AUBURN — Even before Jonathan LaBonte was elected mayor in 2011, he admitted that it was going to be a challenge to unite a divided City Council.

Mayor Jonathan LaBonte speaks in February during a Maine Heritage Policy Center luncheon at the Hilton Garden Inn in Auburn. Sun Journal photo

The city manager at the time, Glenn Aho, was fired by the council just one month before the election, and residents and city employees alike had grown restless with the current political mood.

During the nearly three terms — six years — under LaBonte since then, turnover among city administration continued, but many believe progress has been made. A new sense of stability has also taken root this year following the hiring of City Manager Peter Crichton.

So, some were surprised earlier this month when LaBonte told the Sun Journal that he will not seek a fourth term this November. Two candidates have already announced intentions to run.

LaBonte said this week that after serving as an Androscoggin County commissioner and now three terms as mayor, he’s “confident that the time had come to find other ways to serve.” He did not give more detail about what that could mean.

With roughly five months still left in office, city officials both past and present reacted to LaBonte’s decision, and looked back on his tenure.

Most everyone agreed that LaBonte is a bright leader who has demonstrated a laser-focus on economic development, and didn’t shy away from asking more of city officials and staff, perhaps ruffling a few feathers along the way.

“He asked hard questions about many programs that were not working for the city of Auburn,” City Councilor James Pross said following LaBonte’s announcement. “He was not afraid to challenge city staff, joint agency leaders and city councilors when he felt that a proposal, project, or program wasn’t providing the benefits that were promised.”

Pross has worked with LaBonte for years, both at the Androscoggin Land Trust and on the council. In 2014, LaBonte left as executive director of the regional land trust to become director of Gov. Paul LePage’s Office of Policy and Management.

Pross said LaBonte has continued his stewardship of the Androscoggin River since then, and part of the mayor’s legacy will be the attention he brought to the river and other surrounding natural resources “as an asset for our community.”

Crichton, speaking by phone recently, said in his short time working with LaBonte (since April), the mayor has proved himself to be a capable and smart leader. The pair knew each other from working together in county government, and Crichton said he wasn’t caught off guard by LaBonte’s decision not to run.

“He has served six years. That’s a good contribution to the community for anybody to make,” he said.

Former City Councilor Tizz Crowley, who served four years alongside the mayor, said recently that it was no secret that she and LaBonte rarely saw eye to eye. Despite that, she said, she believes LaBonte has what it takes to be a “national leader” if he were to pursue other elected office.

“I wish him well,” she said. “I was surprised to hear he wasn’t running.”

‘Looking for answers’ 

While LaBonte has been commended by some for his strong style in leading the council, especially following years of stagnation, there has also been push-back. Among criticisms lobbed at LaBonte over the years has been a perceived tendency to micromanage city staff, including city managers.

Some, including former Councilor Bob Hayes, who is running again this fall, have been outspoken about LaBonte’s governing style. A letter to the Sun Journal in May questioned whether LaBonte’s actions have “prompted the early departure of individuals who have been valuable municipal leaders.”

Former City Managers Clint Deschene and Howard Kroll both left while LaBonte was mayor, and former Assistant City Manager Denis D’Auteuil recently found his way across the river to Lewiston.

A Sun Journal Freedom of Access Act request earlier this year found that LaBonte sent a total of 10,506 direct emails to the city managers and two department heads between 2012 and February 2017.

In 2015 alone, he sent more than 1,000 emails to Kroll, not including messages Kroll was copied on. In 2013, he sent 1,405 to Deschene.

In a March letter to the Sun Journal following the hiring of Crichton, Hayes said, “Auburn residents and businesses should now expect their councilors, and particularly the mayor, to assume their role as policymakers, leaving the manager to truly manage, without an unwarranted deluge of incoming emails.”

Asked about his leadership style and, in particular, the criticism of possible overreach, LaBonte said in an email, “While some may not be pleased with Auburn’s City Council taking a stand to set direction and return accountability to the use of taxpayer dollars, I am very proud of what I’ve seen from city councilors over these last six years and I know that work will continue.”

Asked whether he felt he pushed the limits of the mayor’s position, LaBonte responded: “In any public service, there will be those that offer criticisms for their own personal reasons or because they supported a candidate that lost. Fortunately, we live in America, where you are free to criticize those that volunteer in elected office.”
Ward 2 City Councilor Robert Stone said last week that LaBonte’s style was necessary and ultimately beneficial for the city.
“Jonathan, seeing weak management, jumped in, looking for answers, and was immediately criticized for ‘micro-management,'” Stone said in an email. “He had to. The city was like a ship without a rudder. He was constantly required to request status of items that just seemed to disappear.”
Stone added, “Of course, when he called ‘foul’ on these sorts of things, he was labeled a micro-manager. Where, then, were the managers who were being paid to watch these things?”
From the day Crichton was hired, city officials have addressed roles and responsibilities. On Crichton’s first day in April, professional facilitator Craig Freshley led a workshop for elected officials and city department heads to dictate clear lines of responsibility.
Crichton said that during the interview process, he heard “loud and clear” from the council, and LaBonte, that they wanted the manager to lead city government. The council’s role is to set policy.
“That’s the way it should be; this is a council-manager form of government,” Crichton said. “I think everyone bought into that, including the mayor.”

