The year 2023 may be remembered as the year the New Bedford City Council completely stopped functioning as a serious body.

Just a month after the council pushed through some of the most fiscally irresponsible employee salary increases in the history of New Bedford, the same council has now voted, almost unanimously, to place not one, not two, but three referendums on the November ballot. 

The council, seemingly out of nowhere, voted to send all three of the questions to a city plebiscite with no prior discussion with the community that they were even thinking of recommending any of them. They were all proposed, debated, and voted onto the ballot in just one night. No committee process at all for such serious issues.

“It’s just a tool in the tool belt,” Council President Linda Morad said of the rent “stabilization” referendum, which is hard to imagine this conservative (though not fiscally conservative) councilor actually approving under any circumstances. 

Like some of the other councilors, Morad said she just wanted to know what the public is thinking. But the secrecy with which this proposal blossomed seems to indicate the councilors weren’t much interested in what anybody else in town is thinking —  certainly not Mayor Jon Mitchell, who said he was not informed that the council was considering any of these three important questions.

City Council President Linda Morad listens as the rent control referendum is presented to the council. Credit: New Bedford Government Access Channel 18

For all the world, it looked like this was an effort to place on the ballot three questions that might drive some passionate voters to the polls and which could then put an incumbent mayor who opposes their cherished initiatives under stress, should he run for a sixth consecutive term. It’s not by accident that they will all be non-binding questions.

Mitchell promptly told me he’ll veto all three proposals, describing them as “a dereliction of duty” on the council’s part, noting that the council is elected to use their judgment to make decisions for the public, not to poll the voters’ passions of the moment.

He also wondered where the ballot questions came from so suddenly.

“It’s not like there’s been a groundswell for any of this stuff,” he said.

The proposals were sponsored by Morad, freshman Councilor Shane Burgo and longtime Councilor Brian Gomes, and though Burgo denied it, they had all the looks of an agreement between him and the council president: The Burgo-favored rent stabilization (some call it a version of rent control) ordinance in exchange for the Morad-favored referendums on repealing the Community Preservation Act and four-year mayoral term, both of which she has long opposed. 

Only freshman Councilor Shawn Oliver had the independence to vote against rent stabilization, apparently intuitively understanding better than any of his senior colleagues that at least one of the ballot questions on such a serious matter should not be arrived at in such an out-of-the-blue way.

Besides Mayor Mitchell, the council gave no heads up to either the local real estate association or the scores of city nonprofits that will be greatly affected by the ballot questions. That lack of communication belied the council’s claim that they just want to hear from the public. If they wanted to know what people thought, why not let the real estate folks know what they were thinking of doing? Why not let the youth groups, historical museums and schools that have consistently applied for CPA money have an idea that their future projects could come to an end?

The Realtor Association of Southeastern Massachusetts quickly panned the idea, saying “We would rather see the city take part in a series of public meetings and debates that include residents representing tenants, landlords and owner-occupied homeowners, housing professionals and city housing officials,” according to Paul Chasse, the group’s CEO and himself a former City Council candidate.

City Councilor Shane Burgo speaks on the rent control referendum at the March 9, 2023, meeting Credit: New Bedford Government Access Channel 18

There has literally been no citywide conversation as to whether these questions are even advisable, not to mention any consultation with the mayor’s office over whether they are in the correct format to be legally placed on the ballot.

In fact, two councilors — Maria Giesta and Brad Markey — both said they had not received a single call complaining about one of the questions, the now-approved CPA referendum.

Both Giesta and Markey voted against the CPA referendum but Councilors Shane Burgo, Derek Baptiste, Ryan Pereira and Oliver voted against making it binding but in favor of putting it on the ballot as non-binding, even though none said they had received complaints about it. They acceded to Council President Morad and Councilor Naomi Carney’s insistence that New Bedford’s participation in the seemingly popular law should be placed on the ballot because they were being flooded by objections to it. The other councilors mentioned no major complaints with the program — other than that it sometimes skews to the city’s higher-end nonprofits like the Whaling Museum and Buzzards Bay Coalition. Nearly all of the other councilors mentioned the good it does.

For instance, just this year, renovations to the playgrounds at the Boys and Girls Club, Carney Academy, Capitol and Strand theaters, and preservation of the historic George Washington and other paintings were approved. Even so, a majority of councilors approved putting the CPA on a ballot that could be disastrous, particularly if it is worded in a way that is not easily understood. With inflation raging and property taxes escalating, some of the councilors seemed to be counting on the fact that voters might think the CPA is more expensive than other measures the councilors themselves have approved. (For the record, Councilor Ian Abreu was absent from the meeting but like other councilors, later said he had received no complaints about the CPA, and in fact likes the law).

