These are my notes from the forum tonight at the IBEW Hall. I will not pretend to be impartial. Etel Haxhiaj is hands down the best candidate in this race. You can ote for her or you can vote for Yenni. Once you read the notes, you’ll see what I mean.
Forum moderators: Gary Rosen, Melissa Hanson (MassLive), Ben White (Radio Worcester)
Gary had noted that there were masks available and that people who might not want to wear them because of medical reasons or personal choice don’t need to. One person applauded for “personal choice.” And this is why we’ve been where we’ve been for the past eternity.
Interpretation in Spanish and English tonight. (I think this is the first candidate forum I’ve ever experienced this!)
Electeds in the building: Matt Wally, Khrystian King, Moe Bergman
Other notables: Bill Coleman
Melissa Hanson introduces the candidates.
Yenni: throughout entire life, natural problem-solver. As project manager in video game industry as well as small business owner. About time we fix infrastructure in timely manner instead of just talking about it. Follow example of other small cities similar to Worcester. Every problem has a solution. (Applause when she removes her mask. These people are irritating me to no end.) Expensive consultants have not suited us. This will be her full-time job. Vote for her is for tech/policies to make a mid-sized city great.
Etel: in 1997, she left Albania as a result of political violence. As mother, as proud Albanian-American, as community leader. Has knocked on thousands of doors to include all neighborhood, solutions that will benefit all of us. Worked as legal advocate in attorney general’s office, worked against rate hikes, natural gas leaks; fair, free, reliable, sustainable mass transit that works for us. SCIENCE, FACTS, and DATA. All of us should be included in all decision-making. New leaders who will work collaboratively, protect open spaces, make communities safer, greener, and healthier.
Q: Democracy in action. This is what makes America great. Should all work together. Has spent 35 years volunteering for children in various little leagues. Longest-serving member in Cable Commission. Only candidate that will lower property taxes. Has a plan proposed in 2017 – through business community, neighborhood associations – to create new revenues. Taxes are going up. He has filed three home rule petitions. He can turn $22 million around to save homeowner from increase in taxes. No training period with him.
Greg S: Has lived in Worcester for 17 years. Has 9 children, 15 grandchildren, 4 great-grands. Served in Mass State Police and is now retired. Focus completely on district 5. Best city in the region. As a retiree, he can devote 100% of his time to his community. He has given out his personal cell phone number. He doesn’t plan on just listening, get quicker resolution for things that have not been done in the past. Lowest residential tax rate. Safety in neighborhoods, parks, streets, fully funding WPD. Speeding, potholes, cracks, on roads.
(Mayor Joe Petty arrives)
90 seconds to answer – 60 second responses – original candidate 30 seconds
Q from Hanson to Yenni: COVID pandemic has brought issues for small business owners. How will you support, esp with your experience?
Yenni: lack of outreach in finding right people for right jobs. A lot of people are looking at what their next career is going to be. MassJobs, CareerCentral. Collaboration between business. When she had someone who wasn’t quite right for her company, she would refer to another business that might be able to hire the person. Chamber can help with collaboration.
Etel: small businesses have suffered greatly during pandemic. Has yet to see plan for ARPA money to support mom and pop shops, can also help low-wage workers along with small business owners. Need capital access for them. City has done good job for incubators – make sure that those resources are accessible to everyone.
Q: downtown core has not impacted neighborhood. Main South has mini-City Hall. That’s something we need in all the districts. Need a voice that will advocate for that.
Greg: [needs question repeated] Fight for District 5 to get fair share of those funds because we have been out in the cold for a while. Work together with entire city council.
Yenni: need to retrain, for potential employees to be aware of new positions. People in community should have common job board.
Q from White to Etel: public transpo. What to improve/add, how to pay for?
Etel: Fair, free, reliable, sustainable WRTA. Has been catching a lot of steam across the country. Needs to be part of the economic development policy. For every dollar spent, $4 comes back. COVID related funds helped sustain suspension of fares. Sustains local economy, all riders, makes sure that we have neighborhoods that are connected, reduce traffic, increase walkability.
