Although the first mayoral debate for the 2021 preliminary Gloucester election was void of crowds and chatter, there was plenty of deliberation between candidates.
The League of Women Voters of Cape Ann hosted the debate before a small group of guests and cameras Friday. All six candidates were able to speak on important topics such as the future of the blue economy, the wastewater treatment plan, responses to the novel coronavirus, and the relationship between mayor and staff.
“Our debates present all candidates directly to you, the voters, in a fair and equal format,” said moderator June Michales, who explained that the league is a non-partisan political organization for women and men and does not endorse individual candidates for public office.
1623 Studios streamed the debate on its Facebook page and on television.
The hottest topic, the virus
When asked how they might have responded to the COVID-19 pandemic differently than the administration of Mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken, candidates acknowledged that it was not an easy task.
John Harvey doesn’t fault the city at all in its response to the pandemic.
Going forward, he said he would heavily rely on the state for guidance as it has better access to the science.
“I would not go far beyond what they are currently mandating,” Harvey said.
Robert Russell stated that he would have closed the beaches as they — and neighboring streets — were inundated with people.
“We can do better. We needed to be protected from the pandemic,” he said, referencing the success of Barnstable County which closed its beaches to all non-residents last summer.
Francisco Sclafani said he would have created a “bounty,” similar to the state’s VaxMillions program, for anyone who chose to get vaccinated.
“You would see people coming out of the woodwork to get it if they knew they were getting some money for it,” he said.
Hygiene, hygiene and more hygiene is what Brian Pollard is advocating for, calling for a focus on encouraging people to wash their hands and social distance.
“One of the most important things we can focus on is cleanliness,” Pollard said, noting that while he is vaccinated it is the choice of every Gloucester resident whether they want to be vaccinated or not.
“This isn’t a battle of fact and fiction” former City Councilor Greg Verga said. “We have science that masks work and the vaccine works so we should encourage people to do both.”
“The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” he said, quoting Spock in the Star Trek film “Wrath of Khan.” “We need to require all masks in school and we need to encourage all city employees to get vaccinated.”
Romeo Theken, the incumbent, said it is hard to know what she would do differently, but the city can be proactive this year.
“You have to understand that every day was a new crisis, every day was a new status,” she said.
Romeo Theken also responded to some of the other candidates, explaining that the city tried to close the beaches but people still found ways to get on.
But with a new year ahead of her, Romeo Theken said masks are mandated in schools and she will be discussing a vaccine requirement for city employees with her Board of Health.
The changing climate
With the ocean rising and climate constantly changing, candidates focused on addressing the infrastructure closest to the sea — especially the city’s sewage treatment plant.
Pollard noted that the city did receive a grant to build a wall around the plant to protect it from rising tides and storm surge.
He said that for this particular issue, a team effort — working with the harbormaster and the state— is essential.
For Verga, the topic of climate change has become politicized over the years.
“But whether you believe that climate change is manmade or nature, look out the window and there it is,” he said, noting recent forest fires, heat waves, and rising tides.
As for ways to counteract a changing climate, Verga referenced his time on the City Council when it worked to get the city wind turbines and LED lights.
“Those are small measures, but they help reduce the carbon footprint,” he said.
Russell said that under his leadership, the city would focus on a new sewage treatment plant and a $1.5 billion coastal resiliency program.
“The money is there and we have got to get on board with it and do everything we can since we are a coastal community, not to just get a fair share, but to get more,” he said. “I am going to get it for us.”
Romeo Theken said the city is already going after those funds and getting its fair share.
She said she is a part of multiple boards that have worked together to make it possible for the city to be a 10-year green energy community.
Romeo Theken added that her administration is looking at coastal resiliency and the waterfront to ensure that the city gets it fair share.
She added that the city is going to need a second sewer treatment plant, but it will have to be at the same location.
Harvey agreed that the city is going to need a new sewer treatment plant soon.
Sclafani took the conversation to a different solution, suggesting that the city build desalination plants on the coast and run water mains to the desert. Any desert, Sclafani said.
He added that the city should also consider replanting rainforests as they are a great source of water.
