By Laurent F. Gilbert Sr.
Mayor of Lewiston
That’s right! This is my last mayor’s column, after which I will be going 10-7, which is police ten code for being “out of service.”
This is my last week serving as mayor of the All-America City of Lewiston. It truly has been a great ride. As I was packing up last week, it seemed like it was just a short while ago that I was moving into the office. Well, it has been five years already.
I remember back when I was campaigning, I started going door to door the day after Christmas 2006. The election was to be held on February 27, 2007. There were days when it was bitterly cold, but I had to trudge through. Then on February 14, we got hit with a blizzard-like snowstorm that wiped out my 500 signs throughout the city. It took us a whole week to dig them out. The effort paid off, as I won the election.
Public service truly is honorable work, whether it was during my career as a police officer or while serving in elective office. Every day offers opportunities to be of service to people. Such service truly is gratifying. Sure, you subject yourself to criticism, but the rewarding feeling of having helped someone far outweighs the negative feelings from criticism. When in your heart you feel that you are serving with good intentions, nothing else matters.
I know I have been both criticized and honored for being welcoming and providing service to our refugee and immigrant community. But let me say this: it has been some of the most rewarding work I have done as mayor. When I took my oath of office, I took it very seriously to be of service to all.
When you truly get to know people from the refugee/immigrant community on a one-to-one basis, you see the similarities with yourself. You find that they are good family people who, like yourself, seek what we all do: that is a quality of life, such as religion, education, employment, music and wanting to maintain one’s culture while learning to live in a new one. I can truly relate to that, having served on the Board of Directors of the Franco-American Heritage Center in order to preserve my French-Canadian culture. I firmly believe that God placed us on earth as his children to live together for his glory and for us to earn our way to Heaven.
In order to be of service, I accepted the offer to write a weekly column in this newspaper, as I saw it as a means of communicating with my constituency. It provided transparency as to where I stood on issues and those issues that I advocated for. I wish to thank Laurie and Peter Steele, owners of this newspaper, for having provided me the opportunity to be able to communicate in this manner.
I also had a local access television show called “Chats with the Mayor” on Great Falls TV, where I interviewed various guests. It provided another means of communication. Monthly, I hosted what I called “Coffee with the Mayor,” where constituents could come and have coffee with me and talk about any issue they wished. It was a way to keep my ear to the ground.
Speaking of keeping an ear to the ground, I heard loud and clear that the residents of Lewiston did not want to lease our land for a 30-year period, which would have allowed a 400-foot mountain of solid waste in our city. I insisted on a public hearing, which had to be held at the Multi-Purpose Center with some 300 people in attendance. The measure was soundly defeated with a unanimous vote of the city council.
I strongly advocated for consolidation of services between Lewiston and Auburn, but met with resistance from city councils on both sides of the river. Had we started in year one, we would now be realizing some $2.7 million a year in savings. I am hopeful that the new mayors and city councilors will pursue that effort.
Speaking of savings, we were losing $500,000 a year from our ownership of the Androscoggin Bank Colisée. I advocated for its sale in order to stop the bleeding, and we were able to sell it for $1 million. Today, it is in private hands and we generate some $50,000 a year in taxes and fees. We are now close to having saved $2 million by having sold it.
We supported green policies that our city has adopted, which are not only saving dollars, but our environment as well. Cleaning up our downtown residential neighborhoods has been a real issue. We purchased equipment to facilitate the cleanup of trash and litter. We have also involved volunteers in the effort, even though at times it appears to be an exercise in futility. It will only be cleaned up when folks don’t litter. We have also developed an anti-graffiti program. Although not eliminated, the amount of graffiti has been reduced.
We have advocated for stricter enforcement of our housing codes, and the police department has added a police officer to work in the code enforcement department. It is already achieving positive results.
The police department has also assigned four Community Service Officers who work out of an office at 292 Bates Street, addressing inner city issues. It has made a big difference. It truly is the essence of Community Oriented Policing.
The city has developed a volunteer program for all city departments. Volunteers are now honored by awarding the Volunteers Inspire By Example (VIBE) Award.
I have been fortunate to have worked closely with City Administrator Ed Barrett and Deputy City Administrator Phil Nadeau.
The cooperation between the city council and the school committee and the administrators of both departments is to be commended.
I have been fortunate to have the services of Dottie Perham-Whittier, who is our community relations coordinator. She has written hundreds of communications for me and has been the woman behind the man. Janet Labbe, executive secretary, has been very helpful to me as well.
Every city department, including the school department work, hard every day to make our city function as well as it does. We are fortunate to have such employees.
We have improved “town-gown” relationships with Bates College under the direction of its Interim President Nancy Cable. We meet fairly regularly and break bread together.
We have reviewed the city charter and a number of recommended changes will be going before the city council and hopefully to the voters next November. It hadn’t been reviewed in over 30 years, and it should be every decade.
We are now in the process of developing a Riverfront Island Master Plan. Our downtown business district has seen significant development in the last several years with many ethnic businesses filling what use to be vacant storefronts. Quality restaurants and other businesses have opened downtown, and the trend continues. It is being revitalizes one storefront at a time.
We had hopes that a casino would fill Bates Mill No. 5, which would have brought millions in tax revenue, hundreds of jobs and spurred economic development in our downtown, but it wasn’t to be as it was defeated by a statewide vote. The measure passed twice in Lewiston.
With the advocacy of Mr. Al Harvie of Auburn, we worked with a committee and the city councils of Lewiston and Auburn, as well as our legislative delegation in Augusta, to rename the South Bridge the “Bernard Lown Peace Bridge” in honor of Nobel Peace Prize laureate Dr. Bernard Lown. He is a world-renowned cardiologist who invented the Direct Current Defibrillator, which has saved thousands upon thousands of lives worldwide.
Dr. Lown and his Russian cardiologist counterpart formed an organization called International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW), which grew to about 150,000 physicians worldwide. It led to the awarding of the Nobel in 1985. Dr. Lown is a 1938 graduate of Lewiston High School.
I have joined an international organization called Mayors for Peace in advocating for the elimination of nuclear weapons by the year 2020. I have also been very involved in an organization called Mayors Against Illegal Guns to keep guns out of the wrong hands while supporting the Second Amendment. I am a member of Partnership for a New American Economy advocating for Comprehensive Immigration Reform.
I was fortunate to have been invited to testify before two U.S. Congressional Committees and one U.S. Senate Committee advocating for our needs.
We have had excellent relations with our congressional delegation in Washington, D.C. and their local representatives here in town.
We have continued to work well with our Twin City of Auburn, the Lewiston-Auburn Economic Growth Council, Androscoggin Valley Council of Governments and the Androscoggin Chamber of Commerce. The Twin Cities have a great many joint ventures that are fine tuned.
As I close out my five years as the longest-serving mayor in the history of our city, I have considered it an honor and a privilege to have had the opportunity to serve you, my friends and neighbors, as a citizen who has simply tried to serve in that vein. I thank city staff, city councils and residents for your support over the years.
This ends my public service as I go into full retirement. I could not have done it without the outstanding and loving support of my wife Pat during my 42 years of public service. I have truly been blessed and honored.
I will now be 10-7.