Worcester Mayoral Candidate Forum – October 23

My notes for the Research Bureau/Chamber of Commerce/Mechanics Hall Mayoral Candidate Forum

80-90 attendees (I think many more as the debate wore on)

Moderators: Tony Simollardes, Kelly Momberger, Ike McBride

Tony Economou, Ben Straight, Dianna Biancheria, State Rep O’Day, Paul Giorgio, Hank Stolz, Vin Pedone, Khrystian King, Brian O’Connell in the audience

Opening Statement from Lukes: conventional wisdom tells us that few candidates means few voters.  Failure of democracy.  Before you, two seasoned candidates, one a current mayor, one a prior.  City at political, economic, educational crossroads.  Political – while we are Plan E, this is very partisan/political.  Will there be checks and balances, independent political thought, in future Council?  Educational – public schools all too often ignored, public education will be one of real civil rights issues in the future.  Economic – impact of Amazon, PawSox, tax-exempt institutions, downtown.

Opening Statement from Petty: Atmosphere in city has changed for the positive, people want to be in the city.  Public art has really taken off (Pow! Wow!), projects should include public art.  Yellow bikes bring vitality to city, food trucks, more restaurants opening.  100 events at the Common, last this Saturday. Festivals, 2 dog parks.  Open and welcoming community. Solar array, LED lights, urban ag policy.  Bond rating is one of the highest it’s ever been.

Q1 to Petty: mass transit.  With limited state funding and little ridership, WRTA cut routes and increased fares.  New nonstop commuter rail service is struggling due to inconvenient hours.  What is the future of public transportation in Worcester?

Petty: WRTA has always been issue, tough with level state funding.  Still have to advocate for federal and state level.  Trains: express train.  Over 20 trains going back and forth, can work on the times.  Investing in platform, which would increase train capacity.  Every city and town needs to invest.  The airport has taken off.

Lukes: When we look at MBTA, employment agency masquerading as transportation network.  State needs to abolish and start from scratch.  Fixed routes for WRTA is obsolete.  Uber, Lyft, other boutique services destroying our taxi system but will help fill a need (paraphrase)

Petty: Uber/Lyft: certain people think low-income people need bus service, look at how they complement each other.

Q2 to Lukes, creative city.  Recent report: financial impact that arts have had on local economy.  How would you build arts/intellectual capital? How would you build rep?

Lukes: we have a great art museum, relatively recent that we have an arts rep.  Her issue with Pow! Wow! was that artists were not paid a salary and that not enough locals were used.  More aggressive with arts in public ed: function of overregulation by state in local public schools that we don’t fund it enough.  Lukes has taken classes at art museum and museum of Russian icons.  Buildings can be form of art, knocking down historic bldgs.  impacts that.

Petty: Old Boys Club, Sprinkler Factory.  Need housing for people in arts.  Fund to support the arts. WPS dedicate WAMS, Burncoat, Hanover School of the Arts.  10 weeks of teaching at middle school (unclear what he was talking about)

Lukes: Sports/Arts/Entertainment Authority was something she had advocated for.  We have headed in that direction but with several vehicles.

Petty: should invest further into arts via Community Block Grant money.  Opportunities in schools.  Use shipping containers for…[not quite sure.  Something with arts!]

 

Q3, to Petty: tax policy committee to expand revenue streams, to decrease dependence on property tax.

Petty: Budget caps, services in schools.  After the election is over, will have serious discussions.  Independent sales tax.  Multi-unit housing, good points/bad points.  Community Preservation Act – we do not currently participate.

Lukes: that report came out last March.  Sitting in committee ‘til now, then we passed the buck to City Manager.  She wanted debate on Council floor, no one is taking a stand before the election because no one wants to take a stand on creating new taxes.

Petty: came out end of last year.  [So, only been held about a year?]  This is to substitute property tax, which is one of the most unfair taxes in the state [really?]

Lukes: if you weren’t afraid of discussing it, then we could have discussed it on the Council floor.  If anyone thinks we’re going to lower taxes by implementing these, I don’t have a bridge I can sell you, but I’ll find one.

Petty: attempts to recover

Lukes: we shouldn’t compare ourselves to Auburn.

[Finally, we’re getting a little spicy!]

Q4, to Lukes: immigration. Is Worcester a sanctuary city and would you propose changes to policy?

Lukes: yes, we are a sanctuary city.  Using word “immigration” deceptive.  We pick and choose which laws to obey.  DACA, demanding enforcement, but avoiding enforcement of immigration laws.  We need to be consistent.  Congress has been cowardly in addressing immigration reform.

Petty: we follow the same laws Mass State Police follow, Somerville follows, Commonwealth’s laws.  WPD does not enforce immigration laws.  It’s just not Worcester or Massachusetts.  We could call ourselves a sanctuary country.  WPD will work with ICE, but he will not divide the community.  Children are afraid to go to school, to create fear is irresponsible.

