City needs change: Scott Lang for mayor

City needs change: Scott Lang for mayor
This article appeared on November 6, 2005 in the Standard Times

Nearly three out of every four New Bedford voters sent a stern message in September’s primary election: It is time for a change.

They split their votes among the eight challengers to four-term Mayor Frederick M. Kalisz Jr., who finished second to attorney Scott W. Lang by about 1,200 votes. It was as plain a statement as they could make about what they believe is wrong in their city: too many unsolved murders, too many neighborhoods where people feel under siege from gangs and punks, too many kids not finishing high school, too few good-paying jobs and too high property taxes for too little service.

It’s not fair to blame the mayor for every problem, any more than it is to blame the manager for a baseball team’s failures, but managers are fired every year when their teams don’t meet fans’ or owners’ expectations. And so it is in politics, when the voters decide that things aren’t as good as they should be and change at the top is necessary. That doesn’t mean Mr. Kalisz hasn’t been a good mayor for the eight years he has held the position, only that people believe someone with new ideas and a different approach is needed for New Bedford to reach the potential all of us know it has.

The editorial board of The Standard-Times agrees: It is time for a new voice and new ideas, and we endorse Mr. Lang, who must be an agent of the change that New Bedford voters want and need.

We are grateful to Mayor Kalisz for serving the city well and honorably. He cares about his hometown deeply and has tried his best to address the myriad issues it has faced during his long tenure at City Hall.

He has done his best work in the area of economic development, working with coalitions of business leaders to bring new life to the city’s core, and there are sure signs of an economic and cultural rebirth occurring in and around the Historic District. He provided city money for the establishment of the new Quest Center, which will serve as a launching point for startup companies in marine sciences, and he helped bring needed infrastructure to the growing Greater New Bedford Industrial Park, which holds the promise of thousands of new jobs. He has had success in opening New Bedford as a tourist destination, working to bring the fast ferry to the waterfront and provide a faster link to and from Martha’s Vineyard.

He worked hard to secure state funding for the construction of new schools that provide thousands of New Bedford children with better facilities for learning, and he has lobbied federal and state lawmakers for the funds that will pay for promising transportation initiatives, including, one day, commuter rail service to Boston.

But much of what he has accomplished has been done piecemeal. At the outset of his administration four terms ago, he promised a comprehensive master plan that would provide a working blueprint to guide private citizens, business interests and city officials in building a better future. He never delivered on that most essential promise.

Further, he was unable to bring ordinary citizens into the process of creating a new vision for the community, one that promises good-paying jobs, safe neighborhoods and top-notch schools.

Leaders must know how to listen, and the longer Mayor Kalisz served, the less he seemed to do so. By the end of his fourth term, many viewed his administration with suspicion, viewing him as an autocrat out of touch or unsympathetic to the concerns of ordinary people and more worried about his own future than theirs. Good leaders can never put themselves first. The best leaders see themselves as servants to others, and many believe the mayor forgot that.

Still, the Kalisz administration will be remembered for having done much more good than bad, and we are grateful to him for his service to the community he loves so much.

Mr. Lang will face daunting challenges if he wins the election on Tuesday. Among them: A Budget Crisis

The city will face a multimillion-dollar budget shortfall in the coming years unless he figures a way to streamline government and deliver basic services more efficiently, because neither the federal nor state governments will be able to bail New Bedford out of its difficulties. That will require hard decisions, eliminating waste and perhaps jobs to achieve savings. He has promised to do so and pledged that he will not increase taxes on people who cannot afford to pay more and on businesses that are struggling to remain competitive. He can start by conducting a full audit of the city’s accounts to get a better read on where the money is coming and going, ensuring that the audit is fair and impartial and fully transparent to the taxpayers. He also should immediately examine the benefits and pension packages of part-time appointed and elected employees, which together cost the taxpayers many thousands of dollars a year, and begin by eliminating those goodies.

He has said he is in favor of zero-based budgeting that will require department heads to re-examine the money they spend and justify every nickel. He will have to make decisions about what the city can and cannot afford to do. And voters of the city must insist that he deliver on that promise.

Get a Plan and Listen

Mr. Lang has pledged to complete a master plan for the city’s future within a year. He also has said that ordinary citizens must be part of the process for creating that plan, that vision of what New Bedford will look like 10 and 20 years from now, and how we will get there. He should hold forums throughout the community to guide those who will draft that plan, because if city residents do not have a stake in it, it has little chance of success.

Mr. Lang has said he will be a good listener and that his administration will be more collaborative than that of Mayor Kalisz, and that is precisely what is needed to give neighborhoods the assurance that city leaders care about good streets, better housing and real relief from the thugs and gang members who have taken hold in too many places. He will have to resist the inclination that he has all the answers, knows better than everybody else, and learn to accept criticism, no matter its source.

Fix the Police Department

The long standoff between the police union and the mayor’s office has to end with a contract that is fair not only to police officers but to the taxpayers. Mr. Lang’s long experience in contract negotiations should help him find a resolution that will allow him to begin the work of fixing what’s wrong with a department that too many people simply do not trust. People were more than upset by the thuggery they witnessed last summer when some police pickets behaved in such an unruly and offensive manner that they should have been suspended or fired. And he must find a police chief who will have the respect of officers and demand better performance. The citizens of this city should not have to hear the sentiment expressed recently by the head of the police union, who said that police officers are “probably not” willing to go “over and above” in service of the community. Police officers must be held to the highest standards; at present, they are not.

Work Regionally

Mr. Lang has said over and over during this campaign that he was disappointed to learn that Fall River had landed a new high-tech employer that will bring more than 600 jobs. Understandably, he would prefer that those jobs come to New Bedford, but it is vital that the mayor of New Bedford view the community in relation to others and recognize that the success of other SouthCoast communities is good for New Bedford. Mr. Lang has not spelled out a detailed vision of how he would manage economic development in New Bedford, but it is essential that he begin quickly assembling a top-notch team that will oversee the city’s strategy. He must quickly build relations with the city’s and region’s business leaders, and continue to make full use of the research expertise and trained graduates from UMass Dartmouth, Bristol County Community College and Bridgewater State University. Mr. Lang must learn to think regionally, as well as locally.

Improve Public Education

Under Superintendent Michael Longo, New Bedford schools have begun the hard work of transforming themselves into a more responsive and accountable entity, and at least in a few cases, have seen marked improvement in student proficiency and achievement. Nothing is more important to the long-term future of the city than the quality of its public schools. It is no secret that New Bedford High School faces an abysmally high dropout rate, but the School Department, in concert with ordinary citizens and leadership from the Greater New Bedford Chamber of Commerce and other business leaders, has made the issue its top priority. Mr. Lang will have to keep pressure on the schools to challenge educators and hold them accountable for student achievement and demand nothing less than the best they have to offer.

We believe Mr. Lang is up to the myriad challenges he will face. He does not intend to make politics his career, and his only motivation is the one shared by all of us to make New Bedford a better place to live, work and raise a family. We hope that the citizens of this great community, regardless of how they vote Tuesday, will come together and work alongside their elected mayor so that the city realizes the potential we all know it possesses.