WESTBROOK – Mayor Colleen Hilton has gotten the same advice every time she has taken a strong stance on an issue in the past two years.

“From the day I took office, I heard people say, ‘Oh, don’t do that. You won’t get re-elected,’ ” she said Friday.

Although Hilton doesn’t believe that being mayor is about retaining votes, she does hope to get enough of them on Nov. 8 to serve a second term.

The deadline for getting on the ballot in Westbrook was Friday, and it set up a repeat of the last race, in 2009, except Hilton, a Democrat, is now the incumbent and former mayor Bruce Chuluda, a Republican, is the challenger.

Chuluda, 63, who is semi-retired and works part time as a toll collector, was the city’s mayor for six years before being defeated by Hilton, a longtime school board member and chief executive officer for VNA Home Health and Hospice in South Portland.

In the last election, which was decided by less than 100 votes, Westbrook residents faced the question of whether they were happy with the way things were or ready for a change. Now, they will decide whether the changes made by Hilton were beneficial to the city or too drastic.

Hilton and Chuluda said Friday that their focus in the next two years would be to attract businesses to Westbrook. Although they share that goal, as leaders they’re starkly different. While Chuluda prides himself on being open and accessible to the people, Hilton said her strengths are being decisive and holding employees accountable.

Most residents and business owners were reluctant on a recent morning to offer their opinions of the candidates because they either didn’t have opinions or didn’t want to share them publicly.

One registered Democrat, Helen La Count, said she appreciates Hilton’s straight-shooting style.

“She’s taken some heat for being as bold as she has been, but she’s demonstrated true leadership, and that’s what we needed,” said La Count, who lives in Prides Corner.

James Tranchemontagne, owner of The Frog and Turtle restaurant on Bridge Street and an outspoken Republican, said the city should streamline regulatory processes to be more business-friendly — a change that Chuluda said Friday he would like to see.

As for Tranchemontagne’s choice for mayor, he said he’s still “up in the air.”

In 2009, the city was embroiled in a conflict between two of its biggest taxpayers, Pike Industries and Idexx Laboratories, both of which wanted to expand in the same area off Spring Street. Also, two female firefighters were out on paid leave for more than a year, alleging pervasive sexual harassment in the department.

Since Hilton took office, Pike and Idexx have reached an agreement allowing both to expand. The fire department, after years of trouble, has gone through an overhaul in which a public safety director was hired in place of the fire and police chiefs, and lawsuits filed by the two firefighters have been settled for $846,000.

It was on Hilton’s first day as mayor that she earned a reputation as a decisive leader — what some saw as a sign of strength and others saw as an abuse of the mayor’s power, which is the strongest of any municipal official in the state.

Hilton announced in her inaugural address that she would not reappoint the recreation director, the finance director and the fire chief. Chuluda said Friday that he never would have fired staffers so publicly. “I just don’t think that was an appropriate forum,” he said.

Former fire chief Daniel Brock filed a lawsuit against the city that was settled last month for $320,000. Hilton alleged that former finance director Susan Rossignol, now a candidate for city clerk, behaved angrily and erratically toward her and city employees. The mayor sought a protection-from-harassment order, which was denied by a judge, and had Rossignol banned from City Hall, a police order that’s still in effect.

At the city’s Democratic caucus on Sunday, Hilton addressed the criticism of her decisions as mayor — that she fired people too publicly, that she spends too much money on lawsuits, and that, maybe, she’s just plain crazy.

“It’s certainly been a tough two years,” Hilton said Friday. “There was a lot of cleanup to do.”

Chuluda said he would have handled some of the issues differently, including continuing his effort to rezone land around the Five Star Industrial Park and prevent Pike from expanding.

“Time will tell,” he said of whether Hilton took the right course. Regardless, Chuluda, who made a close but unsuccessful bid last November to unseat state Rep. Tim Driscoll, believes residents liked his style as mayor and want to see him back in office.

Hilton doesn’t regret any of the decisions she has made. Even if they upset some people, she said, she believes the city as a whole is better off.

Staff Writer Leslie Bridgers can be contacted at: 791-6364 or at [email protected]