WRRB/Chamber City Council Debate Notes

WoMag Liveblog is here.

Sorry, got here a touch late

Moderators: Kevin O’Sullivan, Kola Akindele, Ellen Dunlap

Opening statement

Bergman: born in 1963 to penniless immigrants who came here in 1949.  Great city had great opportunities.  Worcester’s about real people.  Looks at opportunities he & his parents have, wants his children to have same opportunities.

Coleman = William S. Coleman III.  Came to Worcester in 1973 to become a priest at Holy Cross.  (You already know the story of his life — do I need to repeat it?)  Has run for office since 1979.

Gaffney: As Mike Tyson says, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”  [Personally, Nicole prefers “I’m a lover, not a fighter.”]  Ideals are important, have to be willing to suffer slings and arrows.  No room for cheerleaders standing on the sidelines.

Gomez: 30 years of service to country, state, community.  Came here in 1974 with his mother and siblings.  Left and came back in 1980.  By time he was 16, had moved 16 times.  He chose Worcester because Worcester chose him.  Effective elected official, proven executive experience.  Only candidate with a comprehensive economic plan — read it!

King: First generation American, family came here from Bermuda.  Siblings & he were taught to serve.  Participated in a program sponsored by Prospect House as a high school students.  Has two master’s degrees.  Need community voice to round out the Council.

Lukes: Like everyone else here, I’m applying for a job.  Served on City Council, School Committee, 3 years as mayor.  She, too, is the child of immigrants.  Next few years for city will be shaky, defined by new residents and technology.  Gov’t has to be able to adapt and get city ready.  Quotes from her statement on deciding to run.  “History will be kind to me…because I’m going to write it.”  – Winston Churchill  Hopes everyone here will have opportunity to write it.

Parham: has been in city for 18 years.  Not just coming from a feel-good perspective.  A lot of issues city is facing, but city is representation of what rest of the country looks like.  When she came here, she didn’t understand the system.  Got education, moved herself forward from homelessness.  We need to get representation of CC that looks like representation of the city.  (Crowd claps, murmurs of approval)

Petty: outlines great progress of the city.  None of this will be new if you have read any other liveblogs.

Sargent: Raised in city, WPS, SPM, Worcester State.  Represents a young, motivated generation.  (I hate to note this, but he was a bit stilted and probably should have prepped a bit more.)

Toomey: “I’m Kate Toomey and I’m one of you.”  Kids went to WPS.  (From the audience, Siri says, “Sorry, I’m not sure what you mean.”)  First woman chair of Public Works subcom, need to support neighborhood development.

Wally: eminently qualified, you know the routine.  Sorry, been to too many debates.

Zlody: “My name is Christina Zlody, but you can call me Tina.”  Would like to thank the Tims, and Mechanics Hall, for putting on this event.  We need to stop being like Sisyphus.  Push the ball up the top of the hill, push it over the other edge.  stART on the Street has given her experience with parks, DPW, etc.  Main thing she has come to understand is that Worcester needs to say Yes more, to small businesses, to entrepreneurship, to having college students stay here.

There are eleven different questions.  Each person will get one question, then four responders, rebuttal of 30 seconds to original person.

Q1: some argue that city admin focuses too much on downtown to detriment of neighborhoods.  Balance between downtown and neighborhoods.

King: Worcester is a city of neighborhood, that’s what we’re known for.  [A PART OF ME HAS JUST DIED.  AGAIN.]  Target tax incentives for neighborhoods, businesses that hire disadvantages employees.  Believes we can develop economy from inside out.

Bergman: Downtown important, doesn’t think there’s a magic formula.  Thinks home/business combo zoning was probably a mistake in zoning laws (in terms of business tenants downtown).  Rising tide carries all ships.

Toomey: Worcester is a cacophony of different things.   Link transpo from downtown to different neighborhoods.  We need to bring residents downtown.  Support business districts in the neighborhoods.  City full of neighborhoods — it’s who we are.

Sargent: Don’t focus on neighborhoods and not downtown — healthy neighborhoods & healthy downtown.  When we say Worcester is a city of neighborhoods, we’re talking about the people who make up the neighborhoods.  [I cannot type that phrase again, don’t make me!]

Gaffney: haven’t focused that much on downtown, have focused on large projects — trickle down theory isn’t working.  [Mike, I know you said that just for me so I could stop focusing on “city of neighborhoods”!]  Philly Plan, people.

