GROTON — Groton Town Council members unanimously elected Juan Melendez Jr. as mayor in a single round of voting on Tuesday night.
After a stalemate at their first meeting as a new council last week, two councilors whose names were previously in play for mayor— Aundré Bumgardner and John “Scott” Westervelt — took their names out of the running, narrowing the field to Portia Bordelon, Rachael Franco and Melendez.
Portia Bordelon, who was the highest vote-getter in November’s election — after petitioning to have her name included on the Democratic primary ballot when her party did not include her name on the slate — initially said she felt that she or Bumgardner should have a clear path to be mayor. After Bumgardner, who was the second-highest vote-getter in November, removed his name, she encouraged the council to vote for her but added that she was willing to change her vote depending on the council discussion, adding that the local Democratic party needed to find a way to unify itself.
“The change has to happen within the party, in the town, in the town government and in the municipality at large… I think we have to find a way to work together and that’s what I hope the outcome will be but the divide has to stop and we have to move forward,” she said.
Bumgardner said he wanted to make it abundantly clear that he and Bordelon were willing to compromise and urged the council to consider broader issues facing the town.
“It’s incumbent on all of us to put our egos aside and come together to tackle things related to climate change, addressing the 15-inch sea level we may get by 2050, ensuring that we pave a responsible path forward for the Mystic Oral School. The list goes on and on and I’m committed to working with each and every one on this council. Most importantly the mayor will be tasked with really unifying this council for the long haul so that we can again do the people’s work,” he said.
Rachael Franco, who was reelected to a third term in November, said the purpose of the position of mayor was to chair the council meetings, to be fair and to apply the council rules properly. She said the council needed to work on unifying itself as a body.
“I think we need to put some of the issues from the primary or the general election behind us and move forward and selecting the mayor is one of the ways we have to do that — that person will chair our meetings ultimately and that is the goal,” she said.
Melendez said that he believed he was uniquely positioned to create an environment where the council could get along.
“There’s no hiding it, there’s some divisions amongst our ranks,” he said.
Melendez said there had been discussion amongst the council members about making Bordelon deputy mayor or mayor pro tem, who would preside if the mayor was not available — Melendez said he would support the idea and encouraged council members to do the same.
When Bordelon asked Franco if she supported the concept of a deputy mayor, Franco said she was not sure the rules would allow it.
“I think, regardless, there is always a possibility of an informal way to do it. It doesn’t have to be part of our rules… it could be an informal agreement of a sort to work together and which I have offered to you,” Franco answered.
Town attorney Eileen Duggan, of Suisman Shapiro, said that the town rules had no separate provision for creating an “office” of deputy mayor without modifying the town charter. Duggan said council had the ability to identify a person who could serve when the mayor is absent.
“There are processes and procedures, on a case-by-case basis, to identify somebody to serve as the mayor or chair of a particular meeting or a particular time in the mayor’s absence… you can certainly follow the rules and procedures to identify somebody at any given time to serve in that capacity when the mayor is absent,” said Duggan.
With little further discussion, one by one council members voted unanimously for Melendez.