Rolling heads

in Westrook,

other events

  By Paul Mills

It’s been an eventful month in Maine and some episodes are worth yet another glimpse.

Westbrook’s Administrative Quake

The disconnect between what Americans vote for and what actually happens after the election is a well-known phenomenon. President Obama’s campaign theme of change, for example, did not translate into as much a departure from the direction of his predecessor as his supporters might have expected.

Since the election he has retained two of President Bush’s most influential players: Federal Reserve Chair Ben Bernanke and Defense Secretary Robert Gates, not to mention a resumption of the Bush military initiatives.

Thus, when in Westbrook earlier this month, the city’s new mayor — who had run on a platform of change — decisively delivered it at the outset, it’s an event worth another look. Only a few moments after taking the oath of office, Mayor Colleen Hilton announced she would not re-appoint several of the city’s highest ranking administrators.

Told to go were Susan Rossignol, the city’s finance director the last 32 years, along with Fire Chief Dan Brock. Also given walking papers was Randy Peters, at the helm of the Recreation Department since 1984, along with several other upper-echelon officials. Refusing to re-appoint the fire chief was in response to sexual harassment charges plaguing the department in recent years. Removing most of the others was part of a cost-cutting restructuring effort.

Jolting the power structure might well have been something voters were hoping for when, in this once industrially potent home to Sappi Paper, Hilton upset three-term GOP incumbent Bruce Chuluda in November. It’s an outcome that’s not likely to be paralleled in other Maine cities, though.

For only in Westbrook does a mayor wield this much power. None of the state’s 2l other cities comes even close to vesting a mayor with the “hiring and firing” authority that is bestowed on the ‘Brook’s mayor. Indeed, five Maine cities don’t have a mayor at all, and in many that do the mayor does little more than preside over city council meetings. Such is the case in Portland and Bangor, for example, where the nine city councilors themselves designate one of their own to fill the largely ceremonial position.

The Curse of York County

The withdrawal of Dawn Hill from the race for governor a few weeks ago draws attention to a dilemma that has often beset candidates from York County. Even though it’s the second most populous county in the state, it’s had a hard time claiming any statewide office for one of its own. Not since Saco’s John Fairfield’s election in 1842 has it elected a governor. The legislature’s 1845 decision to send Fairfield to the U.S. Senate also marks the last time anyone from York County has won election to that position.

The personable Hill, a one-time attorney now in her second term in the House, and founder of a well-known canine training business, “It’s a Dog’s World,” will seek a state senate seat instead.

If Maine persists in the pattern this year it won’t be for an absence of aspirants. Hill’s renunciation still leaves two remaining candidates from York County in the field, both Democrats. They’re Biddeford Mayor Donna Dion and former State Rep. Peter Truman of Old Orchard.

Leave it to the Towns
The recession has inspired a number of creative proposals to boost local revenues. One of them — from Maine Rural Partners — seeks to encourage Maine citizens to remember their home towns in their wills. Strong, Rockport, and Unity are now the sites of community endowment pilot projects that hope to reap benefits from citizens in a state that boasts one of the oldest average ages of any.

The concept of willing one’s worldly goods to a government is not a new one. Oliver Wendell Holmes, though the “Great Dissenter” on the nation’s highest court, still in 1935 left his entire estate to a regime he often challenged, the federal government.

Closer to home, South Bristol continues to reap the benefits of a $10-million-dollar legacy it was left just five years ago by a summer visitor from Louisiana, Ann Stratton.

Seven years ago cattle farmer and Belfast businessman Carl Wentworth left $4-million to Belmont (population 850).

Needless to say, such communities are not among those likely to see much red ink in the near term.

Sometimes, the bequests have strings attached and the towns can find it a bit difficult to actually spend what’s been given them. A small town about 30 miles north of Bangor has been confronting this challenge since 2004 when a pharmacist and his widow left several hundred thousand to the town. The gift directed income from the funds be used in part for commercial education and in part for athletic programs.

The donors further stipulated the “funds not be used to replace funds which would otherwise be appropriated” for such purposes. In other words, just don’t simply hand out what amounts to a taxpayer holiday. But finding a niche that doesn’t wind up doing that can be a challenge, according to Ruth Dunbar, a Bangor Savings official who helps administer the funds.

The dilemma Dunbar faces is not so much a challenge when the cause is scholarship funds, which are a popular recent beneficiary of other recent bequests in Maine. An anonymous donor in the Norway-South Paris, for example, has given over $3-million to a fund for Oxford Hills graduates in recent years, including $l.l million last June alone.

Overall, events of the last few weeks have provided quite an education of their own, even if the tuition remaining to be paid is still a bit unknown.

Paul H. Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of Maine’s political
scene. He can be reached by e-mail: pmi[email protected]

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