The playground at the New Bedford Boys and Girls Club, which the Community Preservation Committee recommended $47,000 in city and state tax funds for an upgrade this year. Credit: Jack Spillane / The New Bedford Light

So why would councilors agree to put a question on the ballot about a program they know is popular? 

They said it’s because it’s always good to ask the voters about a given topic. That’s odd. There are endless things you could ask the voters about in city government. Why the rush to put two of these questions on the ballot when the voters just approved the CPA nine years ago, and the four-year mayoral term six years ago? 

For instance, the council does not seem to be in any rush to ask ballot questions like should the city fund body cameras for police officers. Or should GNB Voc-Tech admit more Latino and disabled students? So why all of a sudden these particular referendums? And why propose them and place them on the ballot all in one night?

The CPA, one of the best things to ever come down the pike, uses a significantly small amount of property tax dollars to do things like fix playgrounds, preserve historic sites and redevelop old theaters. I would venture to say that this referendum being on this year’s ballot says more about councilor Morad and Carney’s conservative supporters than it does about the city as a whole. Not to mention the political ideologies of Morad and Carney themselves.

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Those folks, a minority of the voters, already lost this battle when the question was on the ballot in 2014. You can say that with inflation high and property taxes rising, the voters need to speak again. But that’s true of all sorts of things. Why not ask the voters whether the city should go to the state’s less expensive health-care plan for city employees and retirees, where you could really save some money? Or the chronically underfunded state-government mandated pension plan?

The idea on the New Bedford City Council right now seems to be to present a united front against Mayor Mitchell — no matter how bad the idea, no matter how much it might hurt the city or even the councilors’ reputations themselves.

That goes for the CPA referendum, and it certainly goes for the rent stabilization and four-year mayoral term questions that the council approved last week.

There’s literally been no community-wide talk in New Bedford yet about whether any of these particular questions are the best way to gauge what the public wants to do. Only one of the three questions — the vaguely worded inquiry as to whether the city needs some sort of program limiting rent increases — is the focus of any amount of significant talk in New Bedford.

Disappointingly, Councilor Burgo, whose informal ad-hoc committee included some well-known social justice advocates but no one from the business community, developed the rent stabilization proposal, and did not inform the mayor about his idea. He argues that Mitchell has previously dismissed other councilors’ ideas, and often left the council out of his initiatives, so what is the point?

Really? And we wonder why New Bedford’s government is dysfunctional all around.

Mitchell can certainly be dismissive of those he disagrees with, and unwilling to share either information or talk compromise. But the council taking the same approach gets us nowhere.

The rent stabilization question merits serious discussion.


The problem, however, is that as Burgo worded this referendum, it does not ask the voters about any specific plan. It is so generalized it will only only tell us what we already know — that rents are out of control in New Bedford and that something needs to be done about it.  

What this rent stabilization referendum would mostly do is give some councilors political cover for what could be a very damaging rent control ordinance, not to mention the aforementioned driving of a progressive vote against Mitchell if he decides to run for re-election.

I’m a longtime progressive guy myself and I’m inclined to take a hard look at rent control. But the truth is it’s hard to find even liberal economists who are in favor of it.

Here’s what The New York Times’ Paul Krugman, perhaps the most influential progressive economist in the country, has written about it. He referred to a 1992 poll revealing that 93% of economists agreed that ceilings on rent reduce both the quality and quantity of housing. That would be disastrous in a largely low-income city like New Bedford.

Developers won’t build if they are not free to charge what they think the market should bear and raise their rents afterward, too. And owners won’t repair buildings for the same reason. In a New Bedford that already struggles to encourage housing development and building maintenance, this could be disastrous.

“The analysis of rent control is among the best-understood issues in all of economics,” wrote Krugman.

One of the problems with rent control is that unless it is means-tested, folks can stay in rent-controlled apartments long past the time when they need it, while others who truly need it can not get into a rent-controlled place. This would seem like a difficult bureaucracy for the city to manage.

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Krugman talks about rent control resulting in landlords demanding resumes and good interviews and appearances from applicants, which actually works against low-end applicants.

Burgo acknowledges all the difficulties with past rent control programs and says he’s interested in a different kind of ordinance that will exempt new developers at first. He says there simply has to be some way to prevent rent gouging that is resulting in rents increasing by as much as 100% in some cases.

Mitchell acknowledges that there is rent escalation that has finally reached New Bedford but he says the better way to solve that problem is by encouraging more building. There certainly are serious changes to the city’s zoning laws and building codes that might help. Why is the council not talking about them with the mayor instead of this fuzzy ballot question?

