By Sean Horgan
---- — The eight at-large City Council candidates had their differences at Wednesday night’s debate, most notably on whether to allow a piecemeal deconstruction of the city’s Designated Port Area and how to best utilize the Fuller School and its adjacent property.
Beyond those, the candidates generally agreed on how to approach some of the various the issues facing the city as it moves toward the Nov. 5 municipal elections that will fill the four available at-large posts on the newly constituted City Council.
In many ways, Tuesday night was more a forum than a debate. There was no rancor or finger-pointing, no arm-wrestling over the microphone.
Instead, the hourlong event at the Gloucester Stage Company — hosted by the Gloucester Daily Times — was civil and reasoned, with each candidate offering measured positions on the various issues that will frame the election. Clearly, the three incumbents and five challengers had done their homework.
The first question was on the future of the Fuller School property and how they would vote on the non-binding referendum question that will be included on the Nov. 5 ballot.
Incumbent at-large Councilor Bob Whynott said he supports Option A, which would consolidate most of the city services at the Fuller site while leaving only a skeleton crew operating at the current City Hall. That, he said, would provide citizens with “one-stop shopping” at the Fuller School site.
Current Ward 5 Councilor Greg Verga, seeking to expand his representation citywide, said he favored Option C, which calls for a mixed-use development of the site that would include some city offices — particularly those paying rent at non-city-owned sites — and some not-for-profit and for-profit business tenants.
Incumbent Councilor-at-large Joe Ciolino also said he supports the mixed-use option, as did challenger Bob Whitmarsh and incumbent Councilor Sefatia Romeo Theken — though Theken said it’s “very hard to know what mixed use is.”
Theken also made it clear that she does not favor moving all offices out of the current City Hall or moving the central police and fire operations out of the downtown.
“City Hall should be restored and used properly,” she said and challengers Whitmarsh and Steven Curcuru later agreed that City Hall should remain downtown.
Challenger Paul Lundberg said he had a problem with the way the nonbinding referendum question’s options were worded, saying the issue needs further study to determine the best use for the property.
“We need to look at facts and we don’t know what the impact of these choices would be,” Lundberg said.
On a related topic, Lundberg said the push to relocate the police and fire services to a complex to be built on the field adjacent to the Fuller School needs more study and input from public-safety experts. Ciolino countered.
“The fire and police need to go there,” Ciolino said. “We need to make that investment.”
Challenger Dennis Latham presented another option: move the central public safety operations to the Fuller School site, but use the existing downtown facilities as satellite stations.
The issue of how to move forward with the DPA also produced division. Theken said “absolutely not” when asked if the city should petition the state to completely remove the DPA, but said she might support a more piecemeal approach to accommodate struggling shore-side business — as the city recently did with Cape Pond Ice.
Whynott also supported that approach, as did Latham and Curcuru. Lundberg and Whitmarsh said they support maintaining the DPA while Verga pointed out the city will be in a better position to know how to proceed once the current DPA boundary review and the development of the city harbor plan are completed.
The councilors were in lockstep in their agreement the city should be more vigorous in pursuing tourism, including considering increasing the percentage of the room-and-meal tax revenues that go to that effort.
The eight also were unanimous in their support for the construction of a new West Parish School, particularly since the state is willing to kick in almost half of the estimated $36 million in construction costs.
“We have a bird in the hand and we should grab it,” said Verga.
The proposed Beauport Gloucester hotel at the site of the old Bird’s Eye plant in Ward 2 also generated rapt agreement among the eight candidates, with all in favor of the development that currently is mired in the appeal process of a lawsuit trying to block it.
“The Beauport is a win-win situation,” Latham said. “We desperately need more room for tourism in Gloucester.”
The night also offered some light moments that helped set the collegial tone.
Latham got a nice chuckle while recounting his life-long Gloucester-centric work experience. “I’ve worked my whole life in Gloucester,” he said. “I’ve never been over the Route 128 bridge once.”
Theken also warmed the audience when Lundberg said he agreed with her comments on supporting tourism, without mentioning her by name. Theken then leaned over and proudly said into the microphone, “The name is Sefatia.”
The final moment of levity came when moderator and Times editor Ray Lamont offered his appreciation to the candidates, the audience, the host Gloucester Stage Company and volunteer timekeeper Heidi Dallin.
Before he could finish, Dallin told him: “You’re out of time, Ray.”
Sean Horgan may be contacted at 978-283-7000 x3464, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @SeanGDT