He’s affable, charming and seems to be getting things done. Setti Warren is running for second term as mayor of Newton. He is on a mission, he says, of building a sustainable, livable community, a model city for the 21st century. In the preliminary, he beat challenger Ted Hess-Mahan by a more than three-to-one margin, earning the support of 69 percent of voters in a four-person, low-turnout primary.
Hess-Mahan is also on the ballot for reelection to the Ward 3 aldermanic seat he has held
for a decade. With the odds so clearly against him in his bid for mayor, is Hess-Mahan just on an ego trip? I don’t know him well enough to answer that. But no matter how popular the incumbent is, Hess-Mahan is performing a service by highlighting issues he considers important. None of those issues warrants turning the mayor out of office, but the community still needs to know about them.
Warren is proud of charting a sound fiscal course, negotiating contracts with municipal unions that, he says, will save the city $200 million over five years. He says the city has also saved $23 million from zero-based budgeting and is on track to reduce energy consumption by 20 percent by 2020. A new capital plan is in place. At a meeting in his office, I asked if he would be staying long enough to oversee the implementation of these capital projects. “Yes,” he said, laughing heartily. (There are Newton residents who are still ticked off that he ran briefly for U.S. Senate just 14 months into his first term.)
Last spring, the electorate was satisfied enough with the Warren administration to pass a Prop 2 ½ override for schools and other pressing needs. He says he won’t be going back for another override “for the next five years.” He calls attention to “an unprecedented amount” of infrastructure work, especially on roads and sidewalks. “Newton’s being rebuilt as we speak,” he said in a recent interview in his office. Warren’s vision is predicated on looking at how the city’s 13 villages work in terms of housing, transportation, infrastructure, schools and human services.
Few cities have funded their post-employment benefits, like lifetime health coverage. Hess-Mahan has challenged the Mayor for failing to address adequately Newton’s $600 million unfunded liability. It’s his top priority. Hess-Mahan’s solution would be negotiating with unions to contribute half of their health insurance premiums and raise the age threshold for achieving lifetime coverage. Warren explains that he has, for the first time, set aside $23 million, much through renegotiated union contracts. Half a million has been put into a dedicated trust fund.
The challenger claims that the pace of creating affordable housing in the city has slowed under Warren. The Mayor responds that, in a city that is 90% built out, you can’t rely on CDBG funds but need a multipronged approach. He takes a long view, urging smart growth, transit-oriented development, an approach the city adopted in its 2007 comprehensive plan. He focuses on targeted development, like Riverside, which will yield 44 units; the Austin Street parking lot mixed use development, yielding another 25 units; and using zoning reform to facilitate two-family and accessory units. He’ll continue leveraging very limited federal money (Community Development Block Grant yields $2 million a year) and will be submitting his own 5-year consolidated five-year plan to HUD during his second term. Warren was very effective in scores of town hall-style community meetings on city finances and later this month plans to start a series of community input meetings, on housing and other issues.
Notwithstanding the importance of getting new revenues, local officials have, with few exceptions, not distinguished themselves responding to local concerns about the negative impacts of development on neighborhoods. When pressed, Hess-Mahan agreed that, in some instances, the mayor and the aldermen have been quick to grab state and federal dollars and rely on post-development mitigation if there are problems. But those mitigation dollars will be too little too late for residents in Waban and Lower Falls about to face the secondary impacts of the Rtes. 9 and 128 Add-a-Lane project and the Riverside development.
Hess-Mahan says that the turnover at City Hall reflects poor leadership and creates low employee morale. Warren says the six percent vacancy rate is average, comparable to other communities. But Hess-Mahan decries “a revolving door in senior management.” Prime example: a five-month vacancy for human resources director. Some Hess-Mahan supporters quietly claim that Warren himself is out of City Hall a lot, rather than being hands-on and immersed in details. Still, Hess-Mahan concedes the administration has made significant improvements in the city during the nearly four years Warren has been mayor.
Hess-Mahan’s issues should prompt informed discussion, and we should all do better at tracking what the city does on housing, finance, department leadership and more. Hess-Mahan deserves credit for focusing attention on them during this whole election cycle. But he hasn’t really woven these disparate matters into a vision for the city and has no unified thematic message to justify electing him. Perhaps that will materialize during his next term on the board.
Asked what “Setti II” will look like, the Mayor restates his goal of building “a livable, sustainable city of the 21st century,” sustainable in long-term finances and energy use, a city hospitable to people of different generations and backgrounds. The only questions is: will people go to the polls to voice their opinion on the city’s direction or will residents signify their approval by staying home?
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