Windham mayor looks ahead to new term
By Melanie Savage - Staff Writer
Windham - posted Fri., Nov. 22, 2013
Ernest Eldridge was recently elected to his second four-term as mayor of Windham. Four years ago, Eldridge had the honor of being chosen as the town’s first-ever mayor. There had been mayors serving the city of Willimantic before - John Lescoe was the most recent, with his term ending in 1983. That year, the city of Willimantic was incorporated with the outlying villages of Windham Center, North Windham, and South Windham to form the town of Windham.
When the town made the decision to move from a first selectman to a town manager form of governing, it needed a mayor to provide a public face for the town. “I think it’s important to have both a mayor and a town manager,” said Eldridge. “It’s very hard for a person to both run the town and be the face of the town at the same time.”
Eldridge said the town charter provides very little guidance as to what the mayor’s role should encompass. It is largely a ceremonial position. “But I always wanted to take it a step further,” said Eldridge. “I wanted to do more than running meetings and cutting ribbons. I wanted to be involved in the running of the town.”
That desire sometimes got him in trouble, said Eldridge. One of the biggest lessons learned during his first term was that he needed to be careful about stepping on toes. “I was very surprised about how many people said, ‘Don’t do that, it’s not part of your job,’” said Eldridge. “It was always done very nicely, but it was a surprise. You have to be careful that you’re not stepping on toes.”
But the relationship with Town Manager Neal Beets has always been very good, according to the mayor. “He’s always been very good about involving me in decisions,” said Eldridge.
Overall, Eldridge sees his role as serving as somewhat of a lightning rod. “You’re kind of the liaison between the people and the government,” he said.
During the mayor’s first term, the town has dealt with some important, sometimes contentious issues, including the building of a new magnet school and the installation of a Special Master within the public school district. “Neal and I and the different boards and commissions have put a lot of time and effort into moving the town forward,” said Eldridge. The mayor sees his role as helping to remove obstacles. “I want to help keep the town moving ahead, moving forward,” he said.
One of the main issues facing Windham and many other towns in the near future will be identifying funds to facilitate plans for the future. “It’s not easy, to be honest with you,” said Eldridge. An historic town with many deteriorating buildings, Windham needs to have a clear 10-year capital plan and continually work to identify sources of funding to complete items on that list, said Eldridge.
A project that has been in the works for some time involves the development of a senior center within a portion of the building currently occupied by the Access Agency on Main Street. Currently, said Eldridge, resident seniors meet in several different locations, although the existing McSweeney Center does provide a viable meeting location.
“We’d like to get all of those groups together under one roof,” said Eldridge. “And we’d like to get more seniors involved.” The Access building would provide a central location, close to shopping and other amenities. “We’ve been trying for at least a year to work with Access to get a senior center in there,” said Eldridge. As the town works with the state to try to identify funds to bring the plan to fruition, Eldridge said that it’s part of his job to help facilitate that process. “It is important, especially with the state, that the mayor remains in contact,” he said.
Regarding one of the major contentious issues currently facing the town, Eldridge said that he doesn’t hear much from the public. More than two years ago, the state installed Special Master Steven Adamowski in Windham to help deal with declining test scores and other issues. Since then, Adamowski has rapidly instituted major changes within the district that have left many teachers, parents and students reeling.
“The school is a whole separate entity from the town hall,” said Eldridge, explaining why he believes he doesn’t hear much from the public regarding the issue. A proposed change, which would consolidate the finance departments of the town and the school, would change that to some degree, said Eldridge - which he envisions as a positive development. “I think that will bring both entities together to be able to talk,” he said. Regarding the rapid changes being made within the school district, Eldridge sees both positives and negatives. “I think [Adamowski] is trying to make a difference,” he said. “I can see some things being implemented that are working well.”
As he moves into his new four-year term as the mayor of Windham, Eldridge sees himself interacting with the public as much as possible. “I think my role is to be here to talk to people,” he said. “They might not like the decisions being made, but as long as people are here to listen, they’re okay.” When residents come to him with questions, said Eldridge, “I answer their questions the best I can. I don’t always have the answers that they want to hear, but it’s very important that they have someone listening.”