Sanphy

WESTBROOK — One day after the Ward 1 nominee to fill the remainder of Brendan Rielly’s City Council seat decided not to do it, Mayor Mike Sanphy said he was irate over the “slimy” actions of the city’s Democratic Committee and what he sees as a nasty divide in the party.

Maria Huntress pulled her candidacy Monday, hours before the City Council meeting when she was to be appointed to Rielly’s seat. Her withdrawal came six days after she successfully sought the nomination at the city’s Democratic caucus to also run for the position in the November election.

The Westbrook Democratic Committee has scheduled another caucus for Aug. 27 to fill the Ward 1 seat.

“Why I withdrew is very simple. I calculated the time it takes and I want to spend enjoying it with family,” said Huntress, the former director of community services. “It’s my neighborhood, and Ward 1 deserves to be represented by someone who has the time needed for the council.”

Sanphy said the Aug. 13 Democratic caucus, which was held a month earlier than usual, was an attempt by the Westbrook Democratic Committee to put specific people in office. Rielly stepped down as of Aug. 1, three months before his term was up.

Democratic mayoral candidate and At-large City Councilor Mike Foley said at the council meeting Monday night that he was disappointed in Huntress’ decision, and he criticized “the administration” for officially recommending that Rielly’s seat go vacant until the November election.

Sanphy, who is seeking re-election without the committee’s nomination, said Tuesday he recommended against the appointment because it was a “slimy ploy to fill the seat to create an incumbency in November.”

“They’ve always been known to tip the playing field. I’ve been a Democrat for over 50 years and they don’t talk to me,” he said, referring to the city’s Democratic Committee, which schedules and runs caucuses. “There are really two Democratic parties in Westbrook.”

Foley

Sanphy said Rielly stepped down early to allow the Democratic Committee to hold a caucus to appoint someone to fill his seat. He said the caucus allowed the committee to fill the room with supporters of a specific candidate favored by the committee, making it easier for that candidate to win election Nov. 5.  That appointed candidate would be labeled as the incumbent on ballot, despite only serving at a few meetings before the election.

“Brendan stepped down to make room for someone to take his place, which is despicable. You are elected to office, you don’t play games like that,” Sanphy said. “If it’s a long-term position, that’s one thing. This is a temporary job, and by the time you get someone in there before November, they will only be able to get to two or three meetings at the end of September and October anyways, and so far there is nothing pressing on any of the agendas.”

Foley, treasurer of the Democratic Committee, and Rielly both said Tuesday there was no dirty politics at play.

“There is no desire to fill the seat with a specific individual, it’s to fill the seat so citizens of Ward 1 are properly represented,” Foley said. “I wish (Rielly) stayed but that’s not my choice. I was disappointed when he stepped down.”

Historically, Westbrook has filled a City Council vacancy with a caucus nominee from the political party of the departing councilor.  In April, Ward 5 Councilor and Democrat Larry McWilliams was appointed to fill Democrat Lynda Adam’s seat when she resigned to work as the community liaison for Rock Row. In November 2010, Sanphy was nominated to the council after Suzanne Joyce stepped down a year before her term’s end to take the At-large position on the School Committee.

“It’s not a ploy. If that’s what (Sanphy) feels, why doesn’t he make a suggestion to fill the seat with someone who’s not running,” Foley asked. “Do I agree that caucuses have potentially lived out their useful life? Possibly, but we have the caucuses and that is what they are.”

Rielly

Sanphy, who lost the caucus nomination in 2016 to Michael Shaughnessy but won the mayor’s race, has been advocating for a primary system of voting for candidates.

“Westbrook Democrats are being cheated, people don’t have the chance to vote. I have working people and seniors calling to say they can’t make the weekday evening caucuses. … The last caucus had 118 people show up, that is 2% of registered Democrats in the city,” Sanphy said. “They have the lame excuse that the weekdays are when the community center could be booked, but we’ve used the high school and other places before, too.”

Rielly said Tuesday that Sanphy’s characterization of his resignation was unsettling.

“I find (Sanphy’s) comments perplexing and sad,” he said.

There was no behind-the-scenes planning for him to resign a few months before the end of his term, he said.

“I stepped down in August for two reasons,” Rielly said. “Since I’ve occupied the seat for 17 ½ years, I thought it would be a good idea and good governance to allow someone to get their feet wet before they had to run in November; and if my last meeting was in August, my three kids would all be in town and could attend. That was important to me and I’m so thrilled they were there.”

Neither was there any scheming to get Huntress nominated, he said.

“I didn’t step down to hand the seat to anyone in particular. To be blunt, I advised Maria not to run. She is a friend and I think would have made an excellent councilor. She’s served this city well,” Rielly said. “But, as her friend, I was concerned about the kind of attacks coming from Mike Sanphy and I advised her not to run.

“I also am offended at his statements that the Ward 1 seat should stay vacant,” he said.  “Ward 1 deserves to be represented. The same process that has always been used to fill vacancies should be used again. If it was good enough to replace Lynda just a couple months ago and was good enough to put Mike Sanphy on the council, then it’s certainly good enough to make sure that Ward 1 is represented.”

Chairman and Ward 4 Councilor Gary Rairdon, who is not enrolled in a party, said Tuesday that Rielly’s term needs to be filled until the election, but he also wonders about the timing of Rielly’s departure.

“In the past, the Democrats have strategically secured seats for people so that a seat is not given up. I was not surprised (by Rielly’s stepping down,) though taken aback, but I believe this may have been a plan in place to have an open seat so that the person would be in there and be an incumbent,” he said.

“I hope there isn’t a political aim as to why (Rielly) stepped down,” Rairdon said.

Any political games that might be being played would have been created by the Democratic Committee, he said.

“I am a little concerned with this upcoming election with the behavior of some candidates because, at the end of the day, we need to represent the city. and I am concerned that they won’t play good in the sandbox,” he said. “There is a lot of sand being thrown early on and when that happens, I worry we lose focus on what our jobs are.”
Democratic Committee Chairman David Morse said since Rielly’s resignation the committee has “undertaken the task of meeting to nominate someone for the council to consider installing to complete his term, as has been the longstanding tradition in Westbrook when vacancies occur on the council.”

“The nominee is selected by any Ward 1 Democrats who show up to participate. There’s really nothing more complicated than that happening here,” Morse said.

The Ward 1 Caucus will be held at 6 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 27, at the Community Center. Democrats will choose a nominee to fill the remainder of Rielly’s term, as well as a candidate to run for the seat in November.


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