Over 100 Democrats turned out to vote at this August 2019 caucus in Westbrook. The City Council next month will consider abolishing the caucus system for municipal candidates. File photo

WESTBROOK — Westbrook is one of the last two places in the state that holds party caucuses to select candidates for municipal offices, but a proposal from the mayor would abolish that traditional part of the city’s election process.

The City Council next month is scheduled to consider doing away with the caucus system and relying instead on candidates collecting a required number of signatures to secure a place on the ballot. If supported, the change would require a charter revision, which would go to voters.

“If we go back to the mayoral election three years ago, it resulted in the first failure of the caucus per se in the fact that (former Mayor Mike Sanphy) lost the caucus and then ran anyways and won. It made the caucus irrelevant,” Mayor Mike Foley said.

Candidates now can get on the ballot for City Council, School Committee and mayor in two ways. One is to get the Democratic or Republican party nomination through caucuses. The other is for council and School Committee hopefuls to collect 50 signatures from their specific voting ward and for mayoral and at-large hopefuls to collect 15 signatures from each of the city’s five wards.

The only other town in Maine with party caucuses for local candidates, Waterville, requires caucus winners to also get signatures, according to City Clerk Angela Holmes, who has contacted a number of municipalities in the state about their processes.

Eliminating caucuses would help take partisanship out of local politics, Foley said.

“None of our city decisions are partisan, so having that part of the election be partisan always hampered it some,” he said. 

In addition, Foley said, residents have raised concerns that caucuses were being held at inconvenient times and dates in an attempt to draw only those in support of a given candidate.

“Democrats always have huge attendance at their caucus and Republicans do not, so a Democrat goes to caucus and has to get vetted from a field of sometimes 100 people and the Republican caucus is two or three people deciding who gets on the ballot. Someone who gets signatures has to get 75 signatures, 15 from each ward, yet someone can go to the caucus and get one or two votes of support to get on the ballot,” Foley said.

The most recent Republican caucus in August 2019 drew just five voters, who put two candidates on the ballot, Phillip Spiller Jr. for mayor and Deb Shangraw for the Ward 1 City Council seat.

The Westbrook Republican Party did not respond to requests for comment by the American Journal deadline.

Of the city’s 14,077 registered voters, 6,199 are registered Democrats and 3,022, Republicans.

Ward 1 City Councilor David Morse, who served as chairman of the Westbrook’s Democratic Party until he was appointed to the council in August 2019, sees both pros and cons of the caucus system.

“I have organized and led several Democratic municipal caucuses to pick candidates to appear on the ballot. I can see benefits to the system. For instance, they are a great opportunity for city residents who are passionate about local involvement to meet one another and exchange ideas,” Morse said. “There is something nice about standing in a room with your neighbors and selecting one to represent you. Also, these meetings usually offer an opportunity for people to hear directly from local leaders.”

But overall, he supports getting rid of the caucus system.

“The logistics of carrying out a smooth caucus can become difficult when the number of people attending is unpredictable. Many people don’t have time to spend an hour or two or three attending a caucus,” Morse said. “Also, no matter what date and time is picked for the caucus, it is going to be inconvenient or impossible for certain people to attend. These challenges have led some to question the fairness and integrity of the caucus system and that is part of why on the state level we have abandoned them for the purpose of picking a presidential nominee.”

Last year, Sanphy proposed replacing the caucus system with a primary system, an idea that Foley opposed at the time.

“No community around us was doing that additional election,” Foley said.

Instead, relying on signatures “seems best and most in line with other communities,” he said.

The caucus is dated to the point where it doesn’t make sense to keep it, he said. However, charter revisions made in 2013 kept the caucus because of its long history in Westbrook.

“I have heard that the nomination by caucus provision was outlined in the new charter because there was concern that citizens may not vote to approve the charter as a whole if this historical practice was not included,” Holmes said. “I believe enough time has passed between then and now to demonstrate the relative usefulness of each ballot access option and we’ve seen that times have changed.”

Pinpointing when the caucus actually started in the city is difficult, Holmes said, because the practice may predate when it was formalized in the charter.

Sanphy, city historian and president of the Westbrook Historical Society, said the city has used the caucus system for as long as he can remember and stretches back at least to the 1940s.

“It’s an older tradition that was unique,” he said and noted he is still in favor of eliminating caucuses.

If the City Council backs the change, it will then go to voters. It will require at least 2,584 votes to pass, 30% of the total voters in the last November election.

The council next month will also consider a second charter change, to increase the appropriation and expenditure threshold in the city.

Currently, any spending of $3,000 or more requires two readings and approval by City Council.

“This $3,000 was last amended over two decades ago. The administration now proposes sending a referendum question to voters to increase that limit to $10,000,” Foley said.

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