Q: Spag’s isn’t giving out tomatoes any more. [Editorial note: actually, Whole Food does…] Towns need to pay their fair share. Will not provide free bus fares when that is the responsibility of the state.
Greg: took WRTA this morning, new, clean, driver was very personable. Driver said need designated area and kiosks that are well-lit and safe for riders who need assistance getting on. What is cost to taxpayer for the future?
Yenni: hub and spoke model without a wheel. Aside from northeastern ones that go to the hospital – no connections in middle – WRTA needs to recalibrate and expand routes. Rt 19 used to go up to Airport Business Park – just goes to Leicester now. Could have a loop from airport to Rt 2. Rt 8 could go up/down Park Ave.
Etel: fare free buses do NOT benefit only a certain segment of the population. $3 million to have fare boxes, maintain; WRRB stated some ways that we could cobble together funds from fed, state, local business. Public transit is a public good that benefits all neighborhoods, including district 5.
Q to Q from Rosen: 1 penny sales tax. Sales tax could be considered a regressive tax. Would be good policy?
Q: Didn’t come to this in a vacuum. We don’t get our fair share back from Boston. Opportunity that we have to keep revenue here. Will it serve a purpose for everybody? Yes. Sitting on a shelf in city hall. Also wants state to pay for state-owned buildings [in tax?], and a $10 surcharge on renting cars.
Greg: no rise in sales, property, or commercial tax for him. He would not vote for this. [I think this is the end of the statement.]
Yenni: correct that it is a regressive tax. Would not vote for this. If it were to act like VAT (not to groceries, toothpaste, personal needs), perhaps.
Etel: how does this impact those who struggle the most? They need to spend less on transpo, affordable housing, benefits from development projects: we raise up families by taking multi-pronged approach.
Q: Groceries are not taxable. Lowest affordable tax rate means your taxes are going up. He will ensure that your taxes will go down.
Q for Greg from Hanson: lower speed limit? More traffic enforcement?
Greg: people don’t read the signs to begin with. More efficient, and MORE, traffic enforcement.
Yenni: multiple accidents in the district that involve kids being put in the hospital recently. Reduce speed limit by 5 mph has many benefits. At 25 mph, you can really tell if someone is speeding. Traffic enforcement = getting grants from state to do speed enforcement. Get more $$ from state.
Etel: 2 mothers at West Tatnuck meeting spoke about how their kids are affected by speeding. Slow streets are safer; supports 25 mph. Traffic enforcement – one box solution. City of Boston wants automatic enforcement of red light cameras and speed cameras – reduces reliance on police officers.
Q: At West Tatnuck meeting, nothing has been done. It was four weeks ago, and the state has done nothing. (This is 122 from Atlas on) We don’t have enough police officers.
Greg: sign is only as good as the person who stands behind the sign. Compliance needs to be enforced.
Q from White for Yenni: Worcester Renaissance. How can everyone benefit?
Yenni: lack of funds allocated to our areas. Webster Square has a lot of businesses that need buildings torn down. Need to implement business districts. Amazing success. Get buildings reused and updated. Tatnuck is having a lot of benefit and regrowth. Do more to help with water problems – storm drains. Neighbors have had a swimmable portion of water in their backyard.
Etel: Renaissance belongs to all of us, in all districts. Would love to see city spend ARPA $$ to support businesses. Every developer that comes to Worcester needs to benefit D5. Why aren’t we talking to Sam Adams (owner of former Big D lot) the way that we are offering incentives to Mt Carmel?
Q: mentions that Gary and Matt Wally brought the Big D lot to the forefront. A lot of complaining about student housing.
Greg: safe neighborhoods. Fix under the street, and then fix the street. [Literally, this is what he said. I tend to summarize but he is literally giving 5 second answers.]
