On Election Day, three Westbrook candidates are hoping to slide into the at-large City Council seat left vacant by longtime councilor Michael Foley. Foley announced earlier this year that he would not seek re-election in order to focus on family.
The list of candidates includes two former councilors, Ann Peoples and Steve Willette, and a newcomer to city politics, Jeff Labbe.
Labbe, 40, works for Allstate Insurance. This is the first time he has run for political office.
Peoples, 69, who is retired, was most recently a Westbrook state representative from 2008-2014. Prior to that, she served on the Westbrook Planning Board from 1996-2003 in between two terms on the City Council (1994-96 and 2003-05).
Willette, 47, served on the Westbrook City Council from 1998-2000. He works for Central Maine Power.
Peoples was nominated for the seat at the Democratic caucus, while Willette and Labbe filed nomination papers in order to run.
Leading up to the election on Nov. 8, the American Journal spoke with the three candidates about some of the issues facing Westbrook.
Labbe believes the most pressing issue facing the city is communication.
“There is a lot going on with the city, and more times than not the left hand doesn’t seem to know what the right hand is doing,” he said. “We need to have better communication within city government and with the public. I think that I can bring a lot to this.”
Labbe said his knowledge of social media and marketing can help in “delivering messages to the public.”
Peoples said the most important issues to her are revisiting Westbrook’s zoning ordinances in response to growth, and working to make the city more accessible and safe for seniors.
“I am recommending that we revisit our zoning ordinances with an eye to making them more responsive to the changes that have happened over the last decade,” she said.
Willette agrees with Peoples on the city’s zoning ordinances, but said the city must address “unchecked land-use growth that is not in line with the current vision of the comprehensive plan.”
Labbe said he stands out from the other candidates because he can bring a fresh perspective to the council, and as a longtime Westbrook resident, he says he’s seen many missed opportunities.
“My focus in college was project management, and I think that couldn’t come at a better time for this council,” he said. “We need to be more of a proactive council and not a reactive one.”
For Peoples, she’s counting on her years of experience to sway voters.
“As someone who has served the community for over 30 years, I bring experience and an ability to see issues in context,” she said. “I have worked at both the municipal and the state level to advocate for our family, friends and neighbors and have the skill set to be effective in that work.”
Willette said his previous work on the council, especially in the creation of effective tax increment financing (TIF) districts, makes him stand out as a candidate. He has specific ideas on how to move the city away from some agreements that he feels are negative, including at One Riverfront Plaza.
“These types of agreements get away from public improvements,” he said.
All three candidates support the proposed 180-day development moratorium in Westbrook. The ordinance, which was voted down at a first reading by the council on Monday, stems from a months-long debate over the pace of residential development in Westbrook, a topic that has also become a campaign issue.
Labbe said the city has become “reactive” when it comes to expansion.
“We seem to expand, then regret (yes, regret) because we didn’t think it through,” he said. “This expansion pushed the school issues to the forefront and made it a necessity now, even though it was before, but now it is a must.”
Peoples said “a pause to consider our zoning ordinances would be wise,” but also said the city must realize that developers need predictability to make investment decisions.
“Development goes along with the business cycle and I would be cautious about over-building during ‘ups’ and seeing developers go bust during ‘downs,'” she said.
Willette has been outspoken at a number of public meetings regarding development and the moratorium. He has outlined a number of specific changes he’d urge the city to make regarding its zoning ordinances and comprehensive plan.
“The cumulative residential housing growth with large-scale housing projects projected and ELL (English Language Learner) growth has put our systems in public harm and we need a pause to regroup,” he said of the moratorium.
All three candidates also support the $27.3 million school expansion bond that Westbrook residents will vote on Nov. 8.
“We’re at the point of action,” Labbe said. “We went past the point of planning when the residential expansion took place and had nothing in place to alleviate the school situation.”
“Our childen need it,” Peoples said.
Willette said he supports the project, but said he wants to emphasize that, going forward, he’d like to see developments “allow us to impose impact fees to help pay for expansion development within the schools to help off set the tax burden on current property owners.”