“It really is pumping the ocean into the desert,” he said.
Making affordable, affordable
The toughest question of the morning may have been that pertaining to housing, as each candidate spoke to maintaining affordable housing and retaining the next generation.
“This is a really tough question,” Harvey said.
He said the problem is that the housing market is so strong right now it is hard for an older person to buy a home in this city.
“The only thing I think you could possibly do is come up with grant money and sell small condos,” Harvey said, noting that it is a hard sell.
Sclafani acknowledged that “we all would like to live here and a lot of people extra would like to live here.”
He said he has walked through the housing projects and a lot of people living there, from his observation, are from other countries.
“It would be discriminatory to say that you are going to build housing for only a certain individual,” he said, explaining that he would have to go through committees to decide what to do next.
Pollard referenced his involvement with Action Inc. as it constructs 30 units of affordable housing downtown and with the Gloucester Housing Authority.
“Together we have helped to provide affordable housing,” he said. “The most important thing to do is support as much as we can the Gloucester Housing Authority and Action to provide as much affordable housing as possible.”
Russell noted that, as a real estate agent, he knows how hard it is to acquire a house or condominium in Gloucester.
The solution, he said, is to think outside the box.
“This would look like tiny house communities,” Russell said, adding that Airstream trailers might also be a good idea.
“This is a tough issue,” he added. “If it was easy, it would be solved.”
Romeo Theken reiterated other candidate’s sentiments, stating “it is very hard subject.”
“Define affordable housing,” she implored.
Romeo Theken said that she is working with the Planning Board to change zoning to make housing truly affordable in the city.
“Bring the money from the people who want to build so we can actually build real affordable housing,” she said.
As a Realtor, Verga noted that he has noticed a lot of people are investing in Airbnb and other rental properties.
“I would like to see the city do more fees for that or create more regulation for the number of short=term rentals,” he said. “We have to think outside the box because inside the box ain’t working.”
“There is no magic answer,” Verga said.
It is all about the money
Now that the federal government has provided relief for COVID_19-related costs and stimulus funding, state revenue is healthy, indicating more funding for schools and other municipal purposes. How each candidate would allocate that money throughout the city varied widely.
With money from the Cares Act and ARPA rolling into Gloucester, Romeo Theken said she is “frugal” when it comes to the city’s budget.
“We had maintained a budget every single year and when COVID started I asked every department to have no increases,” she said. “We didn’t know what was coming down the pipeline.”
She said that now that the city knows how to respond to COVID-19, the budget can be planned accordingly. This includes purifiers in the schools.
Pollard wants to bring the money back to the sewer treatment plant.
“I think it is extremely important that we focus on this subject,” he said, explaining that city is going to be required to upgrade the plant to be in line with the rest of the state. And it better be ready.
“There is no timeframe, but it is in the near future,” Pollard said, noting that he would institute a capital improvement plan to focus on that.
Pollard also would use city money to add additional slips at Jodrey State Fish Pier for commercial fishermen.
Harvey agrees that the sewage treatment plant needs to be a focus of the budget.
“It is a needed thing,” he said. “It is not an option.”
He also noted that while everyone wants to see better pavement, the sewage plant and COVID-19 resources need to take priority.
Verga would like to work with the Public Works and Community Development departments to craft a list of what needs to be done first.
“We need to be ready to be able to attack what is the most vulnerable and where we can put money to the best use of now,” he said.
Sclafani wants to use the money to build more water towers in the city.
“My water pressure is just getting less and less at my place,” he said. “That is what you need to increase water pressure, you need water towers.”
He added that he would expand the beaches and have a different type of sewage treatment plant, explaining that the city should ship all the sewage to the desert to create fertile soil.
“The one trillion infrastructure money will be earmarked for our crown jewels,” Russell said, explaining that Stacy Boulevard needs a bathroom and the roads need repair.
He said that if Gloucester is going to call itself a tourist community, it needs to take care of its roads and downtown.
“We need to reclaim our identity,” he added.