The city, Mitchell points out, has also done things like increase the amount of money devoted to emergency housing vouchers to $600,000. It’s also expanded the whole city to be eligible for state grants. That’s great but it also sounds like just a small part of what needs to be done.

But why are these two guys talking to each other through me instead of to each other?


Because these referendums are all about politics, not solving problems.

It’s so dysfunctional. And I have to say, as dismissive as Mitchell can be to the City Council, he is more often right on the issues than they are. 

Why can’t any of these councilors swallow their egos and political ambitions and do the right thing for the sake of doing the right thing?

A good start would be for both sides to start talking to each other. And for the council president to start talking to the mayor in good faith instead of constantly trying to outflank him.

Correction: Councilors Brad Markey and Maria Giesta voted against putting the CPA on the ballot. Councilors Shane Burgo, Derek Baptiste, Ryan Pereira and Shawn Oliver voted against making it a binding question but also in favor of putting it on the ballot as a non-binding question.

Email Jack Spillane at

Join the Conversation


  1. Great article!!!

    Normally I have a lot to say but you nailed it Jack.

    If you need someone to act as an intermediary, I’d love to yell at politicians.


  2. I guess I do have something to add after all.

    Make it illegal to have someone make an exorbitant amount of money to move in, or charge a fee equal to one months rent. This person requires a person to make 55k with an application fee of $250!!! WHAT!

    Also, rent prices have come down for some units. It’s just the amount of housing available is still extremely limited.

    In 2008, I was paying 800 for a 2BR. This apartment is listed at 1,160.

    But I have a feeling they are just making their living off charging people $250 to apply.

    For the record, the average inflation rate from 2008 until now was 2.38%

    Which means an $800 apartment would cost $1,150 in today’s dollars. (Future value calculation)

    The minimum wage in 2008 was $8.00. That means it took 100 hours to pay for rent before paying income tax (to keep it simple, plus I shared this place with my brother but that is besides the point)

    So at a rent of $1,150, it would only take 75 hours to pay that rent using a minimum wage of $15.

    If we use the same calculation of costing 100 hours, a rent of $1,500 before taxes would be equal.

    I think the thing people forget is that your rent usually doesn’t go up every year. So the market is just finally catching up to years of rents being flat.

    Regardless, having to work 100 hours just to pay rent is still ludicrous.

    In my opinion, what New Bedford really needs is a tiny home community, and some new skyscrapers. It’s much cheaper to build up and it costs a whole lot less land.

    Sell some bonds and invest in our city before it becomes too expensive to do so. Municipal bonds are tax free for investors, and as long as you have someone who knows what they are doing, they present very little risk to the city because they are backed by the rental income.

    You’ll add some affordable housing, create nice new condos for the Bostonians, and you will help get rid of the strain on the housing market.

    I call that a trifecta where I am from. Okay I stole that from the Ocean’s 11 movies but I use that philosophy for almost every decision I ever make.

    Three birds with one stone is really really good. You’re almost skipping rocks.

    Don’t worry…I’ll get there.


  3. Sorry one more thing.

    Don’t you dare build this building without consulting me.

    I got a plan.

  4. In 2020, the population of New Bedford was 101,079
    In 2023, the population of New Bedford was 102,882.

    In 2020, there was 41,511 housing units consisting of various units.
    I’m not sure what year this data is from but it’s the most recent data I could find and it shows there are now 44,252 units.

    And more are on the way.

    So the Mayor is doing the right thing. But people are going to move here when the train comes. But that is a GOOD thing.

    Good job Mayor.

    Your job is safe….for now.

    What’s up with creating the boardwalk in the south end?? That was also my idea and it’s essential for the city I see in my head.


  5. The city executives should be more concerned in trimming the fat within the city by reducing expenditures and maybe the tax savings would be passed down to renters. $120k for dog catcher proves they need to start with themselves first.

  6. One former local journalist dumbed these local legislative bodies “Silly Councils”. This attempt to do government by non-binding resolution is a spineless symbolic gesture by a group of politicians who want to continue to be re-elected every two years. What are they afraid of; losing campaign cash from landlords a developers???

  7. FYI…. Jack and the rest of the Progressives, aka, liberal socialists, the health insurance and pensions that city employees receive is part of their compensation package and can’t/won’t be swapped out the state plan or Obamacare, and their pensions can’t and shouldn’t be replaced either, they shouldn’t be the scapegoats for the underfunded pensions you mentioned, and they shouldn’t have to pay for rising healthcare costs by giving up a good plan that they pay more than fair premiums for.

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