WESTBROOK – Colleen Hilton knew that if she became mayor of Westbrook, she would implement some drastic changes.

She promised a new way of doing business at her inauguration one year ago, and said this week she has seen positive returns on her decisions thus far.

“I think people were shocked,” she said, reflecting on her inauguration announcement she would not reappoint the heads of the fire, finance and recreation departments.

“You didn’t come in under the radar,” remarked City Administrator Jerre Bryant.

Hilton’s moves had some immediate consequences, not all of them positive. Former fire chief Daniel Brock is suing the city for defamation, breach of contract and violating his constitutional rights. And things turned ugly after the dismissal of Sue Rossignol, the former finance director who was barred from City Hall following multiple, tense encounters with Hilton.

Nonetheless, a year into her stint as Westbrook’s first female mayor, Hilton said Tuesday it appears the city has embraced those changes. She said the finance department was in disarray, the fire department had a bad reputation and the recreation department was stale.

“I feel pretty good about where we’re at. There has been a lot of change, but I think that the administration here certainly has embraced it and I feel that the team is getting stronger,” she said.

Hilton points to the improvements at the fire department, which was embroiled in scandal and lawsuits when she took office, as one of the proudest achievements of her first year in office.

“I think they’ve done what we asked them to accomplish and they’re in a very different place today,” she said.

She said there was some criticism of her decision to hire Mike Pardue, a man with more experience as a police officer than firefighter, to take over the department, but noted she needed a leader in that role.

Now, Pardue has been tapped for a new position, director of public safety. A new year brings new upheaval to the department. But things are different this time around, according to Hilton.

“We said we were going to transform the department and I believe that’s a work in progress, but that we’ve made good progress,” she said. “They’re in a very, very different place today. I’m incredibly proud of what’s going on in that building.”

The finance department, too, remains a work in progress. Hilton said there were breakdowns in financial policies and procedures before her administration, but bringing in Dawn Ouellette as chief financial officer and consolidating city and school department resources is putting the city back on track and saving money.

Revamping the recreation department has coincided with the opening last year of the new community center on Bridge Street, in the former Wescott Junior High School. Hilton said it is the polar opposite of a recreation program she viewed as uncreative and stale.

“I’m amazed at what’s going on up there, even the new life you feel when you walk in that building,” she said. “Maria Dorn is doing an incredible job and more great things are going to happen up there.”

That could include the arrival of city offices, should the city go through with the sale of City Hall to fund community center construction. She said it is not an ideal solution, and she has heard from residents opposed to it, but noted tough economic problems call for creative solutions.

Another decision that drew some ire was Hilton’s call to investigate purchasing the Warren library to replace the aging Walker Memorial Library. That plan did not pan out, though she noted it was a responsible decision to look into it.

“I thought it was the right thing to do. All said and done it didn’t work out,” she said, adding that bids would be in later this month for Walker repairs.

Perhaps the issue that was most divisive in 2010 was the Pike Industries and Idexx Laboratories conflict over Pike’s Spring Street quarry. It was “tremendously consuming,” but Hilton fought against those who believed there could be no compromise between the diametrically opposed companies.

“What I heard throughout the community, far and wide, was a cry from people, given this economy, to please do something to find a compromise in that situation,” she said. “It was really brutal because the level of emotion on either side was so strong and palpable. I really feel like taking that into our own hands as a community was better than running the risk of court.”

Hilton said she hopes in the coming year, those who still challenge the quarry, including Artel Inc., Smiling Hill Farm and the Birdland Neighborhood Alliance, will come to a compromise – though she admitted some may never change their minds.

The significant trials continued through the latter portion of the year when Dreamers Cabaret sought to open as a strip club. Hilton’s prediction for 2011 is that Dreamers will receive its certificate of occupancy and the owner will have to decide whether to abide by the nude entertainment ordinance passed last year or continue to fight it out in court.

Hilton noted the club’s existence could necessitate more resources at the police department. Funding those resources is one challenge of what she thinks will be a difficult budget year.

Some prominent Republicans in Westbrook say the Democratic mayor has had her ups and downs. Bill Holmes, vice chairman of the local Republican Committee, noted he could not speak for all Republicans, but said he has been largely pleased with Hilton’s handling of difficult issues such as the Pike quarry dispute.

One concern, he said, is the decision to hire a public safety director. He has concerns combining the roles of police and fire chief could lead to an administrator who favors one department over the other, creating dissention among public safety employees.

He noted that years ago Augusta, and more recently, Naples, Fla., moved away from a public safety director role because it was not working.

John O’Hara, the sole Republican on the City Council, said he, too, has seen some good and some bad in Hilton’s tenure. Some changes were positive, while others were “mediocre,” he said, declining to elaborate.

“I’ll let people determine that on their own,” he said. “She’s done a fair job.”

O’Hara said he has not been pleased with what he sees as a decreased role of the councilors in the past year. He said they meet less frequently and are provided less information than in the past.

He would like to see a more aggressive City Council, explaining they are doing little to plan for the future when the economy improves.

“These are the times when you should plan and lay the groundwork,” he said. “That has not occurred with this administration.”

Hilton said the budget is her immediate concern and the city must work hard in 2011 to be efficient and deliver services. Holding department heads accountable is something she finds critical; she and Bryant have evaluated department leaders and set goals – something, she said, that was not being done before she took office.

“This first year, the foundation is solid. I made the changes I think we needed to make. We have the structure in place. We have the expertise. I think next year is going to be quite a bit different,” she said. “We should be able to really just focus on growth and that’s what I hope will happen.”

Just don’t ask her if she will be running for re-election in November.

“I haven’t had time to think about that. I have so much work to do right now,” she said.

Westbrook Mayor Colleen Hilton discusses her first year in office from her desk at city hall Tuesday. Staff photo by Joey Cresta

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