King: brief rebuttal.

Q2: Bond ratings.  Currently, city’s bonds are highly rated, but not at highest prime level. $630mil in debt.  How can we improve bond ratings, etc.?

Petty: we have good bond ratings, and will continue to do so.  We have a five-point plan that outlines spending.  Need to increase tax revenues.  Has tax policy committee to look at increasing tax revenues.

Parham: when we look at safety of neighborhoods, transportation, schools, that will affect bond ratings.  Need to get people jobs.  That will begin to affect bond rating.

Gomez: key contributors to debt is unfunded pension liability.  Gives Gaffney credit, he (Gomez) has been talking about this for ten years.  HE HAS A PLAN, READ IT.

Wally: OPEB is the biggest factor for bond ratings, put money toward it on a yearly basis at budget time.

Lukes: OPEB — frankly, she doesn’t think we’ll ever pay it. When Hoover was here, he kept budget before tax levy so we have $10 mil to reach before we get to 2 1/2 limit.  Real developers do not find this an issue, want healthy, vibrant city.

Petty: thinks the council has been (fiscally) conservative in his time on the Council.

Q3: Council – oversight of manager and admin.  They provide comment after the fact, but provide no objectives/goals.  How to hold accountable?

Lukes: No way you can assess effectiveness of CM after 1-2 years.  How does civilization progress when you only have two year CC terms?  We do have goals, and city manager submits those accomplishments every year.  Most torturous ordeal every year is evaluation of CM, make it less combative and intense.  Some communities don’t do this in public, or do it written.  [Nicole would like to note that the whole thing could just be done as a written/public process.  And, no, they don’t have clear objectives.  And they didn’t evaluate the CM last year.]

Zlody: She is evaluated at her job every year.  Standards need to reflect growing/changing goals of city.  Are we attracting small business?

Bergman: Feels once a year is not enough, quarterly, privately, with annual evaluation would make sense.  He has 11 bosses, system isn’t perfect, best one we have.

Coleman: CM has held elective office.  He listens to the pulse of the community.  Private with public input.

Gaffney: has knocked on 6,000 doors.  It’s an insider thing, but no voters actually care about it.  Nothing in rules or charter concerning matrix of manager.  [Note that this should really be decided on by the Rules Committee – N.]  Has conversations with manager on monthly basis as do other councilors.

Lukes: 11 people on city council have direct communications with CM.  To make this an inflexible matrix that’s impossible for everyone to agree on will not be conducive to real problem-solving.

Q4: Concerns schools have not been adequately funded.  Would you support more $$ for schools, how to balance needs?

Toomey: agrees, schools need more funding.  Been working hard to do that, this yar especially.  Doors, windows, building new schools, they have the bricks and mortar thing down [no mention of MSBA], grants that are federally-funded, maybe help through governor.  What about PILOT?  Non-profits may be able to assist.

Gaffney: lost $2.7 million because of school choice.  When parents take kids out of schools, problem.  $1 million in bus audit, look at administrative costs, why does WPS have a spokesperson, put $$ in the classrooms.

Parham: when you invest in ed system, way of moving people out of poverty and moving them forward.

King: “As a front-line social worker”, the most important thing you can do is give at-risk youth opportunities to be successful.  Sent CM letter to provide afterschool programming in conjunction with colleges.

Sargent: need to use $$ in better ways.  We’re used to crappy buildings, need more teachers, more stuff to help the kids, need colleges to step up.  Advocating for this from day one.

Toomey: need community school model back, more teachers, and functional buildings.

Q5: Ellen Dunlap mentions Juan Gomez’s economic plan, appears to have actually read it.  WRA has been working with city for urban renewal plan for theater district.  Do you support urban renewal/eminent domain in this and for cases of blight/absentee landlords?

Gomez: “Hitting me where I like.”  [I think that was a bit personal, no?]  Need to replicate without the city.  I am not sure where he’s going, but he is very excited.  Work with property owners, eminent domain has been used very successfully and believes we would have to use it.

Petty: doesn’t look at eminent domain as a failure, another tool in the toolbox.  He has to be honest, very nervous about eminent domain, but he’s not afraid to use it.  CSX has the power of eminent domain as well.

