AUBURN — For most mayoral candidates, meeting with city department heads and chatting up prospective councilors in the run-up to next Tuesday’s election might just be campaigning.

But not for Jonathan LaBonte. With no challengers for the seat in the Nov. 8  municipal election, he doesn’t really need to campaign.

What he needs to do is get ready, and that’s what he’s doing. LaBonte said he’s met with individual City Council candidates to discuss what they expect after they’re sworn in later this month. He’s also met with city employees to see how he can lead a smooth transition — both seating a new City Council and hiring a new city manager and city clerk.

“It’s going to be challenge,” LaBonte said. “It may not be complete until we have a new manager in place.”

His first goal will be to get a clear distinction between the job of city councilor and that of city manager. According to LaBonte, the council’s job is to set policy. Staff needs to make management decisions within that policy.

“But from what I’ve been able to gather, there isn’t a firm policy direction,” LaBonte said. “In some cases, we have staff making policies and then implement them.”

One idea is to organize councilors around policies instead of boards. Right now, several councilors sit on different boards that tackle different aspects of the same issue. One councilor sits on the board that manages the airport, while another sits on the board that manages the bus system, for example. 

LaBonte suggests one councilor could sit on a policy committee focusing on transportation issues in general for the city, and steering policy for those boards.

“And then we have some boards in place right now, like the energy committee or the recycling committee, and there are no councilors at all there,” LaBonte said. “So there are entire policy areas we could use a councilor steering things.”

That idea would also give everyone more time to discuss issues before making a decision, from councilors to residents.

“We want our staff to come up with new ideas, but how do they get pitched?” LaBonte said. “It gets tested among the policymakers at a council workshop. An idea gets pitched in 15 minutes to those seven people and the mayor. Wouldn’t it be better if it could be brought up through a committee before it came to the council?”

It’s the kind of discussion LaBonte said needs to be settled before councilors can move on to meatier topics — luring economic development, working with Lewiston, building a new high school and even hiring a new city manager.

“There’s a process we need to walk through first,” LaBonte said. “I would expect our first meeting to go over the ground rules in terms of basic decorum, Roberts Rules, and things that are going to be off-limits. The first meeting is, ‘here’s how we’re going to work together.'”

Barring a recount in one of the City Council races, LaBonte said he’d like to have the new council sworn in and working by the end of November. He’s scheduled to attend a U.S. Department of State exchange program to the country of Jordan Dec. 2 through 18.

“I want to be able to chair my first meeting as mayor, so we’re talking about changing the schedule, moving the first meeting in December to Nov. 28,” LaBonte said. “That would give us a chance to be there and help set the ground rules. If we need to have a first meeting in December, we could have a mayor pro tem run that.”

But LaBonte said Tuesday that he doubted that will happen. He said he’d talked with city staff and was told to plan on being sworn in after his Department of State trip, probably late in December.

Being sworn in as Auburn’s mayor will also put an end to his career as an Androscoggin County commissioner. He’s expecting the governor’s office to name his replacement soon after he takes over the Auburn position.

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