The deep blue sea
With the blue economy being essential to the city’s legacy and future, candidates provided insight on how they would strike a balance between the competing interests of fishermen, development, wildlife, preservation and recreation.
“To say that the fishing industry is dead could not be further from the truth,” Harvey said, explaining that fish processing is one of the city’s largest employers as far as he knows.
Harvey said the mayor’s job is to use his or her soap box to pressure Congress for intelligent regulations and to lure more boats to Gloucester.
As his grandparents came to Gloucester from Sicily to fish, Verga knows the importance of the waterfront.
“It is something that is not going away,” he said. “It is not dead, it is different than from what it once was.”
Verga emphasized that Gloucester should be looking at employment opportunities on the waterfront other than fishing, such as lobstering.
“Gloucester has struggled with its blue economy for many, many years,” Russell said. “Unfortunately, there are two competing faces here in the city and we need to be unified.”
This means, as he said, that downtown and the harbor and the fisheries can coexist.
“We need to protect the heritage that we have in the harbor and we need to invest in working with downtown so we can coexist,” Russell said.
Romeo Theken said that everyone has been coexisting for years.
“We are almost 400 years old,” she said, explaining that tourists want to see a working waterfront.
In addition to listing the multiple ocean-front specific companies that work in collaboration with the rest of the city, Romeo Theken noted that she had reinvigorated the city fisheries commission.
She added that fishermen are environmentalists.
Pollard, who has a commercial fishing license and fishes part-time, would like to see additional dockage implemented in the city.
Sclafani said that “if you were to make the fatal mistake of rezoning the Gloucester fishing industry’s infrastructure, that infrastructure would just disappear.”
He added that the future of fishing is fish farms.
“I looked at a female lobster that has thousand a little babies under her,” he said. “If you could separate them, 30,000 from birth, pretty sure you could feed the world with lobster.”
The role of mayor
With 23 departments and a number of appointed boards and commissions, Michaels inquired how the mayor should interact with them to work together more effectively.
The candidates’ collective answer: respect.
Pollard believes that it is important as a leader to manage at a macro level.
“When you manage on a micro level, city employees. they don’t feel like they can do their job and be productive within the city,” he said.
Sclafani emphasized that his door would be open to anyone with any idea that they might have.
Russell pointed out that a good example of his leadership is the debate they were currently participating in.
He said that when there were no debates scheduled for the primaries, he went out and communicated with the league and City Councilor Jaimie O’Hara to get two scheduled.
“That is the type of leader I am,” Russell said.
For Harvey, good leadership comes down to good communication.
“With the internet and Zoom, I don’t think there is any excuse for the city to not have one hand not know what the other hand is doing,” he said.
Verga said the city should be conducting world-wide job searches to find the best to employ. Once hired, any city employee should be empowered to lean into his or her role by the mayor.
“That should be done in a respectful manner,” he said. “They are the backbone of our city as the staff is hopefully going to remain after the change of administration.”
Being respectful, being courteous, and respecting employees’ input are the keys of good management, Verga said.
“It sounds so simple as a concept but it appears that might not have been the way it has been over the past several months,” he said, referring to the current mayor’s tenure.
Romeo Theken said her team is respectful and the members work hard — especially during the pandemic.
“Nobody got fired, nobody got furloughed, nobody got laid off (during COVID-19),” she said. “The mayor’s office gets blamed. I was getting calls 24/7 — 3 in the morning, 4 in the morning, 5 in the morning.”
“Can we make changes? Absolutely. Have we made changes? Absolutely,” Romeo Theken said. “Respect? I have 100% respect for every person in the city of Gloucester.”
After the lights and cameras were shut off and the livestream was finished, Pollard stood up to mention that Romeo Theken and Verga, both of whom have been in city politics before, should, as he said, “be applauded for their efforts. It is extremely important.”
“I don’t think people realize how thankless local politics can be,” he added.
The Magnolia Library & Community Center, 1 Lexington Ave. will host the next mayoral debate on Wednesday, Sept. 8, at 7 p.m.
Staff writer Taylor Ann Bradford may be contacted at 978-675-2705, [email protected] or on Twitter at TayBradford97.