WATERVILLE — Mayor Karen Heck’s suggestion that the city consider changing its ward system of government drew both support and opposition Thursday.
Heck made the recommendation at a public hearing of the city’s new charter commission, which is trying to determine if changes should be made to the city’s charter to help improve the way the city is run.
The charter is like a local constitution that governs how the city operates. The commission is required to hold a public hearing to allow residents to give input.
The city is divided into seven wards and voters in each ward elect a councilor to represent them.
Heck suggested having only four wards and electing three at-large representatives as a way to allow more people to be involved in city government. She said the ward system is confusing and a lot of people do not even know what ward they live in or who their councilor is.
She said people have talked about eliminating the party system of elections, but she does not have a strong feeling about that, one way or the other.
“I’m not so sure Democrat or Republican makes that much difference in this particular city,” she said.
Board of Education member Joan Phillips-Sandy said she agreed with Heck and does not feel strongly about changing the party system, but she does not see decisions based on party.
“I don’t think there’s been a Democratic party line on any school board issue and I have a hunch the same is true with the council,” she said.
But Phillips-Sandy was adamant that the seven ward system should remain in place.
“It assures diverse representation and Waterville’s a really, really diverse city,” she said. “It’s important to have the wards that get us the representation.”
Democratic state Sen. Colleen Lachowicz said she likes living in a ward where she knows her councilor and can call to talk about what is going on.
“I think having a ward system helps the City Council develop a relationship with those people,” she said.
City Manager Michael Roy said wards were developed 100 years ago to protect ethnic groups and minorities. For instance, people who were Lebanese lived on Front Street in the north end and Franco Americans lived in the South End.
He said he thinks the seven ward system sets up unnecessary opposition, where people feel they have to have someone to protect their ward versus the interests of the city as a whole.
“The city’s a lot different today than it was 50 years ago,” Roy said. “I think it’s much more diverse, on the whole.”
He said he thinks elected officials should focus on the interests of the entire city.
“I’d go further than what the mayor suggested and get rid of them (wards),” Roy said.
Lachowicz’s father, charter commission member Peter Madigan, said the ward issue has the potential to become divisive, but the solution is simple.
He said he comes from New York and New Jersey and it is good to remember 100 years ago — to remember where you came from. It also is important, he said, to realize that what went on 100 years ago is not the same as what is going on today.
“But human nature is exactly the same,” he said. “Let’s keep the ward system so everyone’s got a strong voice in the neighborhood that they’re in.”
Lachowicz, whose husband, Edward Lachowicz, is co-chairman of the charter commission, questioned whether a single mother working two jobs and living in the city’s South End would have as good a chance to get elected at-large as someone with more money for campaigning.
Meanwhile, commission member Cathy Taylor suggested educating residents about what wards they live in and who their councilors are, and possibly holding getting-to-know-councilor meetings.
Amy Calder — 861-9247