For many in Salem, Thursday night’s vote to approve funding for a new senior center was a stunner.
Though supporters of the center had packed a public hearing the night before, and overwhelmingly spoke in favor of the project, it was widely known that several councilors sided with a small group of senior citizens who wanted a different site. They’d been on the losing side of a council vote in 2009 but had a new opportunity last week to reverse course. All they needed was four votes.
But something shocking happened on the way to killing the senior center.
In a time when rigidity and divisiveness has led to gridlock in Washington, local leaders — and we do mean leaders — broke the mold. They decided to compromise.
City Council President Jerry Ryan walked into this argument planning to vote against the senior center proposal, as he had in 2009. But as he sat through the public hearing last Wednesday night, he listened to speaker after speaker plead with city councilors not to kill the only viable option the city has to actually get a center built.
And then he started to think not about ways to kill the proposal, but about ways to change it so that he could feel comfortable voting for it. The next morning, he called Mayor Kim Driscoll, offered his compromise amendments and hammered out a deal. Driscoll agreed to everything. In the end, it should be a better deal for the city than the one originally on the table.
Clearly, this was a big win for Driscoll, who marshaled all the plan’s supporters and campaigned tirelessly to get this proposal going. She deserves a lot of credit for coming up with a public-private partnership that should, in the end, cost the city little or nothing to get a new senior center, and for doing what it took to get the votes she needed.
But this was also a huge win for Ryan, and one that should stand him in good stead this election year. Even though he would have preferred a different location for the center, he was willing to give a little, if the other side would do the same, in order to get the project done. Some would say he put politics aside; we’d say he embraced politics in the very best sense of that word to get something that will benefit everyone in Salem.
He demonstrated real leadership and, in doing so, put to shame the politicians in Washington clinging rigidly to their “my way or the highway” philosophy.
In the end, the real winners are Salem residents who have waited decades to get the kind of warm, comfortable and inviting senior center that their neighbors in Peabody and Marblehead enjoy. Thanks to Salem’s political leadership, they finally have that chance.