BY PAUL LEIGHTON
---- — BEVERLY — Wes Slate and Mike Cahill disagreed on how to solve the deadlock on the city’s waterfront but mostly steered clear of confrontation in a debate last night at the Centerville Improvement Society.
The previous debate between the two mayoral candidates ended contentiously last week when Cahill accused Slate of “character assassination” for criticizing Cahill’s work ethic.
Slate referenced that exchange in his opening statement last night, saying he would leave it up to voters to decide whether his criticisms were “character assassination or an honest attempt on my part to explain what I saw and experienced” when the two served together on the City Council.
The candidates had a chance to delve more deeply into the controversy when moderator Joe Trainor gave them an opportunity to ask each other questions. Instead, both posed relatively easy questions, with Cahill saying, “I’m not looking to engage in any way but positively.”
About 150 people crowded into the neighborhood association’s small building on Essex Street to watch the debate, which also featured sessions with candidates for councilor-at-large and the two home races for Ward 6 City Council and School Committee. Trainor had to ask people to move their chairs to make room for people waiting outside to get in.
Cahill and Slate have acknowledged that they agree on most issues, but they did express a difference on how to solve the standstill on the waterfront, where the city’s attempt to lease land for a restaurant has been hung up in legal appeals for years.
Cahill said the city needs to work with the owners of Beverly Port Marina, the adjacent property owners who have mounted the legal challenge. Cahill said the city should look into amending the state law that is designed to protect the area as a working waterfront but also makes it difficult to develop it with shops, restaurants and a harbor walkway.
Cahill said the Port Marina owners want to build shops and condominiums on their property but need the city’s help instead of the constant legal wrangling.
“Right now, nobody’s winning,” he said.
But Slate said the marina owners’ contentiousness has left the city with no other option but winning its legal battle. The matter is now in the hands of the state Appeals Court.
“The only avenue we have is in the courts,” Slate said.
In response to a question about mayoral appointments, Slate said he would consider giving one-year appointments to the current department heads working under Mayor Bill Scanlon, who is retiring after 18 years in office. Slate said both he and the department heads could then evaluate their working relationship.
Cahill said he would keep some people on but would naturally also want to bring in some of his own.
Asked where they would cut the city’s $106 million budget, both candidates said it was already tight. Slate said he would look to new growth to raise tax revenue. Cahill mentioned saving money through sharing services with other communities, pursuing grants more aggressively and seeking the help of nonprofits in the city.
The mayoral candidates, as well as all of the other candidates who spoke last night, agreed with the need for more transparency in city government. Many cited the recent controversy over the Brimbal Avenue project as an example of where the public should have been kept more informed.
“I believe Mayor Scanlon worked really hard to do what he thought was best for the city, but the public should have been at the table a lot earlier,” Cahill said.
In the Ward 6 City Council debate, incumbent Brett Schetzsle said he was willing to ask tough questions and be an independent voice for Ward 6. He said his opponent, John Frates, “speaks in generalities and focuses on his past.”
Frates, who served one term on the Board of Aldermen in the late 1980s, cited his deep roots in the city and his 15 years as a wealth management executive. “We’re invested in Beverly,” he said.
In the Ward 6 School Committee race, Lorinda Visnick is challenging eight-year incumbent Maria Decker.
Decker said she has contributed to the building of the new high school, an increase in enrollment due to the school district’s improved reputation, and the plans for a new middle school. She said she brings a “composed demeanor” and “even temperament” to the School Committee.
Visnick criticized the School Committee for what she said was a lack of information on the proposal to move fifth-graders from the elementary schools to the new middle school when it opens. She said the School Committee is “suffering from dysfunction.”
The forum also included the five candidates for the three at-large City Council seats: incumbents Paul Guanci and Jason Silva and challengers Todd Murphy, Matt St. Hilaire and Todd Rotondo.
The mayoral candidates are scheduled to debate again tonight in a forum sponsored by Beverly Main Streets at Beverly High School. The at-large, Ward 2 and Ward 3 City Council candidates will also participate. The forum starts at 7 p.m.
Staff writer Paul Leighton can be reached at 978-338-2675 or firstname.lastname@example.org.