Mayor's caucus change request falls short


WESTBROOK — The city will retain the caucus system to nominate candidates for municipal offices despite a request from the mayor to do away with it.

Mayor Mike Sanphy asked the City Council to consider amending the charter to replace the caucus system in September with a primary system in June. 

Sanphy said the primary is a fairer option for selecting candidates. Citing the last Republican caucus in September with only six participants, Sanphy said the switch would allow all voters to decide who gets on the ballot, not just those who attend the caucus.

“A primary system allows an individual to make the selection,” Sanphy said. “A caucus can be stacked. You can bring a lot of people in to back one candidate. The primary system is a fairer way to do it.”

Sanphy, who is seeking re-election, was elected mayor in the November 2016 general election after taking out nomination papers when he failed to get the Democratic caucus nomination.

On Monday, Sanphy’s request only got the support of Councilor Lynda Adams and Council Vice President Anna Turcotte, who both said the idea warrants further discussion.

“I wanted to explore it more, what he had in mind, but I respect my fellow councilors’ decision,” Turcotte said Tuesday morning. 

Sanphy said Tuesday he was disappointed the council didn’t further the topic, calling it a “political move.” Sanphy hoped if residents see fit, they inititate a charter amendment process through a petition. According to state law, the petition would have to be signed by at least 20 percent of the voters who voted in the last gubernatorial election, which in the case of November’s election would be 1,685 voters.

Dropping the caucus in favor of a primary would need to go through a full charter commission process, said Natalie Burns, the city’s solicitor.

“I don’t think this is something we can take up at this stage of the game with everything else going on,” Councilor Ann Peoples said at Monday’s meeting. Also,  she said, enacting that process would come at an expense to the city, which would have to hold elections first to choose charter commission members and later to approve the charter changes. Switching from a caucus to a primary would be an additional expense for the city because the cost of a caucus is paid for by the political parties whereas a primary is paid for through tax dollars.

City Clerk Angela Holmes said a charter commission, even one formed as the result of a particular mayoral request, reviews the charter as it sees fit.

 “They can take the whole charter into consideration,” Holmes told the American Journal.

That possibility makes Councilor Mike Foley uncomfortable. 

“We can’t require them to take up this specific issue, so the charter commission might not even address that issue and they may address issues we don’t want them to address,” said Foley, who was elected to council in November after securing the Democratic nomination in September.

Foley said the city recently had a commission review its charter and the caucus system was not among the changes recommended. That commission, formed in 2010, looked into, and ultimately recommended, changing the length of terms for city councilors and school board members, making the city clerk an appointed, not elected, position and updating the mayor’s authority to reorganize city departments. Voters approved the changes in November 2012 and they became effective in 2013.

With the caucus system still in place, Westbrook will continue to have a unique way to vet candidates for local office.

Eric Conrad, a spokesperson for the Maine Municipal Association, said using a caucus to fill municipal ballots is unusual in Maine, as is using a primary system for that purpose. The most common system to choose candidates in the state’s 490 municipalities is town meeting, he said, and an open system in which candidates take out nomination papers, something Westbrook also uses, is also common.

“MMA doesn’t recommend a particular approach,” he said. “These decisions are best made at the community level, like the way Westbrook is handling it.”

Michael Kelley can be reached at 780-9106 or [email protected] or on Twitter @mkelleynews.

Westbrook Democrats cast their votes for municipal candidates at their party’s caucus last September. Mayor Mike Sanphy said he would like to get rid of the caucus system in favor of a primary, a notion that didn’t get the support of councilors this week.