LYNN — Candidates for councilor-at-large sounded off on everything from economic development and the city’s budget to public safety and the public schools in a debate at the Porthole Restaurant Wednesday night.
A crowded room of spectators heard from incumbents Buzzy Barton, Brian LaPierre, and Hong Net, and challengers Brian Field, Jaime Figueroa, Richard Ford, John Ladd, and Taso Nikolakopoulos.
Voters will elect four of the candidates on Nov. 7. Councilor-at-large Dan Cahill is not seeking reelection, clearing the way for at least one new at-large councilor.
When moderator and former Police Chief John Suslak asked the candidates about public safety, they all agreed the Police Department needed more funding.
Field, who ran for Ward 7 in 2015 but lost to Councilor John “Jay” Walsh, said the city has lost 164 police officers, had 50 overdose deaths, and 12 murders this year. He called the facts concerning and described a ripple effect cuts to the police department have on the city as a whole.
“We scare off a lot of families and we scare off a lot of businesses looking to invest in our city,” said Field. “Cuts to public safety is a loss of investment to our city.”
The other candidates echoed his concern. Figueroa stressed that public safety in Lynn needs to be fully funded, and community policing and school resource officers need to be brought back.
“We won’t see $1 invested in Lynn until we start funding public safety, until our fire department stops experiencing brown-outs, and we are looking at a prosperous city with great new zoning ordinances that allows businesses to come in,” said Figueroa.
Nikolakopoulos said the problem begins with police officers and firefighters applying for their own grants and, since it’s not their expertise, applying for only grants that seem most obtainable. He argued that the city should have a planner and grant writer to take on those tasks to secure Lynn more funding.
The other candidates agreed.
“Lynn is in trouble financially,” said Barton. “Until we get a city planner or grant writer to right this ship, we are in trouble. People keep saying we can’t afford a city planner. We can’t afford not to have a city planner.”
The incumbents were positive about recent economic growth in the city.
“Of all the topics we’re discussing tonight I think we’re doing the best with economic development,” said LaPierre. “I do point to some accomplishments in the downtown right now, some new businesses, restaurants and the like with the arts and cultural district.”
He listed the new Market Basket, the redevelopment of the Beacon Chevrolet site, the expansion to North Shore Community College, and the potential to lure in Amazon.
“We have to be in the game to play in the game,” said LaPierre.
Net said that Economic Development Industrial Corporation Executive Director James M. Cowdell has done a good job but he needs people to help him. Ford argued that there are people who work on economic development tasks that a city planner could perform, including Community Development Director Jamie Marsh.
“A lot of businesses have started to look at Lynn as a destination for investment,” he said. “There are a lot of things going on in our city right now. I think we do a pretty good job as a city despite needing more money to promote our city. I have been advocating for a business manager for the last four years. I think this person will be a great asset to promote our city.”
Ladd said he was the only candidate with a real estate background, and, therefore the only candidate who can bring something to the table that’s not already there regarding economic development. He said it was most important to increase the commercial tax base by fostering relationships with established businesses and bringing in new businesses, big and small.
The master plan for the city includes 80 percent housing on the waterfront, something that is not sustainable, said Nikolakopoulos.
“Lynn is a working city and we’ve got to get back to that through zoning,” he said. “We have all the resources here. We’re already tapped into manufacturing right now — we’ve got Kettle Cuisine, Fluff, Bentwater Brewery, Traditional Breads, Sidekim Foods, and Old Neighborhood Foods. We’re already in the food industry. Let’s continue that. Let’s bring jobs back into the city.”
The candidates all agreed the city has a problem with overcrowding and crumbling infrastructure in the schools. Barton acknowledged the vote to replace the antiquated Pickering Middle School with two new schools was turned down because of more than just the increase in taxes. “We failed our kids,” said Field.
He said the process should have included more transparency and community involvement.