Westbrook’s new mayor will forgo the traditional inaugural ball. 

WESTBROOK – There will be no black-tie affair to mark the election of Mayor Mike Sanphy and other municipal officers in January.

During his inaugural address Monday, Westbrook’s new mayor announced he would break with tradition and replace the traditional inaugural ball with “a more modest” inaugural reception, which is planned for sometime in January.

In his speech that called for openness and with goals for cost savings, Sanphy said “there will be no city funding of this (new) event, nor will there be any cost to attend” the reception, most likely hosted by the Downtown Westbrook Coalition.

“I just look at seniors trying to pay their taxes, with a school bond coming their way, and I thought, how can I host this big party, which is limited to just people who can afford the tickets?” he said of hosting a ball.

When asked if the decision was meant to signal how he will run the city, Sanphy said he wants to be “frugal in our spending.”

In Westbrook, the inaugural ball has been a unique and longstanding tradition, but has taken different arcs depending on the current mayor’s preference.

“Each mayor puts his or her own stamp on the event,” said outgoing Mayor Colleen Hilton, who oversaw three inaugural balls.

During more recent administrations, including Hilton’s, the inaugural ball tended to be a gala or dance, catered and with a live band. Hilton received some criticism for hosting her first ball outside of Westbrook, at the Italian Heritage Center in Portland.

According to City Administrator Jerre Bryant, the ball has traditionally been funded by paid tickets. In 2013, tickets for the inaugural ball at the Dana Warp Mill were $50.

Bryant said the city doesn’t specifically budget for an inaugural ball, which has been held following each mayoral election. He said there is a $2,000 line item in the annual budget for the city’s inauguration, but that Monday’s event did not reach that amount.

“The inaugural ball was always intended to be a self-funding event,” he said Tuesday.

At the Westbrook Historical Society, records are scattered on the inuagural ball. In January 1968, Mayor Donald Saunders held a “Reception and Inaugural Ball” at the American Legion Hall on Dunn Street. The invitation describes the event as “cabaret style.” Some 300 people were invited.

In the late 1990s, Mayor Don Esty made one of his inaugural balls into a benefit dance, inviting the whole city. Held at the former Centurion Banquet Hall on Larrabee Road, the event was a fundraiser for Mission Possible teen center, which was then under development at the Dana Warp Mill. Tickets were $15 and the Tony Boffa Band provided the live music.

“Though it was called a ‘ball,’ some of the events have been pizza and a beer at a legion hall,” Hilton said of the tradition. “Anytime you can bring people from both parties together to celebrate and commit to working together – it’s a good thing. So, whether it is a gathering, a small event or a big gala ball, it doesn’t matter much. The important point is to commit to working together.”

Hilton said that when the tradition started, all municipal officers, including the mayor, were elected every two years, and “it was not uncommon to have a big splash.” Since the City Charter changes in 2012, which staggered terms, only about half of the city government is now celebrating a new term following an election.

“I think it makes sense,” said Council President Brendan Rielly on Tuesday about the decision to forgo the ball, adding that Sanphy’s idea is in line with his thoughts on how local government interacts with the public. “I’d also like to see us have more of a presence in the local business community, with meet-and-greets in various local restaurants or art galleries.”

Sanphy said he looked at the inaugural reception as a chance to let anyone come and meet their elected officials. He said he’s received only positive comments on the decision so far.

“Mike is trying to do something more casual, and more accessible,” Bryant said Tuesday. “He really wants to make it an all-inclusive event.”

From left, Bill and Nancy Curran, Mayor Bill O’Gara and wife Beverly O’Gara, and William and Jackie Clarke prep for the inaugural ball in 1982.

An invitation to the Westbrook inaugural ball of Mayor Donald Saunders in 1968.

An American Journal recap of the inaugural ball in 1999, when Mayor Don Esty opted to make the event a fundraiser.