Squaring off for the fourth time — and in their final, full head-to-head debate, mayoral candidates Mac Bell and Carolyn Kirk focused on points they had emphasized in previous clashes, while telling Cape Ann TV viewers how they would focus on everything from weather emergency preparedness to the city’s infrastructure needs.
Speaking to the cameras in a Cape Ann Studio debate hosted by the League of Women Voters of Cape Ann, challenger Bell sparked a conversation over what he considered the “blighted liability” that is Stacy Boulevard, while incumbent Kirk spoke about the importance of a calm temperament when dealing with emergencies as mayor.
Given the opportunity to answer his own question about how the boulevard could be so “disrespectfully” without maintenance, Bell suggested that, if elected mayor Nov. 5, he’d seek to have the city incorporate volunteer groups in its maintenance and give the walkway’s upkeep a higher priority.
“It’s a question of respectful maintenance,” Bell said. “There’s a handful of different approaches that we could take to basic maintenance that, in the last six years, have not been party to maintaining or taking care of job one on the boulevard.”
Kirk responded by mentioning a pending announcement, set for Nov. 7, about the boulevard’s status, then turned to infrastructure work her administration has advanced — like the Combined Sewer Overflow project.
“I’d much rather have people be able to drink their water and then suffer through a couple years of inaccessible areas on the Boulevard,” Kirk said. “It’s about choices.”
With her own question, Kirk swung the debate over how each might react to emergency situations.
“Temperament is very important when it comes to dealing with a crisis,” Kirk said. “The leadership sets a tone; the leadership has to be calm and level-headed and work with multiple people who are competing for their own areas of expertise.”
Bell, granted the opportunity to answer the mayor’s question, said he also is prepared to deal with emergencies — especially given his 31 years running a downtown store, then 28 years working in commercial real estate.
“I have a working relationship that puts me in good position,” he said. “And I think the most important aspect of our infrastructure that we need to develop is neighbors helping neighbors — and how we create a condition of our different neighborhoods working together and with emergency workers.”
In response to a later question about the changing climate’s effect on Gloucester, Bell reiterated the importance of Gloucester neighbors helping each other and said he has already begun conversations with people in Lanesville and West Gloucester.
The downtown area of Gloucester, especially the area around the Fort and Commercial Street, which saw flooding in this winter’s major storm, are most vulnerable, he said.
Kirk’s answer was to highlight the CERT program that debuted a program to check house numbers and smoke detectors this past weekend. She also noted that her administration has encouraged people to build with incoming FEMA maps in mind. Kirk pointed to the sewer treatment plant, located on a small portion of land by the marsh on Essex Avenue, as Gloucester’s most vulnerable spot.
June Michaels, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Cape Ann, sat between the two candidates, moderating the debate Tuesday. After asking about vulnerable areas, she turned the conversation to the city’s distribution of efforts and tax dollars in the five wards, asking how a mayor should distribute the goods.
Kirk emphasized the structure of local government, saying it is the responsibility of ward councilors to advocate for their communities, and some push harder or better than others.
“When you’re in the mayor’s office and you have responsibility for 26 square miles, sometimes we’re not always familiar with that particular corner of the ward that needs attention,” Kirk said.
Bell said that, as mayor, he would be more involved and not “play games,” as he said Kirk has done with council members.
He re-emphasized what he said is a need to “respect the taxpayer” — like those in the Magnolia area who have requested more of the DPW’s assistance in clearing Lexington Avenue and the village’s sidewalks in the winter.
“While the present administration would like to throw a ward councilor under the bus, the fact of the matter is that area has been well represented,” Bell said. “It’s one of the reasons why I’m running for mayor and intend to make a significant improvement of respect — No. 1 to the taxpayer and No. 2 to the city councilors and public workers.”
Twice in rebuttals Kirk suggested that she thought Bell’s comments were off topic; he had brought up what he called the ousting of high school principal Joe Sullivan during the 2008 teen pregnancy scandal, and he encouraged residents to ask their ward councilors about working with Kirk as mayor.
“I am not going to respond to anything that doesn’t advance the debate,” Kirk said each time.
Michaels asked each candidate to look toward the future in a couple of questions, pushing for answers about how to build up our local economy and how to tackle what candidates foresaw as the city’s eminent concerns.
Bell said he viewed bringing new companies in the city, creating jobs in that fashion and bringing work to the waterfront as the best means of supporting our local economy; he said he also sees education as the key solution to any major hardship the city might face 10 years from now.
“If I have a belief in humankind, it’s that education, education, education is key,” said Bell.
Kirk said the solution, rather than pushing growth, is to support and encourage the companies like Gorton’s, Bomco and Gloucester Engineering that are already here — some of which have recently expanded.
Revenue to the city comes through supporting those businesses, not from job creation, she said. The biggest issue Kirk sees the city facing would be high taxes if we fall into a pattern of putting off major projects to the future, as she said administrations have done in the past.
“In this economic climate, it has been very important to retain the businesses that we have and to help them grow,” Kirk said. “Attracting new investment is something that happens over time and will happen,” she said, stating that it rests on the now secured financial standing and stabilizing infrastructure.
In a closing statement, Bell disagreed with the mayor’s perception of the city’s standing.
“I am totally up to here with what I see to be self-serving, bloated government,” Bell said. “My frustration, my love for the city, has led me to step into this race because I could not abide by an uncontested race.”
To those who do agree with Kirk’s steering of the city, and to other voters, too, Kirk emphasized the choices she has made over the past three terms as mayor.
“We can continue to make good choices for Gloucester. When you choose me as your mayor, you are choosing someone who is level-headed, someone who is professional, someone who has the experience to be able to lead this city through whatever challenge it could possible face,” Kirk said.
The telecast of the entire League of Women Voters debate premiers tonight at 9:30 p.m. on Cape Ann TV, while last week’s Times mayoral debate next shows Friday night at 8.
For full debate TV schedules, check this week’s full schedule at capeanntv.org, or in the latest news section of gloucestertimes.com.
Kirk, Bell and all of the city’s election hopefuls will also participate in an all-candidates forum Tuesday night at Lanesville Community Center.
Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3451, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.