Zlody: loved watching urban renewal downtown, eminent domain makes her very uncomfortable, absolute last resort.  Would need standards.

Wally: supports urban renewal plan.  [Note that I cringe every time I need to type “urban renewal]

King: Urban revitalization is great, eminent domain last resort.  Be creative with negotiation with land/property owners.

Gomez: just like Kilby/Gardner, could be very successful.

Q6: over the last few years, tension between admin and CC regarding certain tax incentives.  Secure certain outcomes related to benefits/employment.  what is appropriate place for CC in these?

Coleman: CC votes on TIFs, really important that Council stay above the law [first Steven Seagal reference of the night?].  Linkage program with econ development, with mall, etc., that blew $60 mil away and we saw little benefit.

Gomez: he asked with CitySquare about local jobs for local people.  Today it is not legal.  City admin could negotiate in good faith, worked very well in MedCity.

Lukes: would like to pick up with what Juan said, needs to be in the public.  One TIF was negotiated behind the scenes, in an elected official’s office, lack of credibility.  We have to compete with other cities.  What are we going to get for tax incentive?  We have to get jobs and accountability.

Sargent: believes tax incentives bring development to the city.  There will be enough work for everyone for a TIF.  Doesn’t believe in telling developers who should/n’t be working on a project.

Zlody: believes in tax incentives, Worcester should look at local, small businesses.  Not just Osgood Bradley, but Futon Company.  Should negotiate with orgs to give as many jobs to local people as possible.  Can we leverage job training?

Coleman: we need to create an “overabundance of job opportunities”

Q7: You advocated for home rule petition that would negate Dover Amendment.

Bergman: as attorney, ask was whether we would run afoul of fair housing.  If you open a business in a residential neighborhood, you change dynamic of neighborhood, neighbors should have a say in changes to their neighborhood.  Cambridge did this 30 years ago.

Wally: too many instances where non-profit chooses a site, doesn’t inform neighbors.  Motion was made so that conversation occurs.  Issues can be solved up front.

Gaffney: this comes up when he door-knocks.  A lot of people concerned about non-profits and services they provide.  Dover Amendment originally applied to educational institutions, Bergman was just asking for information.   Concern is if this pushes non-profits into neighborhoods like Main South.

Coleman: when you hear people talk about this, are we trying to keep some neighborhoods exclusive?  When Prospect House and Henry Lee Willis bought properties, made some uncomfortable.

Petty: issue has been coming up since he’s been on the Council.

Bergman: twice he’s heard the premise that it’s an illegal law, not opinion of solicitor, Cambridge amendment has stood the test of time.  Simply suggesting it’s available, have the conversation.  If a business moves in next door and you live in a residential neighborhood, you should have input.

Q8: About community engagement.

Parham: as a city councilor, she can be bridge between city hall and the community.  We keep talking immigrants, engage with individuals.  Does naturalization program right in this hall.  Obligation as citizen that you become involved in civic life.

King: If neighborhoods are ignored, they will not engage.  Demographics continue to change, we need to teach kids in history class as part of curriculum about government.  Start at middle school.  CC needs to show sensitivity to neighborhoods and residents.

Sargent: The schools are not the problem, they are the solution.  Register kids to vote before they graduate.  [Would not have helped Nicole, who was 17 at graduation]  Use high school students to go into communities to sign people to vote, to tell people today’s the day to vote.  “If a kid’s sleeping in my class,” you would blame me, not the student.

Toomey: Incredibly important to get out of box and go places you wouldn’t normally go to.  Mentions her use of Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, reach out to new residents.

Petty: diversity plan 75% complete, 15 high school students at polling locations, pamphlets in tax bill, mayor’s city academy in October, going into community is the most important thing.

Parham: good that we continue to get out.  When she got here, when you try to voice opinion, Council does not hear your voice.  When you feel that way, you will disengage from the civic process.

Q9: You have spent career focused on creative economy.  How to use arts, culture, creative community to solve social problems, drive econ dev?

Zlody: One of the primary ways is that arts bring everyone together.  You don’t need to speak Latin to watch someone do Latin dancing.  stART creates a community and synergy, people come under one umbrella.  Creates level of peace and community.  Small innovative organizations can be brought in to broaden tax base.

Coleman: arts have rebuilt many communities in New York.  We should continue to foster arts.