Yenni: focus that city manager has given has not been adequate. Advocacy at state level – we need appropriate amount of funds actually coming to us.
Question for Etel from Gary: police reform. What reform measures, if any, would you like to see city adopt?
Etel: fully supports CM’s executive orders. Looks forward to having WPD that is accountable, transparent. Police reform at state level will come to Worcester. Looks forward to having WPD be accountable to the people.
Q: adequately fund – increase to 450 police officers.
[Wayne Griffin tries to interrupt. Screw off, Wayne]
Greg: fully funded, fully staffed. He has experience at this. Based on experience, you need a team effort. Those problems don’t exist here like they do in Minneapolis.
Yenni: wants to pursue which Defund measures work for us. Death in 1991 was very similar – heard about it at neighborhood watch meeting. We may need to re-plan, doesn’t think cameras will do anything. Mental health education for police dept.
Etel: what makes our streets safe is having adequate housing for people, provide supportive services for chronically homeless people, feed people, provide support for those struggling with addiction, etc. No one in this room says that we should have no police. (There was more, it was very good.)
Question for Q about Doherty being on time, on budget (sorry, missed it)
Q: need to be involved more. Proper oversight.
Greg: if the school is needed, allocate resources and get the job done.
Yenni: chronic issue of things not getting done on time and on budget. Projects should be kept on top of more. Future projects: ensure incentives for construction companies to get things done on time and on budget. Equity issues need to be addressed going forward.
Etel: our neighbors need to be kept abreast. They feel decisions get made without input, they are the last to know things. Let parents/teachers/kids know, include everyone in process.
Q: penny sales tax (out of state sales tax). They also need a practice field.
Question for Greg from White about tax – changing multi-family to commercial.
Greg: doesn’t support raising taxes on everything. He can’t give an intelligent answer because he’s not up on it and needs to study.
Yenni: owner of a three-family. Does not feel a three-family is a commercial property when you own one. Differentiation between those who own multiple properties vs an owner-occupied. During pandemic, one of neighbors had tenant with trouble paying rent. Would put burden on owner-occupied.
Etel: small-scale landlords had trouble during pandemic. Small-scale landlords are not the problem. Look at commercial properties (more than 5 building properties) could bring extra revenue. Landlords and renters – we need to create pathway to homeownership and look at racial disparities that have prevented people of color from paths to prosperity (not her words, sorry, she’s too good and I can’t type that fast)
Q: this is another thing on the mayor’s task force. Will stand up for homeowners and renters.
Greg: agrees with Q
Question from Gary to all candidates, 1 minute: dismal turnout for D5 prelim election expected. Why don’t voters see importance of prelim/municipal elections?
Yenni: switch to ranked choice voting [boos from crowd] – we would have one election. This person is my #1 choice, this person would be OK. For municipal race, can drop age to 16. [crowd is incredulous – Yenni asks to be able to speak – GOOD FOR HER – these people are philistines, no offense to Philistines] – mock voting in every single high school for every single election. Teach people what the city council does for them.
Etel: our residents feel disconnected. Whether we’re talking about Duffy, Lakeside, Doherty – residents feel they do not come first. Early voting increases turnout. We turned down 16 year old voting. Our campaign has reached voters in different language. Everyone deserves a seat at the city council.
Q: Ranked choice: solution in search of problem. absolutely against 16 year old voting. He points to Steve Foskett, who he says is not doing his job (Steve is standing in for all the media).
Greg: reach out to young people via the social media.
Q to all from Hanson: vote with conscience or vote with the majority of the district?
Etel: both. Councilors need to have conscience, ask tough questions. D5 is not in isolation – we have a responsibility to have people who care about everyone, include everyone in community planning, etc
Q: you can’t have a straw poll every time something comes up.
Greg: he agrees with Q. Here to represent what people have had on their minds. He’s not going to vote his conscience.
