homelessness, the opioid crisis and housing while also listening to issues residents want to have a say on.

“If Mayor Isgro spent more time on working with the council instead of expressing his dissatisfaction with the council over social media, maybe we would accomplish more,” he said.

O’Donnell, meanwhile, called Isgro’s reaction “ridiculous” and said the council has spent “zero time” on the issue, though he strongly supports the ban.

“I say hooray, we don’t need plastic straws,” O’Donnell said. “We don’t need anything plastic. There is no question it makes absolute sense in terms of the environment, future generations and the species in the sea. Nick, I think, is taking an attitude that businesses can make more money if we keep throwing out plastic, but there’s absolutely no logic to it.”

“I think it’s pretty clear what the proposed ordinance bans and doesn’t ban,” Dupont said in an email. “It is unfortunate that this is the narrative being told by the Mayor. It’s divisive and implies that programs such as Operation Hope are directly affected by plastic bag bans, which is factually incorrect.”

Isgro has not said he will veto the council’s vote, but said he will “veto all efforts by this council that do not focus on revitalizing and improving our beloved community for all residents.”

If voters approve a ban on plastic bags, Waterville would join several Maine municipalities that already have adopted ordinances regulating the use of either plastic bags or polystyrene food containers, or both.

Last year, state lawmakers also looked at a bill that would prohibit retailers from bagging products in single-use plastic bags starting in 2020.

The bill passed both the House and the Senate, but Gov. Paul LePage vetoed it.

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368

[email protected]

Twitter: @rachel_ohm