WESTBROOK – The common thread emerging from the campaigns of Westbrook’s three mayoral candidates is that the city needs to move forward by growing business. The differences are in how the three say the city should proceed.

The candidates – incumbent Democratic Mayor Colleen Hilton, Republican Ernest O. Porell, and James Tranchemontagne, an independent – are in the thick of their campaigns now, sharing their visions with voters through rallies and door-to-door visits.

In addition to a rare, three-way race, the Nov. 5 election is notable for structural changes. For the first time, following changes to the city’s charter in 2012, candidates will appear on the ballot without party designations, and the term for mayor will be three years, rather than two.

The Westbrook High School Student Council will host a debate for the three candidates on Tuesday, Oct. 29, at the Westbrook Performing Arts Center starting at 6 p.m.

The following is a look at each candidate’s vision for the city.

Colleen Hilton

Unlike the other two candidates, the two-term mayor has not held a rally. Instead, she’s opting for a door-to-door, grassroots approach that centers on her previous accomplishments in the past four years. Those accomplishments, she said, include delivering responsible municipal budgets with flat or declining tax rates, successfully reorganizing the public safety department, bringing new business to Westbrook and the renovation of Walker Memorial Library.

Although Hilton is a busy executive, working as the CEO of VNA Home Health Hospice, she said she wants to run again in order to finish initiatives started during her tenure and to keep her team in place.

“I’ve never made a decision based on popularity,” said Hilton. “I make decisions based on what’s best for the city. We have a reputation to overcome of being a mill town. I’m proud of (Westbrook’s history). There are so many positive things about Westbrook.”

Referencing the compromise she helped forge in the Pike/Idexx dispute about blasting at Pike’s Spring Street Quarry, Hilton said she will continue to work on a complex deal with Sappi Fine Paper and the non-governmental organizations protecting the Presumpscot River, with the goal of more recreational development along the river and natural fish passages at the Sappi-owned dams.

“Having someone like Bill Baker [Westbrook’s assistant city administrator for business and community relations] at the table, who can call out attorneys and confront the (non-governmental organizations), that’s important,” Hilton said. “That’s why I said I’d run one more time. I want to see the process through and retain the team I put together. I’m a little worried about them if there is a change.”

During the campaign, Hilton said she’s had to defend against “potshots” taken by her opponents against members of her team, specifically Baker, the city’s former police chief turned economic developer.

She’s also had to defend her busy schedule, saying she manages people well and that the mayoral position is not meant to be a full-time job. She also defends the current tax rate, saying Tranchemontagne’s plan to lower the tax rate by more than $2 would equate to a $4.2 million cut for the city and would be “devastating to the community.”

“Her leadership on the mayor’s coalition stopped devastating cuts to revenue sharing and other critical programs,” said District 126 State Rep. Drew Gattine, a Democrat. “Her tireless efforts on behalf of our city prevented (actions) that would have gutted our schools and public services.”

Hilton said there are plans in the works to bring big businesses to Westbrook. Although she won’t disclose specifics, upcoming development projects may include an expansion of a current business and moving new businesses into the downtown.

As far as complaints from her opponents about lack of parking, strict business sign regulations and difficulty in the Planning and Code office, Hilton said she has “no idea what they’re talking about.”

Hilton did say that Baker is working to increase space in the municipal parking garage.

Ernest Porell

Republican Porell, the least-known of the candidates, said he hopes his track record as a successful landlord at the Westbrook Armory and his last name – his grandfather was mayor of Westbrook – will garner support.

Porell said his top issue is Westbrook’s economy. His long-term ideas for improving the downtown include tearing up much of Westbrook Commons to allow for more parking and turning on the Blue Note Fountain. For the businesses in the downtown area, Porell wants to start a fund to help them buy new signs and clean up their exteriors.

“People don’t know what’s in the downtown,” he said. “We need signage to point out where to get breakfast, lunch and dinner. We need to promote (that) Westbrook is open for business. I want to make the backs of stores more welcoming, so it looks like you’re going into another front door instead of walking through the back door. We also need better lighting. It will make Westbrook look alive again.”

He’s also against the direction in which the Hilton administration has taken the city, including building new attractions such as the boardwalk and river ramps, rather than bringing in new business to support such projects. Instead, he’d rather focus on improving existing attractions, such as adding lights to Saccarappa Park.

“Changing the aesthetics doesn’t do it,” he said. “I don’t like the idea of Bridge Street being changed. The answer is we need real money and real businesses first.”

A native of the city, Porell said he knows the long-term issues plaguing Westbrook, such as the ceaseless drug problem he sees in the streets, especially at night. By starting early and informing school-age children of the dangers of becoming involved with drugs, Porell said, he hopes to create a negative attitude toward a glamorized lifestyle.

Porell said he wants to offer awards for people who give information to the police about drug dealers in the area, essentially pitting suppliers and addicts against each other.

“I want to help the people who turn in drug dealers,” he said. “They can get help going to rehab. We’ll set up a general assistance fund to help them move. This will create distrust in the drug community by offering financial rewards. They all need money.”

During a rally for Porell on Oct. 14, a few of his longtime tenants and friends showed up to voice their support for the candidate.

“I think he’s got a good ethics system,” said Michael Poers. “I’d like to see Westbrook do better as far as business goes, and he’s grown a business. He has the right attitude. I think Mr. Porell has a good chance. His family goes way back.”

James Tranchemontagne

Tranchemontagne, owner of the Frog and Turtle gastro pub, agrees that businesses need more support from the city, but instead of signs, he wants to make changes to the code office. With the production of a “new business” handbook, complete with permit applications, a zoning map, numbers to call with questions and information on local attractions and schools, Tranchemontagne hopes that businesses would have an easier time setting up shop within the city.

“First and foremost, we need to attract business and lower the tax rate,” Tranchemontagne said. “We’re on the high side of the norm. We have to tighten our belts, and we have to pass an audit.”

Bringing in new business, Tranchemontagne said, will bring in more people to walk and bike the city. He said there is currently plenty of parking within the city limits. It’s just hidden behind businesses.

By attracting new business and building up revenue, Tranchemontagne hopes to lower the tax rate.

Rose Marie Russell, a member of Westbrook Taxpayers United, a group Tranchemontagne helped start, said she believes Tranchemontagne will be a good leader for the city.

“He’s frugal and fearless, but he’s genuine and he loves Westbrook,” said Russell, who is also vice chairwoman of the city’s Republican Party. “So many people who run come from a place of anger. He’s got great ideas that don’t really cost anything.”

Tranchemontagne, a former Republican, said he switched to independent a few years ago because he said he no longer feels the two-party system works.

“I’m open to ideas from people in all walks of life,” Tranchemontagne said. “Democrats, Republicans, old, young, black and white. I just want to find what are the best solutions for Westbrook and implement them. It doesn’t matter where they come from.”

In order to foster a more open dialogue within the community, Tranchemontagne would like to arrange quarterly meetings among the School Committee, City Council and Planning Board to get the elected officials on the same page.

He also hopes to spend some time each day at City Hall, speaking with not just top officials, but with everyone on the city staff to find out where improvements can be made.

Tranchemontagne would also like to focus some attention on the school department, giving raises to teachers who have made an impact on students’ lives.

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