LYNN – Mayor Judith Flanagan Kennedy and challenger state Sen. Thomas M. McGee (D-Lynn) squared off in the first of six debates for the corner office.
While the tone for the one-hour debate was calm for the most part, there were some fireworks for the nearly 200 voters who attended the event at the Thurgood Marshall Middle School.
Early in the evening, McGee called for an audit of the city’s finances, noting City Hall faces an $8.5 million deficit.
“The question is why do we continue to flounder when it comes to our budget,” he said. “We need a full forensic audit to see where we stand … and we need to have full transparency … the challenge is: where is the money going?”
Despite suffering from laryngitis, Kennedy shot back that the city recently had a full audit she called “ridiculous.”
“The audit suggested no raises for city employees until 2022, and that we should immediately lay off as many as 30 people,” she said. “That’s not possible. When the matter goes to arbitration, there has never been a zero percent raise. If I laid off anyone in the Fire Department, we would not meet minimum staffing levels … and our budget is transparent, I was the first mayor to put it online.”
While McGee trounced the mayor in last month’s primary election by a 72 to 28 percent margin, Kennedy came out swinging.
On the controversial issue of sanctuary cities, Kennedy challenged McGee to make his position clear.
“As a constituent, I haven’t received a direct answer on where you stand,” she said. “It’s very clear, yes or no. I say no.”
While Boston, Cambridge, Lawrence, Newton, and Somerville have agreed to limit cooperation with the the federal authorities to enforce immigration law, the mayor said nothing should interfere with federal law enforcement officers doing their jobs.
McGee declined to provide a yes or no response. Instead he said the city should focus on working with police, making sure the community is safe, that police are doing their job and residents feel safe about reporting crime to police.
In his opening remarks, McGee said the city is at a critical time in its history.
“We have great potential, but we haven’t reached our potential yet and we can do better,” he said. “Our real strength is in our people.”
But Kennedy said much has been accomplished in her two terms. She cited the new Marshall Middle School, the new Market Basket at the former General Electric Co. site with 300 jobs, Kettle Cuisine with another 250 jobs, improvements to Wyoma Square, new equipment for the Fire Department, improved parks, a reverse 911, and free recycling bins.
On the question of whether the city should hire a city planner and create a planning department, McGee said other cities have vibrant planning offices and Lynn should do the same.
“We have great opportunities, but we need a professional planning department,” he said.
The mayor agreed and had allocated money to hire someone. But she said just having one person without a full department was not the answer and the cash for a new department was not possible now. She challenged McGee on how he would pay for it.
“We have to find a way to fund it,” he said. “Other cities have and Lynn has greater opportunities than places like Lowell, Lawrence, New Bedford and Fall River.”
On building new schools, both agreed it was necessary to provide Lynn students with not only great teachers, but modern facilities to match.
McGee raised the issue of gridlock and cited the need for bike lanes.
“Nine of the Top 20 most dangerous intersections are in Lynn,” he said. “We are struggling to create a traffic plan that works, we have crumbling infrastructure, and no access for people on bikes.”
In response, Kennedy said the new rotary near the Market Basket is just one example of going from gridlock to traffic that moves.
“That $2 million investment at Federal Street is keeping the traffic moving and providing a safe refuge for pedestrians who use the new supermarket,” she said. “Bikes are not appropriate for every Lynn street.”
The election is set for Nov. 7.