When the Westbrook Democratic Committee was searching for mayoral candidates in 2008, a few names were tossed around. City Councilor Brendan Rielly joked recently that he and longtime School Committee member Colleen Hilton were sent into a room to see which one would come out. Rielly said he jumped out the window.
For the past seven years during three terms as mayor, Hilton has established a reputation as an effective leader who isn’t afraid to make decisions that may be unpopular.
From her initial administrative staff shakeup in 2009, to a pro-business mentality that fostered new development interest in Westbrook, Hilton applied her career skills as a chief executive to Westbrook City Hall.
“The history of our city will remember her as one of Westbrook’s greatest leaders,” said former councilor and Westbrook State Rep. Drew Gattine this week, referring to some of her accomplishments.
Gattine cited her work to quell a rift between two of the cities economic drivers, Pike Industries and Idexx Laboratories, her vision in growing the Westbrook Community Center, and her focus on economic development and downtown revitalization.
“I think there’s been a lot accomplished in seven years,” Hilton said during an interview Monday.
At the final City Council meeting for her administration Monday, she received praise from her colleagues and members of the public. Roughly two dozen members of her large family came for the send-off, which also recognized longtime Councilor Michael Foley, who did not seek re-election for his at-large seat.
The American Journal spoke with Hilton, 60, this week about her tenure as mayor, looking back on some of the decisions, accomplishments and a few controversies that defined her administration.
Prior to running for mayor, Hilton served on the School Committee for 10 years. She said when Rielly offered the idea that she run for mayor, she was hesitant.
“I thought, what do I know about roads and sewers?” she said. “But I looked at it like a call to service, and thought I’d give it a shot.”
After surprising incumbent Bruce Chuluda in a close race, Hilton immediately rocked the status quo during her inauguration by announcing that she would not reappoint Fire Chief Daniel Brock and Finance Director Sue Rossignol, among others. The move was both heralded and criticized.
In Westbrook, the strong mayoral form of government is unique compared to most municipalities, and gives the mayor more influence on the city’s direction.
As chief executive officer of VNA Home Health & Hospice, Hilton said she was comfortable with assessing her team as she saw it.
“As a chief executive, that’s what I would do,” she said of her decision in 2009. “What’s my team, where’s my strength, what do I need to do?”
At Monday’s meeting, Hilton told the audience that she learned that it takes courage to be a leader.
One of Hilton’s first major challenges was stepping into an emotional battle between Idexx Laboratories and nearby Pike Industries, and residents, over blasting at Pike’s quarry.
“I thought there had to be a middle ground,” she said of the polarization on both sides. “I’m proud of how that turned out.”
The two sides came to an agreement in 2010. A few years later, Idexx began construction on a multi-million dollar expansion of its facility off Eisenhower Drive.
Hilton said that first challenge also opened her up to the oftentimes harsh reaction and personal attacks that politicians face. She said she sees parallels between the Pike issue and the recent backlash over the Blue Spruce Farm housing development off Spring Street. She said she’s hoping it ends with similar amiable results. She recently took a firm stance against a proposed development moratorium sparked by the community apprehension over the rate of growth in Westbrook.
Next for Hilton in 2009 was addressing the sexual harassment scandals that plagued the fire department. With her ousting of Brock, the city worked toward a public safety model where both police and fire departments had one director.
She said the main reason she shifted to that model was because, at the time, there was “weak leadership” in the regional fire ranks. Westbrook has since returned to having separate leadership, with Fire Chief Andrew Turcotte and Police Chief Janine Roberts.
“I’m really proud of the people I’ve hired over the last seven years to do the city’s work,” she said.
Hilton’s father, Malcolm Noyes, said Tuesday that he’s extremely proud of the commitment his daughter has made to the city.
“She’s got a real fine way of handling situations,” he said. “We’re all very proud of that.”
“The office of mayor in Westbrook is unique because it carries so much responsibility and opportunity to make our city better,” Gattine said. “Colleen reflects everything we need in a mayor. She’s a smart business person and skilled negotiator.”
Gattine also praised Hilton for her vision for the Westbrook Community Center.
“It’s such a hub for the community, for all ages,” Hilton said about its growth.
Maria Dorn, the director of Westbrook Community Services, said this week that she first met Hilton while on the School Committee, and Hilton became a mentor. The pair also worked for three years on a planning committee for the former junior high school that is now the community center.
