City Manager Public Forum Sees Residency as Issue

The Rev. Reuben Rodriguez has served the homeless in Bellingham Square for six years and said he hopes the next City Manager would be willing to work alongside him in the goal of opening a mission here.

The Rev. Reuben Rodriguez has served the homeless in Bellingham
Square for six years and said he hopes the next City Manager would be willing to work alongside him in the goal of opening a mission here.

The room was packed Monday night with curious residents, business owners and organizational leaders for the first of what promises to be several public input forums into the City Manager replacement process.

Not everyone chose to spoke during the hour-long meeting, but a majority who did stressed that they wanted to see the next City Manager live in Chelsea – or even be a homegrown product.

It was a sentiment amongst newer people to the community, and amongst long-time residents and their families. The City Charter – crafted in the 1990s after receivership – calls for the City Manager to live in Chelsea or be willing to re-locate one year after starting. That, however, can be waived by the Council and was waived for current City Manager Jay Ash – who will leave for a top Beacon Hill post at the end of the year.

Amy Arrington, who lives in Chelsea and works at the Phoenix Charter School, said she and her husband would like to see a resident picked.

“It’s easy to make difficult decisions when you can go home to another community at the end of the day,” she said. “We need someone who knows what it’s like to live here and the things that happen when you live here day and night. That’s the only way to know what we go through as residents.”

Bill Alowski, who lives in Chelsea and whose parents live on Bloomingdale Street, said a homegrown product as City Manager is appealing to him.

“First and foremost, I think it would be a great choice to to have a homegrown candidate – someone from Chelsea that knows what it is like to live and grow up here,” he said. “Chelsea is not Sturbridge Village. It’s a diverse mixture of people. It’s not like any city or town. About everyone from Chelsea is a minority. The next person has to know the people, know all of us and the problems we’re facing…We’ve come a long way and the City has grown.”

Marisol Santiago of Cooper Street said she wanted a resident and a person of color considered for the position.

“I would emphasize that something that’s really important is the new City Manager lives in Chelsea,” she said. “I also want to make sure we reflect the diversity of our city during this process…We need to be very purposeful and very specific about whether we will prioritize a person of color…I would ask you to be purposeful in that the final pool of candidates will be diverse in race, ethnicity and gender.”

However, residency was not the will of everyone. Some long-time residents didn’t wish for that, and it seemed pretty clear that non-profit leaders and their workers (some of whom are Chelsea residents) didn’t necessarily want to limit the search to people living in Chelsea or willing to relocate here.

Barbara Salisbury, of Washington Avenue, is a long-time resident who is the former budget director for former Gov. Michael Dukakis’s administration. She is currently on the new Chelsea Housing Authority (CHA) Board and said she didn’t consider residency desirable.

“We need to determine between what the City Manager does and what the City Council does,” she said. “The City Council represents all of us…I don’t think we should restrict our choices to only someone who is willing to reside in the city. It’s not important at all for this person to live here to understand what needs to be done and to make it happen.”

A similar chord was struck by Ann Houston, director of The Neighborhood Developers (TND) on Gerrish Avenue.

“We’re not going to replicate Jay, but the next person should be of equal calibre and with similar skills,” she said. “The real elected leaders are you all – the City Council. We need a manager who can manage under you’re guidelines.”

Some 20 residents and organizational leaders spoke, with every councillor being present except Councillor Joe Perlatonda. Those keeping score informally said about 60 percent of those speaking called for some sort of residency.

Residency, of course, is not necessarily the will of a majority of the City Council – which has in majority votes repeatedly taken stands against residency requirements in other facets of City government. The residency quality, referred to by the speakers more than any other, could also put the Council in a box as it looks for the best candidates statewide – some of whom may be older and settled in their personal lives and their communities.

“This isn’t a job for a 20-year-old, or probably even a 30- or 40-year-old person,” said Councillor Dan Cortell afterward. “This is a very good job and probably for someone in their 50s or older. Those types of folks often are established in their communities for many years. Maybe they own homes there too. What if they live in a surrounding community or nearby and not some far-flung community as was mentioned here? I’d like to have more conversations about the specifics of this quality as we move on.”

Councillor Calvin Brown said he felt moved by the comments of those who felt it was the City Council’s role to be the residential watchdog and not the city manager – who shouldn’t be restricted by home address.

“That really spoke to me; I was moved and uplifted by it,” he said. “We are the ones elected in the end to represent the people. That was encouraging for me to hear.”

Council President Matt Frank said he had not decided about his stance on residency, and doesn’t know if the Council should be too eager to pin down its position on the issue right away.

“With police and fire residency, my feet are dug in (against that), but with the City Manager I’m still out there and I’m still looking into it,” he said. “I kind of disagree with my colleagues that we need to decide residency in advance. I’d like to see who the people are first. My feeling on residency is it’s a strong preference. If I have two candidates with equally high scores, and one lives in Chelsea, I would probably take the Chelsea candidate. I’m really on a wait and see approach with it.”

There were, of course, other qualities and concerns voiced by those who spoke as well.

Nadine Mironchuk – a long-time advocate and former Chelsea Record reporter during receivership – said she would like to see the Council take the strong step of eliminating politics from the process by refusing applications from former City Councillors and Aldermen.

“It disturbs me to hear people say there is no one in this town who isn’t an obvious choice or who doesn’t qualify for it,” she said. “I encourage those on the Council to make the rounds and talk to people (in City Hall) about their aspirations in going to the next level of their careers…I also encourage the Council not to consider applications from former city councillors and former aldermen because some of those who get the position get it by getting seven votes…That will destroy this process and faith in this process.”

Sylvia Ramirez and Maria Belen Powers of the Chelsea Collaborative requested that the next person be someone who speaks Spanish – as a majority of Chelsea’s population is now Hispanic.

“We would like someone who can speak Spanish,” said Ramirez. “We really strongly believe that is what we want in the next City Manager. We would also like someone who is representative of the people we are and what we do.”

That was another common theme, that the next candidate, or at least the final pool of candidates, have a consideration for people of color. Diversity and cultural awareness and sensitivity was a paramount concern – along with gentrification of the existing population.

“We need to make sure the next City Manager has worked with people of color and understands cultural differences,” said Deborah Washington.

Added Harrington, “My husband and I don’t necessarily want to see Chelsea become what certain parts of Somerville and Charlestown have become. We don’t want it to become a place where people can no longer afford to live here. One thing we love is the diversity and cultures that are here.”

Rev. Reuben Rodriguez, of Wakefield, has been ministering to the homeless and drug addicted in Bellingham Square for six years, and said he wants a City Manager who will work with him and not push him out.

“I have seen a lot of things happen in drug abuse and homelessness here,” he said. “I want to make sure the next City Manager would be able to work alongside of us as Jay has done the last year and a half…My goal is to open up some place here – a mission – and that I wouldn’t be pushed out because I have devoted myself to Chelsea and I love Chelsea. People here say they’re trying to get out of Chelsea. I’ve been fighting my way in.”

Council President Frank said he was glad to see how civil the discussion was, as everyone was respectful and shared valuable input for councillors to consider.

“I hope it’s something the next Council President will continue – this open dialogue,” he said. “People really appreciate it. The fact that before we got the process started, we wanted input from the community was appreciated.”

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