Lukes: victim mentality is raised.  She is child of immigrants, understands insecurity that follows when you don’t know if safe in new homeland.  Cannot go to fearmongering.

Petty: Fearmongering when you try to divide and scare people.  Will continue to advocate for everyone in the city. Community relations is important for any police dept.

Lukes: issue is so emotional – difficult to deal with without looking like you are opposed to certain people.  No one is trying to solve the problem, congressional delegation needs to deal with so this misunderstanding isn’t perpetuated.

Q5, to Petty: PawSox [sorry, Nicole cannot deal with one more Pawtucket question.  You try going to 5 million debates and see how YOU feel!]  How far should city go in offering $$ and other incentives?

Petty: supportive, mentions DIFs, City Manager is currently negotiating.  This is a wonderful project.  Cleaning up brownfields.  We’ve been waiting years.  PawSox have EconDev arm.  This would bring us to the next level as a city.  This would have to be passed by Worcester City Council.  [he is not committing to anything – all part of the CM’s negotiations]

Lukes: skeptical of the negotiations.  Used as a pawn to leverage negotiations in RI.  Everyone would want them here, would be positive in Canal District.  But be wary that we are being led down path that is a dead end.

Petty: believes in his heart that they aren’t using us.  Right time, right place.

Lukes: same subject came up, it was dormant for two years, now it’s up again, will it happen again in two more years?

Petty: it came up ten years ago

Lukes: we have an item on the agenda from 2015

Q6, to Lukes: argued against mixed-use zones.  How to embrace AirBNB, ride share, mobile technology?

Lukes: need to enforce zoning laws.  Mentions “home business” across from Doherty.  Does nothing except inspire other property owners to be zoning law scofflaws.  Buildings are public art.  We need to make sure that our city should have features that people will want to visit and appreciate.

Petty: most home businesses comply with zoning laws.  As technology increases, will have to wrestle with.  AirBNB is an issue, need to look at that.  These should be respectful.

Lukes: pass

Petty: pass

Q7, to Petty: over past few years, City Council has rarely spoken with unified voice.  How to engage colleagues, unify, bring consensus.  What role does mayor play in mediating disagreements?

Petty: most major issues, 8-3, 7-4, that’s democracy.  We let people complain about anything and everything.  Open Meeting Law prevents elected officials from talking with one another beforehand.  No apologies to make on how things are handled.

Lukes: many votes had a clear minority, which has shrunk to one.  Concerned about the way there is no real discussion among the colleagues.  When she was mayor, had retreat away from City Hall with Mass Municipal Org.  New superintendent did the same, valuable to do.

Petty: that’s also subject to the Open Meeting Law.  If you don’t like someone, vote them out of office.  People want to come here and invest, credits that to the City Council.

Lukes/Petty pass on further comments.

 

Q8, to Lukes: many residents remember downtown’s vitality in days of yore.  Question about pedestrian friendliness.

Lukes: finally have consensus about urban design review, which she has been advocating for for 8-10 years.  One of most difficult streets to traverse is Belmont Street.  Wanted to look at reducing speed on certain streets.  How are streets being used, complicated by misuse of streets and sidewalks by kids swerving on bikes.  Complicated issue of how bikes/pedestrians/public transpo/cars interact.

Petty: manager came out with street network improvements.  Invested in xwalks, lights, 2-3 million dollars.  Bump outs on Union Hill to slow traffic, number of calming effects we can use.  We’re on our way to becoming a bike city.

Lukes: we’re getting traffic division back in WPD.  We only do these things when there’s a crisis.  Use of cellphones, drugs, distracted driving, serious problem on roads, police are responding.

Petty: we don’t operated by crisis.  People speed everywhere in the city

Q9, to Petty: strong supporter of Ed Augustus.  Your opponent expressed concerns, said CM “needs improvement”.  What metrics do you use to evaluate?

Petty: are we being successful?  Most people in this room would say yes.  Public safety, trash removal, he’s doing a better job than I ever thought we could do.  We need to go back to goals/objectives.  This isn’t rocket science.  If things weren’t going right, he’d be the first one to say it.  Supports manager 1000% percent.  Quality of life issues are his metric.

Lukes: we don’t really like to evaluate people in a formal manner.  City Council used to evaluate auditor and clerk, stopped doing that.  When we look at how we deal with each other, on a very personal basis.  When she was mayor, picked only outsider for superintendent.  Was disappointed in internal reaction to her.

Lukes: we pick a politician to be our city manager.  She was the only one who picked Oscar Rodriguez, had 20 years experience, degrees from MIT and Harvard, but he wasn’t good enough for us.

Petty: Ed Augustus can pick up the phone and call the State House, not just a politician, cares about city.

Q10, to Lukes: people of color more represented in WPS than in city as a whole.  What should WPS do to adapt to address changing demographics?  Strategic plan for public ed – how should promote thriving school district?

