WESTBROOK – Westbrook voters who approve the proposed changes to the city’s charter this fall would support, among other things, three-year terms for city councilors that would be staggered so the public can’t approve – or remove – the entire top tier of city government in a single year.
That was the message Charter Commission Chairman Drew Gattine delivered to the City Council in a workshop Monday night. Most of the commission was on hand to answer questions from councilors and Mayor Colleen Hilton.
The meeting represented the unveiling of the first draft of the proposed new charter. The commission, which was formed in November 2010, has been holding meetings on how to update the city’s constitution ever since.
There is no official date on how old the charter is, but some of the city’s laws date back to 1889. While many sections have been changed over the years, there has not been a full review of the entire charter since 1907.
“Some of the language is archaic,” Gattine said Monday.
The proposal that prompted the most discussion was the change to how the city elects its officials. Right now, School Committee members all serve four-year terms, which many committee members have argued is a long time to commit to any public office. By contrast, the City Council and mayoral terms are only two years, which many argue is not long enough.
Under the new proposed charter, Gattine said, all the elected positions would be three-year terms.
Also, the City Council and mayoral elections would be staggered. While the full School Committee is not now elected in the same year, the mayor and all seven city councilors get elected at once.
Councilor Paul Emery said he liked the term-length changes, but argued that staggering the elections was “unnecessarily complicating it.”
Emery said it didn’t matter how council members were replaced, as long as it was done at the direction of the will of the people.
“It will refresh itself naturally,” he said.
Councilor Michael Foley disagreed, saying the way things are now, it’s too easy to replace the city government in one blow, which could be dangerous in the middle of a crisis or ongoing city project.
“With one election, one day, the entire organization can be wiped out,” he said.
Councilor John O’Hara said holding all the elections at once also makes it harder for voters to make informed decisions.
Changing that, he said, would ensure “the community is not besieged by one-day voting for all.”
Other proposed changes include making the city clerk’s position an appointed one, rather than elected. In the 2011 election, incumbent City Clerk Lynda Adams beat challenger and former Finance Director Susan Rossignol, who is also a member of the charter commission.
Gattine said making the position appointed “serves the needs of the city better.”
Gattine said the proposed charter also would remove the mayor from voting in the municipal officers’ meetings. Right now, the city’s municipal officers control business such as approval of liquor licenses, and is made up of all the city councilors and the mayor.
Gattine called this a “confusing element” for members of the public attending or watching these meetings, and makes it too easy for the municipal officers to get stuck in a tie vote.
“I do find it a little awkward sometimes, so I think it makes sense,” Hilton said Monday of the proposed change.
Some past piecemeal changes to the charter have been the subject of confusion, and even lawsuits. A 1969 change made by the state Legislature, which modernized the hiring and firing practices of the city’s fire chief, failed to repeal older charter language that gave the mayor the power to remove the chief by declining reappointment at the end of the chief’s one-year term.
Hilton used the latter provision to remove former Fire Chief Daniel Brock in 2010, a move that led to Brock suing the city for wrongful termination. The case was settled prior to going to trial for $320,000, but not before U.S. District Court Judge D. Brock Hornby called the failure to delete the older language “a legislative oversight.”
On Monday, Gattine did not address this specific issue, but did say that “issues regarding personnel are scattered throughout” the charter, and the proposed changes include some updates to language in various places.
Some other proposed changes regarding personnel would also allow for fewer mayoral appointments to require council approval, Gattine said.
The Charter Commission hosts a public hearing on the proposed charter at 7 p.m. on Thursday, March 22, in Room 114 at Westbrook High School.