“Over the past 10 years I learned from her how to ask the tough questions, how to advocate effectively, how to understand the complex issues – and by that it means putting the time in to truly understand them,” Dorn said.
Hilton said she’s also proud of improving the city’s business climate through economic development, the positive physical changes to Westbrook, adding to its trove of recreational land, and decisions like hiring an additional code enforcement officer to address problem properties.
“We wanted to focus on Westbrook as a destination,” she said.
She said former assistant city administrator Bill Baker “really jump-started” economic development in a positive way. His work in the negotiations on fish passage at Saccarappa Falls should also not be overlooked, she said.
One of the main reasons she sought a third term in 2013 was to see the Saccarappa project through, she said. When she signed the paperwork on the agreement last week, she said, she thought, “Wow, this is why I hung in there.”
“I think it’s going to be transformative for downtown Westbrook.”
Baker, who is now police chief in Foxborough, Massachusetts, called Hilton “tough-minded, fair, smart as a whip, and dedicated to family and community. One of the best I have been around.”
Throughout Hilton’s three terms, the city has also faced its share of controversies, including an email sent by Baker that mocked members of the community; two sexual harassment lawsuits from female police officers; and an embezzlement case at City Hall.
Hilton said the public release of Baker’s email was unfortunate, but said it was related to the often negative political atmosphere, which has also affected local politics. She said her large family, the majority of whom live in Westbrook, have at times also faced public scorn.
She said “hateful rhetoric, falsehoods on social media and untrue allegations” had an impact on her and her family. That all played into her decision not to seek a fourth term, she said.
Foley, who was elected to the council in 2005, said his own experiences with public attacks also influenced his decision.
Fellow councilors called Foley – who joined the council as its youngest member ever – a mentor and guide. Foley is the vice president of the council, and also chairman of the Finance Committee, which guides the budget review process.
During the meeting, a video montage in ode to Hilton and Foley was screened, and colleagues commented on both Hilton and Foley’s ability to make tough decisions.
“I’m thankful to have a leader to be inspired by,” said Councilor Anna Turcotte, adding that Hilton has made decisions with frankness and poise.
Ward 2 Councilor Victor Chau said Hilton exemplified thoughtfulness, with no “knee-jerk reactions.” He said Foley put in more time than anyone else he knows, often with behind-the-scenes work on the budget and union negotations.
Rielly said a simple, “Thank you. It’s something we don’t say enough.”
Dorn said Hilton once told her, “It’s not our job to make everyone happy. It’s our job to do the right and responsible thing, no matter what,” a sentiment that has stuck with her.
Hilton said she’ll be available to support incoming mayor Mike Sanphy, who beat out fellow Democrat Michael Shaughnessy by 90 votes on Election Day. While Hilton nominated Shaughnessy at the party caucus, arguing that his vision and leadership would be beneficial to Westbrook, she has already met with Sanphy on the transition.
“I hope you stay on board with me,” Sanphy said to Hilton during the City Council meeting.
When asked if there is anything she wished she had accomplished, Hilton listed the vacant One Riverfront Plaza building, changes to the city’s gateways and more consolidation of services between the city and school department.
Hilton, who grew up on Forest Street in Westbrook, and now lives on Berkeley Street, said it will be hard to step away.
“My parents always told me to leave a place better than you found it, so that’s what I tried to do,” she said Monday. “I think I left Westbrook better than I found it.”
Members of the Westbrook City Council and the public shower outgoing Mayor Colleen Hilton with applause Monday, in honor of her three terms leading the city.
Mayor Colleen Hilton and Councilor Michael Foley pose with plaques handed out Monday in appreciation of their years of service to Westbrook. Hilton is stepping away after seven years as mayor and 10 years on the School Committee. Foley has been a City Councilor since 2005. Also pictured is Foley’s son, Joseph.
Colleen Hilton celebrates with supporters following her win over Bruce Chuluda in 2009 to become the city’s first female mayor.
Hilton embraces her sister, Patty Amico, after winning a second term as mayor in 2011.
Hilton and other Democratic Committee members celebrate Hilton’s election win in 2013 for a third term. Michael Foley, left, was also recognized this week for his lengthy service to Westbrook. To Hilton’s right, is Westbrook’s next mayor, Mike Sanphy.
Hilton gives her last inaugural address in December 2015 at Westbrook High School. Among her goals for her final year was to complete an agreement to create fish passage at Saccarappa Falls. She signed the paperwork last week.