Lukes: when she hired Super Boone…Worcester is going through major cultural change.  Regardless how close we are to each other, have to look beyond that and serve needs of community.  Need people in charge who reflect community.  That said, two white people in front of you.  We have to be much more aggressive in terms of votes we take and hiring.  If we’re here to be popular, no business being elected to anything.

Petty: to tell the truth, the teachers do a wonderful job.  Need to address foundation budget and disparity urban systems have.  Put a lot of resources in the schools.

Lukes: we’ve gotten off track.  Do you want us to discuss the goals for the school committee?  (Simollardes repeats second question – Lukes says it will take more than 60 seconds.)  Four high schools are level three, at brink of major problems, we’ve been mentioning foundation budget for years.  We have had Union Hill, turned around to a successful school.  Principal replaced, teachers replaced, community put together a plan, with $700,000/year.  No foundation budget needed for that.

Petty: foundation budget from 1990s.  hasn’t kept up with inflation.  Strategic plan: Ch 70 funding, technology, existing programs, how additional funding should be spent, keep tech high school open at night

Q11, to Petty: Worcester’s tax rates among highest in Commonwealth.  What should be done to address relatively high cost of taxes in Worcester?

Petty: closing gap [between residential and business] good.  Look at tax dollars, not highest for valuation purposes.  We’re 13/14 under the cap, in a few years 20 under the cap.  Waiting for growth figure to come out, because you’ll see great growth via TIFs.  Income tax is “recessive” especially for the elderly.

Lukes: we’re going to address it after the election, though.  We have $20 million in excess revenues right now.  Contradiction in terms, prevents us having a conversation right now.  People willing to commute from Worcester to Boston.  We can be affordable.  We don’t have to raise taxes mayor is talking about.

Petty: nobody cut anything out of the budget.  $9 million in spare cash, going towards seven point plan [sorry, been out of it, have we added two points?]  New growth will go back to taxpayers.

Lukes: mayor asked me not to bring up excess revenues because of EAW negotiations.  Everything postponed to after the election.

Petty: we have money, will give back to the taxpayers.

Q12, to Lukes: in his budget proposal, CM proposed citywide master plan.  What is role of master plan?  Why update necessary?  What do you hope to achieve?

Lukes: last master plan filed in the waste paper basket.  Doesn’t have hopes, master plans depend on changing circumstances.  Can’t have strategic plan for school system, then have another plan based on other issues.  We have to know who’s living here, when we deal with issues of neighborhoods as opposed to downtown, poverty rate, need for housing, schools becoming surrogate parents, esp when doing kids’ laundry in school.  Folks that do master plans have rigid formula, never seems to change.

Petty: going into neighborhoods, have had master plans for parks, find out issues and where investment $ should go.  If you come up with plan, and not put it on the shelf, will move it forward as mayor.

Lukes: pass

Petty: pass

Q13, to Petty: numerous boards and commissions have vacancies and difficulties filling quorums.  Are residents apathetic?  What role does mayor play to engage public?

Petty: doing a wonderful job.  This will be his 11th election.  Political atmosphere – why would anyone run today?  If you are a newcomer and have to take on criticism from social media and personal attacks, prevents them from running.  Goes into different parts of community, encourages folks to participate.  Diversity growing every day.

Lukes: overdosed on politics from national to local scene.  People turning off, democracy not working.  Anonymous trolls on social media, frightening.  Has had political stalker for 10 years, chose to ignore, on  a personal level, it is troublesome.

Petty: next time you will see a lot more candidates of diverse background.

Q14 and final question, to Lukes: public safety important issue in urban centers.  We contend with more crime than the ‘burbs.  Is Worcester safe?  What can be done to improve safety?

Lukes: police have been criticized.  Taken a toll on them personally.  When DoJ came, she suggested civilian review board, another one of those 10-1 votes.  We have a very active group of community crime watch meetings.  Participation by the public makes a world of difference.  We do have provision in charter for community forms of gov’t, never implemented.  Direct contact with police officers have encouraged mutual trust and cooperation.

Petty: I do think we are a safe city.  Community policing always a key objective.  Summer impact, mounted patrol, foot patrol, youth violence prevention program.  A couple hundred people working every day with the youth.

Final statements:

Lukes: anyone listening to this conversation: Worcester has split personality. High poverty rate, serious opiate addiction, public ed vs. downtown development.  Situation can’t just be defined as rebirth of city when we have 20 vacant storefronts downtown.  New businesses not being addressed.  Can’t just be food and entertainment.  What about the trades?  If we’re going to be honest about renaissance, need to look at everything.  Hopes attendees don’t misunderstand her views on immigration.  She’s not here to be popular.

Petty: knows city is going in the right direction.  CM and Super bringing city to the next level.  Buy-in in the city like never before.  Look at Railers.  Mercantile Center.  Hotels.  Leadership matters, nothing wrong with a restaurant job but we have created more than that.  Jobs at 150 Blackstone.  UMass putting technology center downtown, 300 jobs.  You’d be surprised how many manufacturing jobs there are in the city.

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