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GoLocalWorcester Sits Down with Worcester Mayor

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

 

Six months into his tenure as mayor, City Councilor Joseph Petty has seen his share of controversy.  The issues have ranged from the city's police chief inappropriate comments, to the school superintendent's attempt to displace an entire school of teachers, to an army of businesses caught off guard by sharp increases in their property valuations.

In an exclusive sit-down with GoLocalWorcester, Petty touched on issues ranging from the struggle to balance work with family responsibilities to a police chief controversy that ultimately was silenced only when the mayor issued a verbal cease fire. He also touted achievements on some of his campaign talking points, including the launching of new community task forces.

Controversial Chief

Issues with Police Chief Gary Gemme  arose about two months into Petty's term, when several city councilors reportedly tried to have him dismissed. Their primary complaints were over Gemme's use of social media including Facebook and Twitter to engage the media and others in back-and-forth disputes. There were claims that City Manager Michael O'Brien was using councilors against the chief. In late March, Petty tried to take control of the situation by publicly calling for officials to stop talking about Gemme. Just weeks later, after responding on Twitter to an article on GoLocalWorcester.com by predicting the new business would go under, Gemme's Twitter account was shut down.

Petty did not want to discuss the matter at length, but confirmed his support for the chief. At the same time, the mayor acknowledged that there was frustration among city officials who had grown dissatisfied with Gemme’s behavior.  In the end, Petty thought the situation was resolved constructively.

“I think we handled it right,” said Petty. “It was a personnel matter.”

The mayor was asked about the city's recent rash of murders and whether he felt Gemme was sufficiently handling the problems.

"Crime is always a concern," Petty said. "In most of these instances, (the murders) have not been random. Nobody wants to see violence in the city of Worcester. I think the chief has done a good job to address it."

Claremont Academy Protests

Right around the time the Gemme controversy was at its peak, School Superintendent Dr. Melinda Boone informed all teachers at the academically-challenged Claremont Academy they had to reapply for their jobs before returning in the fall. It touched off a firestorm of controversy that led to protests from teachers and students alike, a showdown with the teacher's union, a parents' forum at the school and a visit from the state's secretary of education. The issue was ultimately resolved when Boone agreed to allow 25 teachers to choose to return to Claremont. The rest would be given the chance to bid on jobs elsewhere in the school system.

What has remained a mystery is just what Boone told the School Committee, which Petty chairs and which authorized Boone to negotiate with the teachers. No one has publicly said whether the superintendent had told the school board of her exact intentions. Asked whether he knew that Boone was going to effectively displace the 40 teachers at Claremont, Petty did not answer the question directly.

“We knew she had to go to the teachers,” he said. Pressed to elaborate, Petty said, “I don’t remember the exact things that were said (at the meeting), but I knew she was going to go back and talk with them.”

A Taxing Issue

Petty also had to deal with a major crisis when property valuations yielded a decrease in the value of many residential properties and, in many cases, a dramatic increase in the values of commercial and industrial properties. There were allegations that the city's previous assessor's department had illegally conducted valuations, a defense of the practice by the Massachusetts Department of Revenue, and claims that some Worcester businesses would be forced to shut down if their tax bills came in too high. When the city finally held its tax classification hearing, Petty showed his influence in mustering enough votes, 6-5 in favor, of his proposed tax rates - $16.98 per $1,000 assessed value for residential properties and $29.07 per $1,000 for commercial and industrial, a decrease of $5.58 per thousand for commercial taxpayers.  

Mayor Unfazed

Issues like those have shown the mayor's position in Worcester, which some have long regarded as largely ceremonial because of the city’s town manager/city council form of government, to be more than that. Petty said he is unfazed by those who view the mayor’s office as a token position, saying, “It doesn’t bother me. I have my agenda that I’m pushing through. I’m responsive to the community’s needs.”

That agenda has included taking care of the city’s schools, which continue to struggle academically, but have received good news for their overall physical structure. Petty helped secure state approval for a new Nelson Place School and is pushing for money for renovations to Burncoat, South and Doherty high schools. Outside of the schools, he has overseen the Elm Park Task Force, a $1.2-million effort focusing on three aspects of what is arguably the city’s most used public resource: maintenance, programming and fundraising. 

Corridor Development

In addition, Petty’s Route 20 Task Force is working to make good on his campaign promise of new development along that long struggling corridor.

“It’s going to be a slow process,” he acknowledged, adding the project will cost between $18 and $20 million.

The key to any economic development success along Route 20 is sewer infrastructure, something Petty admitted would also relieve a lot of pressure from other parts of the city’s sewage system.

Finishing construction of the Route 146 corridor is another focal point for the mayor, who said: “That effort just started. I think it’s important from an economic development standpoint and having … a corridor that runs right through downtown Worcester. We already are seeing streets in that area that have businesses there. That’s a whole economic development boom. There are a lot of good things that can happen with finishing that corridor.”

That will take time and money and Petty said the city and state must put a plan together, one that will likely include transportation bond bills. On the city’s side, “We’ll have to see what we can do," he said.

A Real Breakthrough

From a confidence-boosting point of view, the breakthrough to Front Street at City Square – reopening an access that had been blocked for decades – was among the most satisfying moments for Petty to date. The revitalization of downtown Worcester has been an ongoing effort for years, with Petty fortunate enough to preside over one of the more historic chapters when construction crews finally ripped down the remnants of the former Common Outlets and dropped the curtain on a new (and old) city landscape.

But while money has been poured into downtown, some have been critical of the city’s efforts in the Main South area. Projects such as the South Worcester Industrial Park have languished while has been paid to the city’s downtown heartbeat. Petty doesn’t see it that way.

“I think it has transformed dramatically,” he said of Main South. “You look at the small business development on South Main Street. (City Councilor) Sarai Rivera has done a great job in that regard. And I’m a big fan of the South Worcester Industrial Park. It’s just taken some time. Eventually, you put that 146 corridor there and the industrial park will have greater access. People in those neighborhoods have done a great job to keep it safe. Slowly but surely, we’re getting there.”

Balancing Act

One thing the mayor freely admits: His new job has taken up more time than he anticipated.

“It really is a lot of time, maybe a little more than I thought it would be,” the former city councilor and married father of three said. “You try to talk to councilors and School Committee members and get a handle on their issues. You have the superintendent and office staff. It’s a sacrifice, balancing the family life.”

Overall, Petty thinks he has done a good job since taking office in January. Citing new fire and police recruits, a new building for the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences, the task forces, a new library book mobile and the downtown city square breakthrough, Petty, although reluctant to issue himself a grade, took a measure of pride.

“I’m always hard on myself,” he said. “I’m learning a lot. I think I’m doing a good job. It’s a different role than city councilor. My colleagues expect to be talked to. I’m pretty proud of how we’ve worked together. It’s been a good experience. It’s time-consuming, but it’s most rewarding to accommodate somebody’s issue and try to resolve it. I think it’s been a very productive six months.”

 

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