Yenni: combination needed. Go out into community and get information proactively. If seeing mixed results, need to go with conscience. If you see something detrimental to community, vote against it.
Candidates can ask questions of another candidate. Untimed. [ULTIMATE GARY FANTASY]
Greg to Etel on subsidized housing in district.
Etel: by day she works in the housing world. Lakeside faces quite a bit of issues. There can never be enough housing for people of all income levels. The city is becoming inaccessible, unaffordable for many people. Wants a path to homeownership for all, black/brown people should be able to get a mortgage. People should be able to buy or rent a home and be free from debt.
Q: a lot of housing is more affordable. Market-rate. There has to be an equilibrium there. But we have to open up the doors.
Yenni: She agrees with Etel almost entirely. Encourage changes to zoning to allow multi-family and mixed-use. We need more housing in the city. A lot of single-family homes and a lot of empty lots.
The next question is for Q.
He asks Etel about increasing WPD numbers. Increase to 425?
Etel: More police will not bring safety – police should focus on violent crime. People struggling with complex issues that are not helped by police. Why should we expect police officers to do everything? Make our officers’ job easier by not expanding their role.
Yenni: when people think about crime, they immediately think police. Improve lighting, adding tree coverage and places where kids need to play. Cutting down foliage so that police can quickly see homeless folks. Need to understand why people turn to crime – address cause not symptom.
Greg: strongly supports increasing the numbers because of number of people in city. In 2013, Boston Marathon bombing. He was there when “we captured those people.” He received a commendation for that.
Question goes to Etel.
Etel to Greg: the next city councilor will need to work in coalitions with community members, city manager, other councilors. I have worked with various coalitions. What is your experience working in coalitions, either in pandemic or before?
Greg: during pandemic, was retired and focused on spat between children. Has worked with many different police, sheriff’s depts, corrections, prisoners. He can work with anyone.
Q: has been volunteering since he’s been 18. When you work together, great things can be accomplished. He has been attending neighborhood group meetings for a long time. Coalition or not, working together.
Yenni: lack of willingness for those at two opposite ends of spectrum to get together. Her family is complete Trump fans, she can still meet with them and discuss things rationally. Being able to sit down at a table with those who disagree with them is an important quality – everyone up here has that quality.
Yenni’s question: wants to see us use technology in an appropriate way. Community engagement/understanding. What to do to increase transparency? (Directed at Q)
Q: Asks what information in particular. Yenni responds with Hillside Beach. Planning Board sends you a note if you’re an abutter. With virtual meetings, we are expanding those who attend. Need to open door to those who can get in. Virtual meetings are way forward.
Yenni: that is passive, can you explain more on the outreach?
Q: well, that’s the answer. [Yes, isn’t it!]
Etel: city has ARPA sessions that are not accessible by public transpo, at dinner time, not livestreamed, etc. Provide childcare, make sure everyone has access to information. People are not engaged because they feel that city is not paying attention to their needs.
Greg: media is a tool that should be used. Would have satellite meetings in wards/districts. Send them out mailing in their language.
Final statements – I will only type things of note.
Greg is the only candidate that is retired and has a lot of time on his hands. Will vote for lowest residential tax rate. Also lowest business tax rate.
Q: top-down from city administration. We need to set pace and agenda. Bubble up from the district councilor. He’s a moderate centrist. That’s what the time needs.
Etel: We have run a positive, grassroots campaign, including commonsense solutions that seek to benefit everyone. Rumors about her family. She is a registered Democrat, not a communist. Climate change is real. Her grandfather was a liberator from nazis and fascism in Albania. Serving others is the highest good. She has worked hard with humility and persistence because serving others is her purpose. Compassion, inclusive solutions.
Yenni: Running for city council – solutions that make the most sense financially and socially. Tech/automation will change city and country as a whole. We can save money, increase efficiency. This will be her primary job – this job will go to someone who has time required to run second-largest city in New England. You can book a 1-on-1 meeting with her at her website. Open office hours next Monday.