Wally: engage youth, many need emotional outlet.  Creative economy, economic development like in Providence.  Introduce makerspace, artists lofts in older industrial buildings.

Gomez: at Centro, employees have created an art therapy program to help 12 young people use arts to express themselves.  Work to replicate with music and other themes.  Government does not have a major role except to encourage it.  Will not have a creative economy if you keep electing the same people.  Current incumbents don’t think that way.

Toomey: former certified art therapist and art teacher.  Knows how cathartic it is for people.  Mentions Womens’ Industrial Union in Boston, do some more of that.

Zlody: Incubator model is correctly important, 97 Webster Street, Think Tank, Technocopia need to be supported.

Q10: Non-profits are exempt from local property taxes under state law.  You think they should contribute through PILOT.  How would you make that happen?  How would you assess a fair payment system?

Gaffney: we have hospitals, schools, a lot of non-taxable properties.  Surrounding communities disparage us, but their kids go to college in Worcester, they use Worcester hospitals, etc.  Gary Rosen mentioned student tax [actually, I thought this was Mike Germain?] and that brought colleges to the table in other places.  Some of the colleges can certainly contribute more.

Lukes: all new mayors are invited to seminars across country.  She was bemoaning this at one place, one mayor said he’d give his right arm to have that many colleges.  Need to see the value of these institutions.  We have been very effective with maintaining ties and asking non-profits to contribute to their needs.

Parham: Attended Clark, loves it dearly, but thinks it could do more.  About community development.  Hard decisions we must make, must go to colleges.

Bergman: 65% of us pay 100% of the taxes.  Adversarial relationship, no one thinks that non-profits don’t do wonderful things.   Mentions Boston’s system [remind me to link to a recent Globe article about it].  Be positive — my wife might not have married me if I asked “You don’t want to marry me, do you?” rather than “You want to marry me, don’t you?”

Gomez: they employ 10s of thousands of people.  Doesn’t agree with asking for PILOT.  Colleges are great pool for our future city residents.

Gaffney: starts talking law school stuff with Bergman.  Incentivize with parks, etc.

Q10: you have worked on affordable housing, much housing in Worcester is affordable.  Does Worcester have sufficient affordable housing, other questions I missed.

Wally: Worcester isn’t meeting housing needs, statistics show concentration of poverty does not help.  Surrounding towns should increase affordable housing, work with state to make sure it’s distributed equally.  Affordable market rents same as regular rents.  Individuals attracted to affordable housing because of quality of housing.  Private landlords need to put capital in housing.

Toomey: Winn Development’s Voke School, would like to see more opportunities there (like that?).  With market-rate housing, people come with disposable income, will create jobs.  Workforce housing, need to have affordable place to live.

Petty: look at different forms of homeownership, Union Hill police squad, inspectional services, etc.

Zlody: we have reached 10%, regional and statewide issue.  State needs to ensure that cities are not doing their share (versus the ‘burbs).

Coleman: affordable housing for who?  When he goes door-to-door, there are people into foreclosure, don’t have insurance, or money to repair, work with unions to improve properties.

Wally: Regional approach to issue that we want to make sure isn’t concentrated in Worcester.

Q11 (last question): You have spoken of issues of gang activity, safety.  What can city do re gangs, illegal drugs?  Should WPD wear body cameras?

Sargent: Yes, WPD should wear body cams, they want to wear them, community wants them to wear them.  Children need to be occupied from 3-6pm.  Need to have school activities, art, music, sports, colleges need to step up with tutoring.  DAs office said 800-1000 kids that identify with gangs; 200 hardcore gang members.  Give them activities so that they can choose another path.

Lukes: Public safety one of the foremost issue of the campaign.  Only one set of employees can threaten someone’s liberty, wants review board.  We are repeating same mistake where different agencies don’t affect one another.  Also, need more [drug] treatment.

King: we do a good job of community policing in the summertime.  Gang unit does a good job, need to do more.  Summer jobs and opportunities.  Fill void for afterschool programming in the community.

Parham: Body cams — good for police and citizens.  Need to give kids something to do in the “idle” hours.  We need to come up with structure for kids.

Bergman: jobs, after school activity, body cams appropriate and well-needed.  More science, more best practices.

Sargent: schools are not the problem, they are the solution.  Need meetings with related organizations.  “Everyone relax, we’re going to be fine.”

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