By Marjorie Nesin
---- — Mayor Carolyn Kirk emphasized the choices she has made as mayor over the past six years and the support she has provided the city during times of near financial disaster and even unusual emergencies, like water boil periods, whirling storms and fire-related deaths.
“You choose a mayor, if you choose me, who is calm and level-headed and a mayor who has dealt with so many emergencies in this city,” Kirk said.
But challenger Mac Bell questioned many of the mayor’s choices and told voters he was ready to pick up the workload.
“I’m serious about being the future mayor of Gloucester, and I’m committed to significant and absolute hard work that the job requires,” Bell said.
Those were just a couple of focal points for Thursday night’s mayoral debate, hosted by the Gloucester Daily Times at the Gloucester Stage Company. And the clash of mayoral candidates spotlighted clear differences between the candidates, who capped two nights of Times debates with a lively exchange before a crowd of 150 that nearly filled the intimate East Gloucester theater and elicited responses ranging from hearty laughter to occasional whispered comments of disgust.
At the start of the debate, Kirk set a stack of manila folders and papers down on the table beside her and opened a spiral notebook, pen ready. Bell arranged index card-sized papers on the table in front of him and set his phone case on its side to display a “Vote” emblem next to his canteen with a “Bell” sticker.
Bell said he had felt a low gut feeling at times under the mayor’s administration. Throughout the debate, Bell returned a few times to criticisms of the city administration’s handling of the empty I-4,C-2 lot on Rogers Street and a state grant for infrastructure in the Fort area. He called both a “disrespect” to taxpayers.
A state grant just over $3 million would have aided the city, along with money kicked in by the Beauport LLC group, in redoing the creaky infrastructure underground in the Fort area. But, when the city missed a “shovel-ready” deadline in May, the mayor had to make a call to do what she called delaying the grant — and what Bell called losing it.
“It’s very sad that we were supposed to be shovel-ready last June and subsequently lost a $3 million grant from the state for improving infrastructures in the Fort,” Bell said.
Kirk, in a rebuttal, relayed a conversation between her and a state employee in which he said the grant would be ready when Gloucester is ready.
“It is just flat-out wrong and incorrect to say we’ve lost it,” Kirk said.
When it comes to the Designated Port Area, the state framework that requires all properties within the current boundaries to be at least 50 percent marine industrial water-dependent, Kirk pushed for more comprehensive policy-making, while Bell said the city should knock everything out of the DPA except the area from the U.S. Coast Guard station to the state fish pier.
Kirk’s administration recently backed Scott Memhard’s proposition to take his Cape Pond Ice property out of the DPA, but she said a continuing effort to remove properties on case-by-case basis would cause “mayhem.”
“To go property by property is not a good policy. This has to be driven by a good public policy,” Kirk said.
Bell said his idea to remove many of the properties, allowing the ones that wish to stay to remain, would propel the city into forward movement.
“I’m committed to the diversity and working waterfront that makes Gloucester the incredible working harbor that it is, but I want to get the harbor working,” Bell said.
Another thing Bell would like to see “working” was the Fuller school building. When asked about the future of Gloucester’s elementary schools and any possible use for the building, Bell emphasized that whatever the city chooses to do with the building will be made more difficult by its current state.
“There is nothing that takes an asset and creates a liability more significantly than a building going down,” Bell said. “The relationship of whatever we’re going to be doing with Fuller is so much more burdensome now.”
He also criticized the council’s nonbinding referendum that will provide voters with multiple options for the building’s future, focusing on the nonbinding aspect.
“That referendum is such disrespectful, condescending, obnoxious dialogue of my city government,” Bell said.
When asked which option she would vote for on the ballot, Kirk responded simply: “C.”
She said she would prefer to see the building utilized for mixed commercial use and some city offices.
Kirk adamantly defended her and the School Committee’s decision to close the building, saying that when the financial crisis struck years ago, the building became a last priority.
“When we had to make choices for the city on where we were going to put our limited resources, we made choices to put those resources into school buildings that were filled with children,” Kirk said, emphasizing the last three words.
As far as using now more-abundant resources to support tourism, Kirk stood with her belief that the city’s role in tourism is to upkeep infrastructure. When Bell criticized the disrepair of Stacy Boulevard, Kirk teased an upcoming announcement about the boulevard. He put in a plea for the city to at least offer a port-a-potty at the boulevard; she waived a response.
Bathroom jokes aside, the debate did include some digs.
Given the opportunity to ask each other questions, Kirk explained that the owners of the former Birdseye property had given up their beach deed to the city so that portion of beach would remain open to the public. She asked Bell if he would do the same with the beach property he owns in the area.
His response sent the crowd, and Kirk herself, cracking into laughter.
“I am running on a campaign to restudy the charter and embrace term limits and the loathsome, absolute mind-boggling concept that as a taxpayer and father and provider and worker and citizen that I would succumb to extortion from my local government,” Bell said, pausing for the burst of laughter. He stood up to finish, “Is unbelievable. I mean, excuse me, can you please protect me?”
The crowd let out their last sighing laughs, and Kirk asked, “So, would you surrender the deed?”
“No way!,” Bell exclaimed.
With his own question, Bell pressed Kirk to explain why her administration purchased the still-vacant I-4, C-2 property.
She explained that the purchase was her method of ensuring the property get cleaned up and stay that way. The last owner, Boston-based developer Jeffrey Cohen, had erected a chain-link fence around the land, and she explained that the fence was metaphorical, too, for his past dealings with city mayors.
Kirk said she worked with Cohen to achieve a deal, but she added a jab that referred to an ongoing dispute between neighbors in which Bell allegedly twice cut down a fence his neighbor put up on the contested land between their properties.
“If we go on people’s property and cut their fences down, I think we know what happens,” Kirk said.
Bell quipped that her statement was “only slightly slanderous.”
The neighbor who had put up the contentious fence, Joe Palmisano, sat in the audience, right behind two large, blue “Palmisano for Mayor” signs. He is a write-in candidate.
Marjorie Nesin can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3451, or at email@example.com.