The Westbrook City Council may appoint a new member Jan. 3, following interviews with four candidates.

The Ward 5 seat was vacated in November by former Councilor Elliot Storey, who did not share a reason for his resignation.

Ward 5 encompasses the northern and northeastern areas of the city, bordering Portland and Falmouth to the east, Falmouth to the north and Windham to the west. The southernmost part of Ward 5 includes the Pride’s Corner neighborhood, while the northernmost portion includes Highland Lake.

Those vying for the seat include Storey’s opponent in the 2019 election, Lawrence McWilliams, as well as newcomers Jennifer Munro, Steve Ranco and Lauren Oullette-Whelan.

This will be the first appointment under a new procedure adopted in October that removes political party caucuses from the process. Instead, a candidate needs signatures from 25 voters and must attend a public meeting where residents from any part of the city can give input and ask questions.

While Mayor Mike T. Foley and councilors who spoke with the American Journal support the new procedure, it has drawn some criticism. Former Mayor Mike Sanphy feels the candidates should either be voted in, or the seat should go to the runner-up of the most recent election.

“It should be up to the people; representatives should not choose someone for a ward they are not involved in,” Sanphy said.

Foley, who serves on the executive committee for Westbrook Democrats, the city’s dominant party, contends this new process is more transparent “than it has ever been.”

“It was reaffirmed by voters in 2013 that the City Council would appoint a replacement, it was just historically, and never in the procedure, based off of the winner of a caucus held by the party the former candidate is a part of,” Foley said.

Caucuses sparsely attended

Historically, if a seat became vacant, the party to which the ex-councilor belonged would caucus. The winner of that caucus would usually be appointed by the City Council.

Some Democratic caucuses saw only about 40 voters, and as few as four voting members would sometimes attend Republican caucuses.

“The caucuses did often have very low turnouts. And scheduling was always inconvenient for some people,” City Councilor David Morse said. “What has not changed at all is that the City Charter requires that a vacancy on the City Council be filled by a majority vote of the remaining council members.”

The caucus also did not offer a sure-shot victory.

In 2019, a candidate for a vacated Ward 1 seat, Maria Huntress, withdrew her candidacy six days after winning the Democratic caucus in August. Huntress cited her need for more time with family. The administration position papers, however, showed that the administration was against her appointment based on it coming just three months before a November election. Her withdrawal came only hours after those papers were published.

That seat is now held by Morse.

The Westbrook Democratic Party would not comment on the change or how it impacts party politics. However, Morse echoed Foley’s comments regarding transparency.

“I myself was once selected to fill the unexpired term of former councilor Brendan Rielly following his resignation,” Morse said. “I feel that having a written non-partisan policy will bring much great transparency to the process and encourage more participation. The fact that we have four candidates vying for this seat may be evidence of that.”

Sanphy argued that appointing a replacement would allow the council to load up with Democratic members based on connections and friendships, a similar critique Sanphy initially had with the caucus system.

Sanphy sees it as councilors choosing a ward representative for a ward they may not know enough about.

“I am glad caucuses are gone; they were scheduled in ways a lot of people couldn’t attend, but it seems people are further removed from the process,” Sanphy said.

The City Council will meet to interview candidates starting at 6 p.m. Monday, Jan. 3. If interviews go well, the Council is slated to appoint a replacement that night.

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