Students get first-hand civics lessons as unofficial council members.

WESTBROOK – Kathryn Walsh stepped down last week after making local history as one of the first students to serve as an advisory member of the Westbrook City Council.

Walsh, 18, who is giving up her council seat to attend Harvard University in the fall, offered some advice to students following in her footsteps.

“Don’t be afraid to say things,” Walsh said. “At first, you’re kind of nervous because you don’t have as much knowledge. But I really do feel the older councilors really respect the things you say.”

Walsh was part of a unique experiment that the seven-member City Council approved last fall: adding two high school students to its ranks as nonvoting, advisory members.

While Westbrook and other communities in Maine have student representatives sitting on their school boards, Westbrook is believed to be the first municipality in the state to add student representatives to a city or town council.

Last week, Westbrook councilors deemed the new initiative well worth continuing, and voted to appoint a new student, Westbrook High School sophomore Elizabeth Torrey, to fill the seat that Walsh vacated.

For the second advisory seat, the council re-appointed Ian Karby, a senior at the high school.

As a junior, he was appointed to the council along with Walsh last November. Now, he will continue to serve during his final year at the high school.

At the July 12 meeting when the appointments were made, councilors welcomed Torrey and praised the work of Karby and Walsh.

“They’ve done a fantastic job for us this year,” City Council President Brendan Rielly said.

In a later interview, Rielly said the students provided councilors and members of the public who attend council meetings or watch them on local television with information about what was happening in city schools through regular school reports they gave.

The students also provided new insight on a variety of non-school issues, he said.

Among them, Rielly said, were the license renewal of the Skybox Bar and Grill and the dispute between Idexx Laboratories and Pike Industries over blasting at Pike’s Spring Street quarry.

“They were a fresh set of eyes on those issues,” he said.

Mayor Colleen Hilton told the students: “We learned from you probably as much as you learned from us.”

Rielly said it was his proposal to add students to the council, and considers the initiative “one of the things I’m most proud of” in his eight years as city councilor.

He said he got the idea after seeing young people become so passionately involved in the 2008 presidential election, which put President Obama in the White House. He wanted to channel that youthful energy into local politics.

“We decided to tap into it,” Rielly said. “I’m so pleased we’re the first in the state to have this.”

Eric Conrad, spokesman for the Maine Municipal Association, said that organization doesn’t “have a definitive handle on what all 492 municipalities in Maine might be doing with student representatives, but, to the best of our knowledge, the Westbrook situation is unique.”

Westbrook’s program got off to a bit of a late start last year, with councilors appointing Walsh and Karby in November. But now, the students appointed last week will serve for a year, until next July.

The students are enthusiastic about the opportunity.

Torrey, a member of the Student Council who excelled in her world studies class during her freshman year and is interested in politics, told the council she is eager to get to work. “I’m really looking forward to it,” she said.

Karby, a National Honor Society member and vice president of the Spanish Club who took a debate class this past school year to help him learn how to better voice his opinions, said his experience on the council “has been really great.”

And Walsh, who was president of the Student Council and the senior class as well as a salutatorian at her graduation in June, thanked councilors.

“You’ve all taught me so much,” she said.

She said that the experience has convinced her that she wants to continue to be involved in politics.

Walsh, in a separate interview, said she wanted to be on the City Council to give back to the community where she’s lived all her life.

Also, said Walsh, who plans to major in government at Harvard and go on to law school, she wanted to explore whether politics would be right for her.

“I knew I was developing an interest in politics and thought it would be an interesting way to kind of see in my last year before college if it was definitely something I wanted to study and pursue,” Walsh said.

Being on the council was intimidating at first.

“The first few meetings, I didn’t say much. That was hard for me because I like to talk,” Walsh said with a laugh.

She said that some topics, such as insurance coverage and city budget matters, can be difficult for students to grasp at first because they’re beyond their realm of experience.

“Purely because of age, we don’t know about them yet,” Walsh said. “You don’t really feel like you should speak up because you don’t have all the information.”

But, she said, she would study the issues and discuss them with Karby.

“As a result, I was much more able to step in and say what I thought,” she said. “The council really responded to our opinions.”

One matter she spoke up about was the controversial renewal of the liquor, food service, poolroom and pinball licenses of the Skybox Bar and Grill.

Last year, the city’s Municipal Officers – a body that consists of the seven councilors and the mayor – had denied owners Allen and Lynn Moore the licenses, saying that police records showed the bar was a nuisance. The Moores sued the city, accusing councilors of bias, and a judge this spring ruled that one councilor had showed prejudice against the bar.

During the license discussions this year, Walsh said, the Moores told the council that they had made changes at the bar. Walsh came to believe that “they deserved a second chance,” and told the council so.

In the end, the council in April voted to renew the licenses for the bar on the condition it close earlier on weeknights and that the owners come back to the council for a review in October.

As advisory members, the student representatives don’t get to vote. However, they are allowed to participate in the council’s executive sessions, as long as those sessions don’t deal with city personnel issues, Walsh said.

Councilors can’t reveal to the public what goes on in those closed-door meetings. Walsh said that whatever the students hear, they can’t divulge, either.

She said it wasn’t difficult to keep such matters secret. “My parents know I can’t talk about anything, so they don’t ask,” she said.

At school, she said, most students are too busy with their own lives to watch council meetings. “So no one has ever asked, and if they did, I wouldn’t say anything,” she said.

Even though students may not follow council meetings, Walsh said, it’s still important for them to be represented on the council.

“Our decisions will affect them,” she said. “We still have to have a voice for them.”

Westbrook city councilors are affiliated with a political party when running for their seats. But the student advisory members are not.

Rielly said it would not be appropriate to link the high school students, most of whom typically are not old enough to vote, to a political party. The students are not elected. They are recommended to the City Council by the principal of the high school and Rielly, as president of the council, after a process in which the students fill out an application and are interviewed.

Walsh said that in her time on the City Council, she has been impressed with how bipartisan, or even nonpartisan, it is.

“With the issues you discuss,” she said, “everyone wants what is best for the community. It’s not along party lines.”

Hilton believes that the new program will help grow a new generation of Westbrook residents interested in serving the community on the council and other boards and committees.

She pointed to Councilor Mike Foley as an example. Foley, 22, served as a student representative on the Westbrook School Committee before being elected to a City Council seat at age 18.

Now in his third term, Foley said his experience as a student member of the School Committee helped school him to hold elected office.

“You’ve all taught me so much,” Kathryn Walsh, left, told members of the City Council last week. Walsh and Ian Karby, right, have served as advisory members of the council. Walsh, who leaves for college next month, has completed her term.
Staff photo by Tess Nacelewicz

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