City staff in Auburn who were asked to comment for this story directed the Sun Journal to speak with the city manager’s office.

Impact

LaBonte said last week that when he left the Boston area and a career in engineering in 2005, “it was to find a path to return to my hometown, to be closer to family and to navigate a career supporting community development.”

LaBonte has a degree in chemical engineering from the University of Maine.

During his inaugural address in 2015, LaBonte asked if the city was doing enough to encourage growth, putting the focus both on the school system and business.

“Are we doing enough collectively, to improve the soil conditions for our young people, our businesses and our community to succeed?” he asked during the speech.

He also turned some focus to joint agencies. One decision from the Auburn council that is still discussed, and controversial, is pulling the city’s share of funding from the Lewiston-Auburn Economic Growth Council last year.

Stone said LaBonte recognized the growth council’s “failed” performance in Auburn, which led to the council’s decision to bring economic development resources in-house.

“LaBonte sniffed this out, and wanted to weed out the poor performance,” he said. “He was labeled a troublemaker by the status quo.”

In his response to the Sun Journal for this story, LaBonte said, “For decades, Auburn’s direction was being heavily influenced, and in some ways set, not by the citizens of Auburn or by those elected to represent them, but by outside organizations funded with government money. That is not the form of government laid out in the City Charter and is not the style of governance a community as vibrant as Auburn deserves.”

Crowley said that despite LaBonte’s strength in identifying policy needs, he often lacked a willingness to compromise or collaborate. She said he also exceeded the role of mayor outlined by the city charter.

“I worry that he may have changed the position of mayor,” she said.

The authorities of the mayor clearly stipulated by the city charter are acting as ceremonial head of the city, presiding over City Council meetings and creating and appointing members to committees. A fourth authority, which Crowley believes causes a gray area, is “The Mayor shall perform such other duties as the City Council may request or as conferred by the State law not inconsistent with the office or this Charter.”

Regardless of how LaBonte has operated as mayor, Crowley thinks he has a bright future ahead. She said a few years ago, when former Sen. Olympia Snowe was accepting an award at an Auburn event, she told him, “You could be there, too.”

“I firmly believe that, with some training, he has the potential to be that kind of national leader,” she said. “But, he’s got to learn how to collaborate.”

Community involvement

One facet of LaBonte’s leadership that has never waned is his focus on community. He cherishes Auburn’s distinctive neighborhoods and the people and organizations that push to make them better.

He takes part in community events, goes to ball games (even guest umpiring sometimes), and urges others to do the same. Asked a few weeks ago if he planned to run for other political office, he said his only plans were to run in the Emily’s Run 5K road race, which was held last Sunday.

LaBonte said recently that “the most significant experience” for him as mayor has been seeing firsthand the efforts of many to build up community in Auburn; witnessing the volunteers who provide a food pantry service to 60-70 hungry families in Auburn — every week — out of the High Street Congregational Church; watching as hundreds of volunteers, over just a few years, have built up the Lake Auburn Community Center into “a hub for recreational and family fun around our city’s most important natural asset,” and experiencing the “life breathed into the neighborhood of my childhood” when the New Auburn Neighborhood Association hosts events like Hello-ween and the Christmas parade.

“I’m proud that in some small ways I’ve tried to help these efforts, but they are collective efforts to build community led by community,” he said.

He believes success will be found in Auburn if officials continue to “nurture the growth” of those community-led organizations, including neighborhood associations and watch groups.

He added, “Citizens and small businesses, on the front line of day-to-day life here, should be empowered with tools to find and implement solutions unique to their corner of the city. It’s already happening in many ways with support from our police department, and expanding the involvement of service-level staff will only yield more success.”

LaBonte may also receive some credit for building at least some unity among the council.

A work plan to set major goals for the remainder of the year — and beyond — is being drafted by Crichton and the council. Crichton, with LaBonte’s backing, also recently proposed a compensation study to see how employee salaries stack up against other Maine cities, as well as a fresh look at the city’s prospects for recreational and agricultural economic development.

Crichton said that ever since the April workshop, he and city staff have “worked real hard” to make council initiatives a priority, while also handling council constituent concerns through his office so that elected officials didn’t feel the need to go directly to department heads.

“I think what we’re doing is working,” Crichton said.

Pross said LaBonte has shown “passion, dedication and energy” by attending nearly every public event in Auburn during his tenure, events after work and on weekends.

“Whatever one may think of Jonathan’s politics or the manner in which he conducts council meetings, it would be difficult to dispute that he has been a strong ambassador for Auburn over the last six years,” Pross said.

As for LaBonte’s style at Auburn Hall, Pross said, “What more could you ask of an elected official, than to ask the hard questions? The world is full of ‘yes men,’ but Jonathan is not one of them.”

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Emails sent by Mayor LaBonte from Jan. 1, 2012 to Feb. 24, 2017
  Year Eric Cousens Dennis D’Auteuil Howard Kroll Clint Deschene Dan Goyette  
  2012 282 84 10 383 109  
  2013 587 153 831 1,405 328  
  2014 457 142 624 870 185  
  2015 608 576 1,086 9 120  
  2016 396 560 597 0 82  
  2017 9 12 0 0 1  
  Total 2,339 1,527 3,148 2,667 825 10,506

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