Mayoral Candidates Float Ideas, Talk Sustainability At Forum

Mayoral Candidates Float Ideas, Talk Sustainability At Forum

Mike Carraggi, Melrose Patch Staff, Aug 23, 2019

MELROSE, MA — All five mayoral candidates addressed the public in the same forum for the first time Tuesday night, talking about energy and sustainability issues in front of some 175 people at Melrose High School.

Jackie Lavender Bird, State Rep. Paul Brodeur and Aldermen-at-Large Mike Zwirko, Monica Medeiros and Manisha Bewtra took part in the forums, which was put on by groups that make up Sustainable Melrose. It's the second of three opportunities candidates will have to speak in such a setting; four of the candidates spoke at a Democratic City Committee forum in June and all five are invited to a forum put on by MMTV in September.

Moderator Jacob Stern posed five questions to the candidates, who each had two minutes to respond. The candidates were each given a 30-second closing statement.

"All of the candidates showed their intent to make sustainability a priority, although they certainly varied on how much of a priority it will be in their administration," Jeana McNeil, a member of the Melrose and one of the people planning the forum, told Patch.

"I appreciated that both Aldermen Bewtra and Zwirko made it clear they would lead the community in the right direction on sustainability, even if that means taking on thorny issues like revenue. I also liked that Jackie Lavender Bird and Rep. Brodeur spoke about integrating sustainability into City Hall with new roles and regular engagement with groups like the Sustainable Melrose Coalition."

Editor's note: This is part of Patch's ongoing mayoral coverage ahead of the preliminary election. This report is just one person's account of the forum. You can watch the full mayoral forum on MMTV here and individual statements here. Take the time to educate yourself on the candidates before the preliminary.

As is the case in such forums, there was some vague filler and some direct proposals. Some of bolder ideas were:

  • Zwirko said the city needs to produce less trash by looking at curbside composting, but that "we need to go even further and we need to compost food-waste at all of our schools."

  • Brodeur said too many people get in their car by themselves just to go to places like Oak Grove. He mentioned a "mini-carpool situation" but did not elaborate. He also mentioned looking at a senior citizen property tax exemption to sustain affordability.

  • Medeiros fired off a few ideas at the end of a question about making Melrose a safer, more walkable and bikeable place. Among them were potentially offering a shuttle during busy times and looking at building a safe route adjacent to the Oak Grove train tracks

  • Bewtra also flew through some ideas when asked about how to reduce waste generation, with mandatory recycling among them. "Changing behavior is probably the hardest thing to do," she said.

  • Bird, talking about cutting down on traffic, referenced the city taking back the Beebe School and allowing people to choose their neighborhood school as their first option.

The final question was about whether the candidates would support the Community Preservation Act, a property tax surcharge which has to be approved by voters and which the state would partially match. It helps fund open space, historic preservation, affordable housing and outdoor recreation projects.

Bewtra and Zwirko both supported the CPA, while acknowledging it could lead to difficult conversations in the wake of this year's override. Both called not having the CPA in place a "missed opportunity."

"If you're afraid of having difficult conversations or if you're afraid to lead on questions ... about whether our community is going to move forward or preserve itself, then I don't think you're leading," Zwirko said.

Neither Medeiros nor Bird supported the CPA.

Bird touted her understanding of the budget and the city's "immense" borrowing capacity as ways Melrose can still fund projects that the CPA would.

"Melrose is just several months out of a very difficult decision to pass an operational override," she said. "I'm not ready to go back to the community to ask for an additional tax increase for the Community Preservation Act when the state is now only matching 13 cents on the dollar."

Medeiros said projects could be decided by the voters on a case-by-case basis.

"If we think it's going to be used to really protect open space, I think most likely it's going to be the people with the loudest voices who are going to get the money in that fund first, and that's probably going to be for buildings for public safety," she said.

Brodeur said he doesn't support the CPA currently, but "over the long term we really need to consider the CPA as an important part of our planning going forward." He said fiscal management of the money freed up via the override should be a focus.

There was talk of giving Sustainable Melrose a seat at the table, to varying degrees.

Bewtra, who said her time as a city planner lent itself to a lot of thought about smart growth, said her mayorship would see a Sustainable Melrose summit in early 2020, which would help give the city's climate action plan and net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 goal "some teeth." It would also give action items to each of the groups in Sustainable Melrose, anchored by leadership at City Hall.

"I want to see is us have the political courage to go beyond the things that we know are our conveniences as consumers and leading those initiatives from City Hall," she said.

Bird said Sustainable Melrose should have a "direct line to" the mayor's office and said there would be quarterly meetings.

Medeiros advocated for bringing the discussions further into the neighborhoods with community meetings, reaching those who may not be educated on environmental impacts

"We have to meet people where they are, which means in many cases they're not necessarily going to be even in this room," she said.

There was discussion about the DPW director position, which Mayor Gail Infurna recently filled in an interim capacity after taking some heat for seeking a permanent hire before the end of her term.

"We have a huge opportunity for the next mayor coming in to name a DPW director who can fill the role with sustainability as being one of the core pillars of that job," Bird said.

Brodeur, who this week received an endorsement from the Environmental League of Massachusetts, said he was disappointed the job description for the DPW position didn't include anything about climate change or adaptability.

"We can't miss any opportunity to move forward," he said. 

Bird also mentioned the need to fill the role of recycling coordinator, which has fallen by the wayside due to what she said was budget issues.

Zwirko said the position had been budgeted for, but that leadership in City Hall didn't commit to filling the position after the recycling coordinator left last year.

The Vespa-riding Zwirko appeared most in his element. Touting his time at "the greenest college in America" — College of the Atlantic — he pitched himself as a problem solver who knows which problems to solve because he experiences them daily as a T rider and foot-trafficker.

"You want a mayor who knows what it's like to bike and walk throughout the city and know where some of the trouble spots are," he said.

Zwirko, who said in Monday night's Board of Aldermen meeting that it's past time to have to be urging people to stop using plastic straws, indicated his top priority would be sustainability.

"When we're talking about green technologies and sustainability, it has to be the first question asked in everything that we do," Zwirko said.

Mike Zwirko