SALEM — With the city's Sept. 17 preliminary election fast approaching, four Ward 3 candidates vying to make it to the general city election attended a candidates forum at Salem High to represent what was described as "Salem's Little Italy."
A diverse set of candidates described a diverse ward, one that includes Salem High where the debate was being held and the bustling shopping plazas along Highland Avenue. The ward contains a fair amount of open space, so candidates spoke about development pressures and traffic congestion on the busy state road of Highland Avenue.
An open seat and the four-way race to fill it was sparked when one-term incumbent, Lisa Peterson, decided to run for the 6th District congressional seat. Peterson was at the debate along with about 100 residents.
The preliminary race will whittle down the field to two, so candidates tried to make their points during Monday's debate sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Salem and the Greater Endicott Street Neighborhood Association. It was moderated by William Dowd, senior multimedia journalist for the Salem Gazette and Salem resident who lives outside the ward.
The four candidates were, in alphabetical order, Robert Camire, Leo Higgins, Patti Morsillo and Jill Mulholland.
When asked what their most pressing issue was all four had slightly different takes.
Candidate Leo Higgins, 58, of Greenway Road, said not enough attention is being paid to Ward 3. "I think the most pressing issues facing Ward 3 is it doesn't get its fair share of the pie."
The retired Collins Middle School special education teacher and counselor spent much of his career working for the state Department of Developmental Services. Higgins asked audience members when was the last time the ward got a new park or school. The ward needs to advocate for itself with one voice, and think about growth, Higgins said.
"The most important thing is working together, sitting down together," Higgins said.
"The crumbling infrastructure," said candidate Patti Morsillo, 57, of Broad Street, about the state of streets, sidewalks and the lines that fade in the streets soon after being painted. Construction in the neighborhood has become another problem, especially when crews work on the weekend or during off hours.
Morsillo, a software engineer who said both her son and daughter attended Salem schools, said she has spent thousands of hours volunteering in the schools and the city. Morsillo said she is the chairperson of the Broad Street Park Neighborhood Association, co-founder of the Salem Book Buddies Program and co-founder of the League of Women Voters of Salem.
"It's crushed stone on site," Morsillo said, something that kicks up dust. She criticized unscheduled blasting. The city needs to hold developers feet to the fire when it comes to sticking to set construction times.
"There is not enough elderly housing," said candidate Robert Camire, 58, of Francis Road. He's retired and worked with the state Department of Developmental Services, working with those with disabilities for 27 years. He spoke about a meeting he went to regarding a proposal for 175 units off of Highland Avenue c alled Cedar Road with a restaurant that lacked senior housing, something that would make sense for such a development.
"Overdevelopment in this city," Camire said, "is like a movie: 'If you build it, they will come.'" The city, he said, lacks affordable housing. He spoke about maintaining rental property in the city for 46 years, but said he had to sell the properties because of the increases in taxes and utilities. These were providing affordable housing to his tenants.
"Salem has a problem with their taxes," Camire said.
"Our infrastructure," said Jill Mulholland, 25, of Summer Street, who works in health care administration, about what is the most pressing issue for the city. Mulholland said she started her career in 2016 as a community organizer for then presidential candidate Hillary Clinton in Florida. Mulholland, who was born in Salem, grew up in southern New Hampshire and later graduated from Fitchburg State.
Like other candidates, she spoke about the city's affordable housing crisis.
"We definitely do have an affordable housing crisis," said Mulholland, who took her 10 months to find an affordable apartment in the city on a combined household income of $55,000. The Housing Development Incentive Program, allowing more accessory dwelling units and rezoning vacant or underutilized municipal and religious properties for affordable housing are solutions she favors.
"There is a lot we can do," Mulholland said.