From left, at-Large candidates for the Peabody City Council, Ryan Melville, Thomas Rossignoll, Thomas Gould, Jon Turco, and Bukia Chalvire, take part in a forum at the City Hall Wiggin Auditorium on Wednesday night. (Jakob Menendez )
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PEABODY — Ward and at-Large candidates for City Council debated the city’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change at a forum held Wednesday night at the City Hall Wiggin Auditorium.
Up first were the at-Large candidates — incumbents, Thomas Gould, Ryan Melville, Thomas J. Rossignoll, Jon Turco and challenger Bukia Chalvire. The fifth incumbent seeking reelection, Anne Manning-Martin, was not present at the forum.
Melville cited building a new Peabody High School as one of his top priorities. Gould spoke generally, saying that while Peabody is a great city, there’s still a lot of work to be done. Turco said that whoever wins the election will have a tough term, which will encompass a hard recovery from the pandemic. Chalvire mentioned youth mental health as a priority of her campaign.
The first question was regarding the city’s response to COVID-19. Melville applauded the work that first responders did, saying that they went above and beyond in their efforts. Rossignoll also lauded the city for its efforts, but took the time to reflect on how great of an impact COVID-19 has had on the city.
Gould said that Mayor Edward A. Bettencourt Jr. handled the pandemic correctly, by letting the city’s Health Department take charge. Turco agreed, saying that Bettencourt was right to relinquish his power in this matter.
Chalvire said that she wanted to have more conversations about the after-effects of the pandemic. She touched upon the youth, as well as seniors, as two critical groups in need of support.
When talking about outdoor dining, Gould was in support of continuing sidewalk access for local businesses in Peabody. Turco agreed, describing it as an easy decision. Chalvire supported the outdoor dining, but called upon the city to help small businesses by cleaning up the downtown area. Melville noted that there would be challenges involved with keeping outdoor dining, saying that the city should invest in a rooftop dining option.
The next question regarded the use of the city’s COVID-19 funds. Turco and Rossignoll wanted the money to be invested in Peabody’s infrastructure.
Chalvire said she thought that some of the funds should go toward finding therapists for the city’s youth who may be affected by the pandemic. Melville wants to use the funds to evaluate how Peabody responded during COVID-19 and see if there are areas where the city can improve upon after the pandemic.
A big concern in Peabody involves traffic. Melville said he believes the lack of public-transportation use after the pandemic has affected the traffic in the city. While Melville called it a regional issue, Rossignoll called it a state issue. Gould mentioned how Peabody doesn’t have a “rail link,” saying that needs to change. Turco also called a rail link important to the city, with Chalvire calling for an increase in buses and trains in the city.
Regarding climate-change effects on Peabody, Turco said he wanted to see more solar projects in the city. He also called upon city vehicles to be converted to electric vehicles. Melville pointed to the rising sea levels and stated that protections need to be put in place to prevent flooding. Rossignoll suggested making the new high school energy-efficient by having a solar farm on the roof.
In terms of diversity, Chalvire applauded the police department for increasing its diversity. Melville and Rossignoll said that it was imperative to maintain the international festival.
“Peabody is a cultural melting pot,” said Melville.
Rossignoll added that Peabody was built on diversity. Gould said that while local government has seen an increase in gender diversity, there is still work to be done in terms of being more inclusive of people of color.
Citing data that shows Peabody’s population is 85-percent white, Turco said that the city is not diverse. He said that nationalities shouldn’t be relegated to one place in the city.
Up next were the ward councilors. Wards 1 and 6 are uncontested, with Craig Welton and Mark O’Neill, running unopposed, respectively. Contested races are seen in Wards 2, 3, 4, and 5 — in Ward 2, incumbent Peter McGinn faces Karen-Marie Cohen; Ward 3 features incumbent James Moutsoulas and challenger Stephanie Peach; incumbent Edward Charest faces Julie Daigle in Ward 4; and incumbent Joel Saslaw is trying to fend off a challenge from David Gamache in Ward 5.
Peach said that the biggest issue facing Ward 3 and the city as a whole is the post-pandemic economy. She wants to bring in business while keeping tax rates low. Moutsoulas pointed to his ability to bring business into his ward.
“The people in my neighborhood know that I get things done,” said Moutsoulas.
Daigle pointed to quality-of-life and traffic concerns in Ward 4. Charest said that the ward is divided among the issues.
Saslaw said that the common theme in Ward 5 is traffic. He also mentioned speeding as a big issue in the city. Gamache pointed to infrastructure as a whole as the ward’s major issue. He pointed to the changing of signalization to possibly improve traffic in the Su-Chang’s area of the city.
McGinn talked about affordable housing and municipal services in Ward 2. Cohen, on the other hand, mentioned the dirtiness of some areas and traffic problems.
In regards to working with constituents, Charest mentioned how Daigle praised him for his work with constituents.
“I do pride myself on returning phone calls,” said Charest.
Daigle cited her experience with constituent work, as well as from spending more than a decade in City Hall. She was also interested in holding monthly ward meetings. Cohen echoed this idea for community meetings for Ward 2.
Gamache said that he has always told the truth when answering questions from constituents and noted that responsiveness is an important attribute for a city councilor. Saslaw said he was proud of his use of social media to engage with constituents.
In terms of the use of COVID-19 funds, Saslaw said that the money should go toward infrastructure. Gamache agreed, saying that this should include work on buildings, as well as purchasing equipment for the police and fire departments.
In Ward 3, Peach also thought the funds should go toward infrastructure; Moutsoulas agreed, but also wanted to see investments made into the safety of the ward’s residents.
The city election is on Tuesday, Nov. 2.