Politics

October 22, 2013

Biddeford mayor’s race includes familiar contenders

By Gillian Graham ggraham@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

A former mayor and a former city councilor are trying to unseat Biddeford’s current mayor, who has held elected office for the past three decades.

Former two-term Mayor Joanne Twomey and Perry Aberle, who in 1993 became the city’s youngest city councilor, are challenging Alan Casavant, who is seeking his second term.

The Nov. 5 election is largely a rematch of the 2011 race, when Casavant defeated Twomey.

Though the mayoral position in Biddeford is mainly ceremonial, the mayor does preside over City Council and School Committee meetings and often sets the tone for policy discussions. The mayor will guide the city as it readies the downtown riverfront property it purchased from the Maine Energy Recovery Co. for redevelopment, and deals with concerns from residents about property tax increases.

Casavant, a state representative for District 137 in Biddeford and Kennebunkport, was first elected to the City Council in the early 1980s. He was elected mayor in 2011 after a campaign in which he promised to lead the city forward, and that remains his focus. It is an exciting time to be mayor, he said.

“I think in my first two years we accomplished some things people never thought possible. We purchased the Maine Energy land and poised that for redevelopment. We began single-stream recycling,” he said. “These two things by themselves are extraordinary. They have become catalysts for other things in the community, which means economic development. I see the opportunities not just for economic development, but development that will be seen as a benchmark for what Biddeford will be for the next 100 years.”

But Casavant’s first term has not been without controversy. After voters last year failed to change a charter requirement that the superintendent of schools live in Biddeford, Casavant tried unsuccessfully on the state level to eliminate the ability for municipalities to keep residency restrictions. Casavant, 61, has said the residency requirement hurts the city’s ability to hire the best candidates and nearly lost Biddeford a strong superintendent.

Twomey said she was prompted to run for mayor after talking with constituents who are unhappy with the current administration, and because of her belief that Casavant is an “elitist.” Twomey’s signature achievement during her time as mayor was getting voters to approve a $34 million renovation of Biddeford High School. She also advocated for a proposed hotel and racino facility, which was supported by Biddeford voters but ultimately rejected in a statewide vote.

Twomey, 67, spent much of the past 30 years speaking out about pollution from the MERC trash incinerator and tried unsuccessfully to work with its owners, Casella Waste Systems, to convert the facility to a cleaner form of energy. She opposed the 2012 City Council decision to buy the MERC property for $6.5 million because she felt officials ignored concerns about pollution on the site.

“This has been nothing but a big green wash. Casella got $6.5 million and laughed all the way to the bank,” she said. “That was all a big sham. Casavant allowed them to come here in the first place (when he was on the council) and is now taking credit for them leaving.”

Twomey bristles at the idea of a downtown parking garage, which is still in the conceptual phase. She questions who would really benefit if the city built a garage to be used primarily by private mill developers. She said she would rather focus on improving the city’s existing housing stock and bringing new jobs to Biddeford.

“I’m not anti-mill; my grandmother worked there,” Twomey said. “What I’m opposed to is the gentrification which is now taking place. In some towns they like it. They’re getting rid of the people who worked their whole lives in the mills. The renaissance people are going to take over. That’s not what I want.”

Aberle, 38, a self-employed graphic designer and advertising sales representative, previously supported Casavant but said he feels the city needs new leadership to address high taxes, citywide development and “our ticking time bomb of infrastructure problems.”

Aberle would like to look for community development and housing grants to help landlords, close and sell the city’s airport for development, and evaluate which city buildings could be sold to bring in revenue. He said his downtown development plan would include not just the mill district, but all of the downtown area. He envisions creating a cobblestone plaza on Main Street.

“I see so much potential in Biddeford and I see so much not happening in Biddeford,” Aberle said. “I’m the new voice. I haven’t been the face they’ve seen for the last 30 years. If you don’t change what you’re doing, change will never happen.”

Political newcomer Karl Reed Jr. is running for mayor as a registered write-in candidate.

Gillian Graham can be contacted at 791-6315 or at:

ggraham@pressherald.com

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