A Westbrook city councilor wants to take political parties off the ballots and cut back on the influence the two parties have in the local election process.

City Councilor Ed Symbol believes the move, which runs counter to a long-standing tradition of partisan elections in Westbrook, would remove barriers that discourage people from getting involved. He thinks it would help elect candidates based on their own ideas rather than through the support of a political party.

The city council has set a public hearing date of Monday, April 2, for open debate on whether the city should change its election process. The council began the debate Monday night at a Committee of the Whole meeting.

At the heart of the matter is whether the caucus system encourages or discourages residents from running for elected seats. Also up for debate is whether the city should codify its election process or simply leave the charter as is and follow unwritten tradition.

The city’s charter contains no language about how residents get their names on ballots for elected offices. However, traditionally, the Democratic and Republican parties gather for caucuses before elections and choose candidates.

Anyone wishing to run for a seat outside the party system must get 25 signatures from people in the ward and run as an independent. The two-party candidates and any independent candidates appear on the ballot, with party or independent designations beside their names.

Symbol has proposed removing the party designations from ballots and eliminating the caucus system. The change would most likely come as an amendment to the city charter.

At Monday’s Committee of the Whole meeting, Symbol said he thinks removing party affiliations from the election process would make the process fairer because residents wouldn’t gain candidacy at caucuses, which most people don’t attend. It would bring a wider range of candidates forward, he said, and would force the candidates to work harder to get their views out to a broader audience. Also, voters would have to get to know their candidates and couldn’t simply vote along party lines.

“It’s competence over politics,” said Symbol.

However, Council President Brendan Rielly and City Councilor Drew Gattine disagreed. Gattine said he thinks removing the political affiliations might actually make candidates run in a more partisan way than they would if their political affiliation were already known. Rielly said he thinks the caucuses are vehicles for getting people involved in the election process.

City Councilor John O’Hara, a registered Republican elected to the city council as an independent in 1996, agreed with Symbol that the caucuses might exclude some people.

“The reason I ran as an independent was because I felt the caucus system locked me out,” said O’Hara.

According to Symbol, the caucus system doesn’t get enough people involved. He said several people approached him about getting their names on the ballots without going through the caucus system, and when he looked at the charter, he didn’t see any language to help them.

Even though residents can run as independents, they cannot do that while they are registered for a poltical party, according to Bill Dale, Westbrook city attorney. Without language in the charter, state law dictates some of the process, along with long-standing practice.

Symbol said he would not want to drop his Republican affiliation for “political expediency.”

Mayor Bruce Chuluda, who won a city council seat as an independent but then ran for mayor as a Republican, used himself as an example of how someone can get elected without attending a caucus.

“I don’t support doing anything different,” said Chuluda. “Let’s leave it the way it is.”

Once in office, Symbol said, he thinks non-partisan representation would give elected officials more freedom. However, Gattine said he didn’t think it would make a difference in office because he had rarely seen the city council vote strictly along party lines in his three years in office.

The Committee of the Whole voted, 5-2 in favor of setting a public hearing for the April 2 council meeting, with Rielly and City Councilor Dotty Aube dissenting. The meeting will be held at 7 p.m. in room 114 of Westbrook High School.

City Councilor Ed Symbol believes taking the influence of parties out of Westbrook elections might encourage more people to run for office.

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