By James Niedzinski
---- — Is Gloucester’s process for getting business or development permits merely complex? Or is it a “handicap” or “retarded”?
Those were the words used by challenger Mac Bell Tuesday morning during his debate with Mayor Carolyn Kirk, hosted by the Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce at The Elks at Bass Rocks. And Bell’s use of the word “retarded” drew a number of raised eyebrows in the audience, and from moderator Eileen Duff, the North Shore’s representative on the Massachusetts Governor’s Council.
Bell’s comment came as he was describing what he viewed as a burdensome permitting process throughout the city. The debate question asked candidates what steps they would take to make the permitting process — described as “Byzantine” and “inconsistent” in the question — easier to navigate.
“The bottom line is — parochial, handicap, retarded — whatever term you might conceive of, if you’ve been through a permit process in the city of Gloucester in the last 20, 30, 40 years, I can tell you it’s consistently gotten worse and worse,” Bell said.
Following Bell’s remarks, moderator Duff posed a followup question to both candidates after they discussed social services in the city.
“A lot of our community, as we know, are people who are differently-abled, maybe physically and mentally challenged,” she said. “Do you think its important for the mayor to be someone who — in their use of language — represents those people well”?
“Without a doubt,” Kirk replied.
“Yes,” Bell added in his own response to Duff’s question, explaining he had a plan for a networking community support program made of volunteers. “I have a very close dear friend who is a quadriplegic and we have a lot of shut-ins. We have a lot of people who can’t get out.”
After the debate, Kirk said she thought Duff handled the comment well. According to Duff’s campaign website from her 2012 Governor’s Council run, she has a relative with Down Syndrome.
Asked after the debate about Bell’s remarks, Bell’s campaign manager, Maureen Aylward said, “I wouldn’t be able to answer that on the record; I’d rather you ask Mac.”
Bell said, following the debate, that he did not mean the team to be offensive or to be taken as if referring to people; he said he used “retarded” as the old meaning of the word.
“I meant it in terms of the development of the (process) itself — to suggest that it’s been held back, and slow to advance,” Bell said.
He later added that he regretted making the comment.
“(It was) obviously a poor choice of words,” he said, “(but) we have more significant issues to embrace.”
James Niedzinski can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.