By Richard Gaines
---- — The City Council is convening a special, single-item agenda meeting tonight, focused squarely on whether to override Mayor Carolyn Kirk’s veto of a non-binding referendum question regarding November about the future of the former Fuller School.
In her veto message last Wednesday, Kirk called the potential non-binding referendum, which would be held as part of the November city elections, “a simple-minded approach to a complex question” that “will grossly mislead the citizens.”
But Councilor Greg Verga, a comercial real estate broker and a longstanding advocate of the need for the city to reorganize assets which were built in the 19th and 20th centuries, described the veto message as “simple minded.”
The council’s vote the previous week to bring the referendum question to voters was 8-1, with Joe Ciolino in opposition.
The council’s proposed question would be as follows:
“What is your preferred use for the Fuller School site?,” while noting that “all options offer potential additional use of site for municipal Safety (Police/Fire) Building/”
Relocate municipal offices to an ‘under one roof’ complex
Renewed use as a Public School
Lease and/or sell property.”
Ciolino reiterated Monday that he believes the question fails to give voters any idea of the costs involved in retrofitting the Fuller as municipal offices or a school. He also said the city could be losing a chance to provide a new home to the YMCA, which is now located on Middle Street.
He said he has been contacted by a representative of the Y who said the organization wanted to move to the Fuller Building and would build a swimming pool and expand services.
Moreover, he said, be believes a consensus has developed around the idea of consolidating the Fire and Police departments into a new complex on the Fuller property, but in a new building — and that this idea is not even quite captured by the options in the question vetoed by Kirk.
The debate about the arrangement of municipal facilities briefly became frantic and has remained active since Oct. 27, 2004 — by coincidence, the date the Red Sox won their first World Series since 1918. Earlier that day, City Hall was emptied for a year after rotted beams in superstructure were discovered and the building was declared unsafe.
The offices of City Hall were moved to Pond Road, where they joined the Community Development, Building Inspection, Grants, Engineering and Public Health departments which had been occupying construction trailers in a field just to the west of the current and badly outdated Public Works building and yard on Poplar Street.
After a year’s work in the rafters, City Hall was reopened, and the exiled offices — including those of the mayor, John Bell, the City Clerk, treasurer, auditor, assessors and archives were back in what Bell called the “grand old lady,” a dowager that dates to 1871.
The decision to close the Fuller Elementary School in 2008 refueled the debate which has been indecisive but has produced endless daisy chains of of “what ifs?”
Many people agree with Ciolino and Verga that the Fire Department, now in a building from the 1920s, and the Police Department — which, along with the state district court, is in a late 20th century building across from condos and storefronts in the old Brown’s Department Store block — are in the wrong place for 21st century Gloucester.
Councilor Bruce Tobey said Monday that Kirk is guilty of a “failure of imagination” by opposing the referendum and grounding that position in part in the claim that the decision has been made by the School Committee against ever using the Fuller as a school again.
“The next School Commitee could reverse the position of the current School Committee,” he noted.
A “community survey of attitutdes toward use of Fuller School as an Elementary School,” conducted via Internet earlier this year produced very limited response — 507 respondents including 46 from out of town — reflected what Kirk described as the strong opinion that Gloucester should remain committed to community based elementary schools.
“To open Fuller School as a school again would require at least two other elementary schools in the district to close,” she wrote. “To ask the question, ‘Should Fuller be a school again/?’ without asking the question, ‘What schools should close?’ is again completely misleading and irresponsible.”
In a telephone interview Monday, she said the East Gloucester, Plum Cove and possibly Veterans Memorial schools would need to close if Fuller were reopened as a consolidated elementary school.
But the question that Kirk vetoed was phrased to deal in generalities and to simply gauge public opinion, fueling a debate that has been on for more than eight years.
Richard Gaines can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3464, or at rgaines@gloucestertim