Councilor Anna Turcotte talks about her unfavorable experiences at caucuses and says the system is an inadequate way to determine candidates for local offices. Courtesy photo

WESTBROOK — Voters in November will decide whether the city should do away with using party caucuses to nominate candidates for local offices.

Councilors agreed Monday to send the change to the city charter to voters, along with another charter change to raise the cap on the amount the city can spend without City Council approval.

Proponents of eliminating the city’s traditional caucus system say it is dated and no longer serves the city. Westbrook is the only municipality in Maine that offers a direct route to the ballot through a caucus.

“The first caucus (I participated in) was poorly attended. Three people gathered around me,” Ward 3 Councilor Anna Turcotte said. “As a lawyer and someone who wears nice clothes, I was asked how I would understand everyday citizens, and I responded that I came to America with $180 in my pocket.”

Another attendee asked Turcotte how she, as a mother, could find time for council work.

“That was enough for them to (nominate) me,” she said. “I don’t think the right questions were asked.”

Without the caucus system, political hopefuls will have to collect signatures to get their names on the ballot, which was already an option prior to the change.

Mayor Mike Foley said caucuses are undemocratic and overly political. Courtesy photo

“My second caucus experience was a clown circus where I didn’t feel supported by my party,” Turcotte said. “I went out and got signatures anyways to make sure as an incumbent I wasn’t unseated by internal politics.”

Mayor Mike Foley said the caucus system has “benefited me and other councilors over the years, but it’s a process that has been spoiled by recent elections.”

“Having to schedule caucuses, it is hard to schedule them for days and times that are convenient, and last election accusations of improprieties were made,” Foley said. 

Former Mayor Mike Sanphy, among others, called for the caucus system to be dismantled during the  mayoral election season last year. Sanphy said the system made it too easy for political parties to influence elections by scheduling inconvenient caucuses and by coordinating resignations so certain candidates could take over.

Foley said getting rid of the caucuses will help take partisanship out of city work, which he said has been detrimental to the city’s overall efficiency. He also cited the caucuses ineffectiveness, referring to the 2016 election when Sanphy did not get nominated at the Democratic caucus, but took out signatures and won the mayor’s seat as a Democrat anyway.

The second charter change to go before voters will raise the amount that city officials can spend before City Council approval to $5,000, $2,000 more than the cap in place now.

That change is needed, Foley said, to account for inflation and to decrease the number of items on city meeting agendas, which range from accepting donations over $3,000 to spending any amount of $3,000 or more. The amount was last increased 22 years ago, he said.

The increased spending cap would not include school spending, city lawyers said, after resident Christine Lattini, joined by Council President Gary Rairdon and Councilor Elliot Storey, raised concerns about overspending at the school.

“I do not have any confidence in the school department’s leadership or school finance chair, with a $40 million deficit in the audit, there should be no change for a larger threshold for the school department, which continues to struggle to comprehend fiscal responsibility and reporting,” Lattini said.

Foley said that any spending within the city still needs approval from two City Council members, currently Finance Committee members Claude Rwaganje and Victor Chau.

 

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