By Bethany Bray
---- — SALEM — When asked how the City Council could work better, nearly all of Salem’s councilor-at-large candidates used the word “divisive” in their answers.
As Election Day draws near, The Salem News asked the at-large candidates to weigh in on three issues: the city’s biggest challenge, the performance of the mayor, and how the City Council could work better.
Curing the board’s divisiveness, in one way or another, played into most answers to the third question.
Mayor Kim Driscoll’s performance earned mostly A’s and B’s. However, two candidates, Bill Legault and Arthur Sargent, declined to give the mayor a letter grade.
Seven people are running for four at-large positions on the City Council.
Incumbent at-large councilors Tom Furey and Arthur Sargent are running for re-election, along with Bill Legault, who was appointed by the City Council in January to fill an at-large vacancy. Ward 4 Councilor Jerry Ryan is hoping to move up to an at-large position.
Norene Gachignard is a former School Committee member hoping to join the City Council, and Elaine Milo is a newcomer to city politics. The name of Ken Sawicki, a perennial candidate who ran for every possible position this fall, will also appear on the ballot.
The election will be Tuesday; polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. In addition to City Council, Salem residents will be voting for mayor and School Committee.
The four at-large councilors represent the entire city, as opposed to a specific ward.
Find profiles of Salem School Committee and City Council candidates at www.salemnews.com
What’s the city’s greatest challenge?
Reducing the property tax and focusing on the balance of residential versus commercial taxpayers, said Furey, as well as encouraging small businesses, such as biotech, to come to town. “It’s the hardest thing to do ... building a better tax base for our residents and commercial business,” Furey said.
What grade would you give Mayor Kim Driscoll? “I would give her an A+,” he said. “She puts her heart into the job. She’s not afraid of change, not afraid of saying no. ... We need her more than ever.”
What is one idea that would help the City Council work better? “Have a seminar or workshop on how to communicate and work together more, to make sure it is not a divisive environment,” Furey said. The board should spend a day or two together to talk through city issues and “how we can get our act together,” he said. He also said there’s roughly 25 feet between the city council chambers and the mayor’s office at City Hall — that 25 feet should not be like the Grand Canyon.
What’s the city’s greatest challenge? Gachignard named a “multiplicity of things” — the National Grid utility cable project, redevelopment of the power plant, the potential for cruise ships coming into Salem, the proposed wind turbine on Winter Island and the city schools. The big challenge, she said, will be “managing that, starting first and foremost with the National Grid project, and working ... to make sure it can be as painless as it can be.”
What grade would you give Mayor Kim Driscoll? “I’d give her a B+,” said Gachignard. “The reason I don’t give her an A is sometimes she’s moving a little too fast for people’s comfort. She’ll have a great idea and will run with it; sometimes you need to walk a little slower and bring people along. I suffer from the same affliction.”
What is one idea that would help the city council work better? “I’m really hoping that with some change on the council ... change will lead to a little more collaboration and collegiality. You can accomplish a lot more when you work together,” she said. “... You don’t always have to agree, but listen to each other and try to get the job done.”
What’s the city’s greatest challenge? “Controlling growth in a positive manner. We need to look at bringing in more white-collar business in the downtown and focus less on bringing in new residents,” Legault said. “... We don’t need to stop resident growth but we do need to look at ‘how much is too much?’.”
What grade would you give Mayor Kim Driscoll? Legault declined to specify a letter grade. “The mayor is probably the most effective and decisive mayor we’ve had in my lifetime,” he said, “but sometimes I’d like to see her focus less on the outside forces that want to develop Salem (and have) a little more focus on local issues.”
What is one idea that would help the City Council work better? “I just think that each person on the council, whenever a divisive issue comes up, needs to be willing to take a step back from their personal views, no matter how strong, and think about how they can work together instead of being opposed,” he said. “We can have differing views but still work together.”
What’s the city’s greatest challenge? “Hands down, it’s the school system and turning it around,” Milo said. “I’m a candidate for City Council, not School Committee, but I also realize how the dots are connected. The schools impact all Salem residents, whether they have a child in school or not. ... As a councilor, I would support providing the resources that the system needs to go forward.”
What grade would you give Mayor Kim Driscoll? “I would say a B+, and that relates back to the schools,” she said. “I’m encouraged, I think we’re well on our way to turning the schools around, and when that happens the B+ would become an A.”
What is one idea that would help the City Council work better? “Knowing when to step up and say, ‘Wait a minute, we’re not accomplishing anything here,’” Milo said. Milo referenced the council’s January vote to fill a council vacancy, when the board took the same tie vote, over and over, for seven hours without coming to a compromise. “To me, that night there was a lot of nonsense going on, not a lot of common sense taking place. ... Somebody had to step up and say,’We need to come back when cooler heads prevail.’”
What’s the city’s greatest challenge? Balancing the commercial and residential tax base, he said. “We have more (tax) burdens on residents than the commercial side,” Ryan said. “We need to keep both rates affordable.”
What grade would you give Mayor Kim Driscoll? An A. “I think she’s doing a good job,” Ryan said. “We don’t always agree ... (but) for the most part, we get along.”
What is one idea that would help the City Council work better? Ryan suggested a council retreat to hash through issues, possibly one session with the mayor, and one without the mayor. “There’s got to be checks and balances, and sometimes we don’t have that with the council right now,” he said. “... We (councilors) pretty much all get along. Sometimes we just have our own opinions — it’s not personal.”
What’s the city’s greatest challenge? “The future of the entire length of Bridge Street, from Boston Street to the Salem/Beverly Bridge,” he said. “What that area looks like 10 years from now and how the whole Bridge Street corridor is developed and redeveloped will affect the people who live there, the surrounding neighborhoods and businesses, traffic, our budget, our infrastructure, our city services and our school system for generations to come.”
What grade would you give Mayor Kim Driscoll? “I don’t feel that any elected official should be grading another one. A grade is something that a student earns and a qualified teacher gives to the student,” he said. “That’s not the relationship I have with the mayor or School Committee. Elected officials are graded by the voters at election time, and I think that’s the best way to do it.
What is one idea that would help the City Council work better? “I would like to have all of the City Council meetings scheduled on Thursday nights,” he said. The full council and some of the council committees meet Thursdays, but some of the other committees don’t. “It would make it easier for the people of Salem to know when there is a meeting. This should increase public attendance and public input. That would help the City Council work better.”