SALEM – A large crowd packed the function hall at the Moose Family Center last night for the major political forum of a moribund election season.
With no mayoral race, only 8 percent of the city’s nearly 26,000 registered voters went to the polls for the September preliminary election.
However, an energetic crowd of more than 150 turned out last night to hear the nine candidates for councilor-at-large share their thoughts on subjects ranging from building a wind turbine on Winter Island to putting bricks in city toilet tanks to save water.
Surprisingly, the major challenge facing the city, plotting the future of the power plant after it closes in 2014, never came up.
There were no fireworks, and nothing close to a personal attack, but candidates did get a chance to take a few swipes at the current City Council in response to a question about that political body’s worst decision.
There was almost unanimous agreement that it was the failure to approve Mayor Kim Driscoll’s request earlier this year for a new lease agreement for the City Hall annex at 120 Washington St. The deal, Driscoll said at the time, would have saved the city $42,000 a year.
Challenger Darek Barcikowski, who said in his opening remarks that he was “somewhat disappointed” in the current council, was the first to mention the issue.
“We’re throwing money out the window,” he said.
Fellow challengers Kevin Carr, Matthew Fraser and Matthew Richard agreed. Incumbents Tom Furey and Joan Lovely called it a “bad decision” and “poor decision,” respectively.
Councilor Steve Pinto, who had the distinction of being the only incumbent on the panel who had voted against the lease, defended his decision, arguing that the city should be looking to purchase a building as an annex and not get locked into a long-term lease.
Driscoll’s proposal to erect a nearly 400-foot wind turbine on Winter Island did not garner wide support.
Three incumbents were either opposed or tilting that way. Arthur Sargent took the strongest stand of the incumbents, saying the rules governing Winter Island prohibit commercial activity. The turbine would generate revenue – estimates run as high as $700,000 annually over time – for the city.
“I believe we should look for an alternative location,” Lovely said.
Pinto said he had “serious reservations.”
Candidates in favor of building the turbine, or leaning that way, included Richard, Furey, Carr and Barcikowski.
There were also strong feelings on a proposal to allow the operators of the city’s Swampscott Road transfer station to start handling municipal waste from surrounding communities in exchange for cleaning up the polluted site.
Sargent, Pinto and Lovely oppose the plan.
“We don’t need 500 tons a day of other people’s trash,” Sargent said.
Challenger Teasie Riley-Goggin didn’t like the idea either, noting that Salem already hosts a power plant and regional sewage treatment center.
“I think this community has done enough for other (North Shore) communities,” she said.
Carr said he has heard all the criticisms but is waiting to hear options for paying to remediate a property under a government cleanup order.
It was Fraser, a veteran teacher, who suggested putting bricks in city toilets to save money. He confessed, however, that he borrowed the idea from Ward 7 Councilor Joe O’Keefe, who was out in the audience.
In closing remarks, Riley-Goggin struck the strongest note by putting some of the responsibility for good government on voters. It was a clear reference to how few Salem residents voted in the preliminary election.
“You have a privilege, people, and you’re not using it,” she said. “Get out and vote.”
The city election is Tuesday, Nov. 8.