SalemNews.com, Salem, MA

June 8, 2012

Nelson Benton: Frank talk from mayors

Nelson Benton

There was some frank talk Wednesday as municipal chief executives gathered at the Peabody Marriott for the North Shore Chamber of Commerce's annual "state of the region" program.

Newburyport Mayor Donna Holaday was in a particularly good mood. Voters in her city the previous day had approved three debt exclusion overrides to fund $71.5 million in school and other construction projects.

While most of the money will be used for school improvements, Holaday said, the secret was including $6.5 million to fund construction of a new senior/community center on the site of one of the elementary schools that is being replaced. Since the most likely override opponents are "white, middle-aged men" and senior citizens, she noted, override advocates were wise to include something for them.

Meanwhile, in response to a question, Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk was only too happy to hail the results of the previous day's recall election in Wisconsin. There, Gov. Scott Walker was able to hold onto his seat despite a furious campaign by public employee unions to replace him.

"The deck is so stacked against you as CEO of a city," Kirk noted. Within the past week, she'd had to take the drastic step of replacing her deputy fire chief — the in-house favorite — following an alleged Memorial Day protest of her decision to pick someone from outside the department as the next chief.

In the same vein, Amesbury's Thatcher Kezer thanked the Legislature for standing up to the public employee unions here and passing a municipal health reform bill that finally "tipped the balance of leverage in favor of management." The bill has allowed cities and towns to cut the amount they pay for employee health insurance, saving them, according to the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, $117 million in the first year alone.

Time ran out before Salem's Kim Driscoll or Beverly's Bill Scanlon could comment on the Wisconsin results, a happenstance for which they appeared grateful.

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Peabody's Ted Bettencourt lightened the mood by relating how his three young daughters are becoming less impressed by the day with the power he wields as the city's chief executive.

He recalled how just that morning one of his daughters had jumped into bed to tell him how much she'd enjoyed the field day held at her school earlier in the week. She wanted to know if he could order this event held on a daily basis, and upon being told no, he couldn't, "I lost some more coolness" in his children's eyes.

Gloucester's Kirk advised him to take credit for every snow day.

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Globe columnist Joan Vennochi wrote a piece recently under the headline "The persistence of politics as usual," raising questions about Gov. Deval Patrick's use of a nonprofit — headed by his state-paid economic development director — to raise money for his foreign trade missions.

The largest donation — $50,000 — she reported, came from a charitable foundation controlled by John Fish, CEO of Suffolk Construction. It should be noted that Fish has also been active in the effort to consolidate control of the state's community colleges, which has become something of an obsession for Patrick. Coincidence?

Vennochi quotes Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr of Gloucester as among those concerned about the influence of "a few large players" in gubernatorial decision-making.

"With uncommon eloquence, Patrick, the candidate, promised to change the state's political culture," Vennochi wrote. "Under Patrick, the governor, it doesn't look or feel that different."

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Nelson Benton's column on North Shore politics appears every Friday in this space. Follow him daily on Twitter (@nelsonbenton).