Tuesday, October 7, 2008

On Location: Chuluda as Democrat

Mayor Bruce Chuluda is a fine democrat.

But before Westbrook Republicans get their panties in a bunch, let me qualify that I'm describing him with the small-d connotation and not reporting that when he runs for re-election next November (as he said he will), he will do so on the Democratic ticket. I am, in other words, describing how the mayor's administration has greatly expanded Westbrook residents' access to municipal government.

There is, of course, his, uh, scintillating call-in show he hosts each month on the ratings juggernaut that is Local Access television. But more important, BruChu continues to open his office for three hours on the first Saturday of each month. And back in February, he began hosting informal public hearings in each municipal ward, one of which I attended last week.

When I arrived in one of the cafeterias at Wescott Junior High School last Tuesday evening to attend the mayor's meeting with Ward 1, I was pleasantly surprised by the number of people in attendance. I had expected about a half-dozen attendees, so I was heartened by the appearance of about fifteen fellow geeks concerned residents. Well, I should say that I was heartened by the turnout until I realized an overwhelming majority of the attendees were either elected officials (Mayor Chuluda and City Councilor John O'Hara) or municipal department heads. Which is great if there's an audience for them with which to engage. But, considering there were only about a handful of us residents, the meeting couldn't help but resemble a staff meeting with an audience. The lack of participation among Westbrook residents was even more disappointing considering the potential for information-gathering and the potential for probing that existed at the ward meeting. For example, Jason Snyder, the developer proposing Stroudwater Place, attended the meeting and was prepared to answer questions. Yet, unlike last night's more formal public hearing, there was no crowd available to address concerns or to have questions answered in this more informal setting. And City Administrator Jerre Bryant's sales pitch for the re-use of Wescott Junior High School took on the tone of a practice run since the lack of eyeballs and ears made the presentation inconsequential. Put simply, the informal nature of the mayor's meetings with each ward and the access an attendee has to the movers-and-shakers in Westbrook government make the meetings the best (or worst?) kept secret in the city. Well, except maybe for the mayor's open office hours.

On the first Saturday of each month, Mayor Chuluda opens his office from 9a-12p and welcomes all comers. There isn't a secretary screening participants or a receptionist explaining a conflict of scheduling. You simply show up, and if the mayor's not already talking with another visitor, you walk into his office and let him know what's up. According to Chuluda, some show up to chew the spruce gum. And others visit his office to bend his ear about, say, the cavernous potholes plaguing their street. What's important, though, is that the highest elected official in the city is available to listen to concerns, recommendations, and feedback.

And what's equally important is that residents become more involved in that give-and-take.

- John C.L. Morgan

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