A question I received this week was, “why are you in favor of a ballot question about the Designated Port Area (DPA) but against a ballot question about the future use of the Fuller School?”
The Fuller School question pertains to administrative and operational aspects of city management and carries a potentially significant financial obligation to the taxpayer depending upon its preferred use. The Designated Port Area question is a matter of city policy — we either believe and agree that the state DPA program is important to the city or we do not. To be sure, the ultimate answers to both questions have far-reaching consequences for the city.
In the case of Fuller School, the administration worked to craft a 21-question survey that you can now take online at www.gloucester-ma.gov. (The survey is available until Oct. 12.) There is a section about the Fuller site itself, with an option of having all city offices located there. This begs the next series of questions about what should happen to historic City Hall if there is a municipal complex at Fuller. Then there are questions about how to pay for that type of use.
The Fuller site is also capable of handling a new public safety building with both the Police and Fire Departments located there. This scenario begs the questions of what happens with Central Fire Headquarters on School Street, and the Police Station on Main Street. Then there are the questions about how to pay for this scenario.
There are many interrelated administrative, operational, and financial aspects to the question of “what should we do with the Fuller site?” We believed strongly that a multi-question survey was the best mechanism for obtaining resident input.
In the case of the Designated Port Area, as complicated a topic as this is, it does boil down to a straightforward policy question of whether or not the city should retain, reject or modify the state’s DPA program. An enormous education campaign will need to take place over the next year so that residents are up to speed on the issue, and can knowledgeably vote their preference when they see it on an election ballot.
Councilor Sefatia Theken Romeo made a good point in her recent Facebook posting when she compared the DPA question with the question that asked residents whether or not the public safety chiefs should be removed from civil service. This question was put before voters a few years ago, and the answer was overwhelmingly in favor of removing the chiefs from civil service. That triggered a series of actions that finally have achieved the goal of hiring the most qualified candidates for the job even if it meant bringing them in from the outside.
There are also times when obtaining input from residents through a survey or a ballot question is entirely inappropriate and strong leadership needs to prevail and decisions just need to get made. Compliance with federal and state environmental mandates, infrastructure protection for public utilities such as water and sewer, and tough budget decisions come to mind. There are ample provisions in state and local laws that allow for public input through the public hearing process on these types of matters.
Surveys and ballot questions should be used sparingly and be reserved for the big questions that will have long-lasting impact on the future of the city. The future use of the Fuller School site and the domino effect that could occur throughout downtown, and the question of retaining, rejecting or modifying the state’s Designated Area Port program fall in this category.
Carolyn A. Kirk is the mayor of Gloucester.