Maybe the fever in the New Bedford City Council has finally broken.
The fever for power that has gripped forever councilors Linda Morad and Brian Gomes for years now. The two councilors’ relentlessly high temperatures of ambition are like a cyclone that has swept up other colleagues — left, right and center — into a vortex that now regularly plows like a tornado through New Bedford city government.
I’m talking about the New Bedford City Council in the year 2023.
Morad and Gomes, in their determination to make the face of city government the face of city politics, have approached everything the Mitchell administration does as a transaction that must first pay the Morad/Gomes government tax. This self-interested approach to government, first, last and always, judges politics in terms of what is in it for the city government’s insiders. And as the local media has grown weaker and weaker, City Council dysfunction has swept up everything reform-minded, laying a path of destruction from Sassaquin Pond to the tip of the peninsula.
How did the council fever finally break?
Enough moderate councilors, for a variety of reasons, finally had enough of the bad blood, and as a result, they reversed themselves and voted down all three of the previously approved but little-discussed ballot questions.
In the end, the only three councilors who voted to override all three of the mayor’s vetoes were the councilors who sponsored the very political referendums, all proposed and put on the city’s ballot in just one night: Morad, Gomes and freshman Councilor Shane Burgo.
It was more than sad to see the talented, progressive and earnest Councilor Burgo swept up in the more cynical political machinations of the senior councilors.
Down in flames went his rent stabilization referendum, and quickly on its heels the piggyback referendum of Gomes for a return to the two-year mayoral term and of Morad for a revocation of the city’s participation in the Community Preservation Act.
Here’s how it came about:
On rent stabilization, councilors Naomi Carney, Scott Lima and Brad Markey returned to their conservative and moderate roots.
Though the councilors had initially gone along with Burgo, Morad and Gomes on the first vote to put the rent question on the ballot, after seeing the reaction of the business community and Mayor Mitchell, they returned to their true instincts and voted to sustain the mayor’s veto. The argument that rent control might actually push up rents even faster held sway. More on that in a minute.
On the question of returning the four-year mayoral term to two terms, it was pretty much the same thing but with an even bigger set of councilors switching their votes. This time councilors Lima, Markey, Carney, Ryan Pereira and Maria Giesta changed their positions.
There was evidently some bargaining with the Mitchell administration that went on. That’s a good thing. Lima said that Mitchell has agreed to work with the council on crafting a mayoral recall by-law, and Pereira and Giesta pointed out — which they should have known to begin with — that there had already been a vote on the four-year mayoral term just six years ago, and on the Community Preservation law just nine years ago.
In my opinion, the reason the switching councilors couldn’t see these facts the night that Gomes, Morad and Burgo initially pushed through the referendums is because the City Council is not working well under the leadership of long-term councilors Morad and Gomes. The council this year has been particularly dysfunctional, with many councilors seeming to go along with the president just to present a united front to the mayor. That’s dysfunctional and worse, ineffective.
On the move to jettison the preservation ordinance, the race for the exits was the strongest, with only the referendum’s sponsors — Morad, Gomes and Burgo — hanging on until the bitter end.
It will be a blot on Councilor Burgo’s first-term record that, even though he personally supports the preservation law, he was willing to endanger it at the polls in a year when citizens are already hard-pressed by property taxes.
Those property taxes are largely driven by unaffordable benefits to city employees and retirees and New Bedford’s inadequate commercial property tax base. Putting the CPA on the ballot would have been a temptation for voters to cut a small amount of taxes because of frustration over what is really driving New Bedford’s sharply escalating revenue problem.
Morad, Gomes and Burgo were willing to jettison a CPA law that has brought in some $7 million in state funds to New Bedford for projects ranging from badly needed playground upgrades to historic preservation vital to the city’s economic development to affordable housing construction that is more necessary than ever.
Burgo is a councilor with immense talent and good will, and it was a low point for him to vote against a funding mechanism that has brought hundreds of thousands of dollars to projects as diverse as Abolition Row Park, the Dias Field rebuild and the new senior housing at Temple Landing.
Burgo has also acknowledged that he did not go to the mayor or the Realtor Association to build moderate support for his rent stabilization idea; he says he believes that both would have dismissed it out of hand. He is right about that, but at least he would have had the high ground that he had tried.
And as far as Mayor Mitchell and the Realtor group are concerned — they really ought to stop dismissing out of hand any talk of rent control. Thousands of New Bedford residents are struggling mightily with rents. This is very much a renters’ city and some sort of regulation of costs is an idea that deserves respect and serious discussion, even if in the end some manifestations of it may be inadvisable.
Burgo says there was a grassroots effort driving him toward the nonbinding rent referendum. They included a spate of Greater New Bedford progressive groups — South Coast Fair Housing, the NAACP New Bedford, the Coalition for Social Justice, Old Bedford Village and the Immigrants Assistance Center.
Those are all important groups that need a seat at the New Bedford political table, but that table should also include the Realtor Association, One SouthCoast Chamber and the mayor himself.
Burgo left them out, and I think that was a rookie mistake. It was a mistake that allowed Morad and Gomes to fill the vacuum.
The city is clearly divided on the best way to address the rapid increases to the cost of housing, both in rents and mortgages.
On the one hand are those who believe a government cap on rents is necessary (with exceptions for mom-and-pops and moderate increases allowed). On the other hand are those who believe that government subsidies to developers, along with relaxed zoning regulations, will better encourage enough housing construction to drive down prices.
Both arguments have merit, and in a city whose politics are generally moderate Democratic, both sides need to have a say in the crafting of solutions. It’s unlikely that either approach by itself is going to solve the problem.
But Burgo, instead of using his council position to develop a consensus approach, relied solely on the progressive community. He and they thought they could use the strength of a positive, albeit nonbinding vote on rent stabilization, to pressure Mitchell, the City Council and the South Coast legislative delegation. Even Gov. Maura Healey.
I’m here to tell you that even if that nonbinding referendum had passed this November, it would still have been an uphill battle to eventually pass binding rent control through either the City Council or the state Legislature. There are simply too many moderate to conservative voters in this city and state who have reservations about it.
During the debate before the council voted to sustain the mayor’s vetoes, Ward 1 Councilor Brad Markey, one of the more moderate voices on the council, said that it is time for both sides, the progressives and conservatives, to work together to do something about housing costs in New Bedford.
He’s right, and Councilor Burgo says he will now hold hearings toward that end on his housing committee. The aim will be to develop a more specific rent stabilization law.
Burgo seems to have learned the lesson that his vague referendum question — just asking residents if they supported rent stabilization or not — was frightening to city landlords and their supporters.
Burgo also says the Ordinance Committee may be key to developing a proposal. It may well be. Ordinance is chaired by freshman Councilor Ryan Pereira, who has acknowledged that his family members are owners of rental properties in the city. That will ensure both sides of the equation are represented.
This all sounds encouraging.
Burgo will do well to work with the moderate elements in the community and to try to pressure the mayor, legislative delegation and governor from that standpoint.
As far as councilors Morad and Gomes go, despite their politics, they hold genuine, deeply-held beliefs about the issues related to the ballot questions. They were entitled to advocate strenuously for those beliefs. But I believe they tried to present the recent elections on the four-year term and CPA law as closer than they actually were.
The facts are as follows: The CPA was approved by 8 percentage points and almost 1,400 votes in 2014. The four-year mayoral term was approved by 6 percentage points and almost 800 votes in 2017. Anyone who follows New Bedford politics knows those are clear victories and expressions of the will of the voters.
Ballot questions are a tool that can occasionally be used to find out what the voters are thinking. But trying to quickly muscle through these questions, when there had not been a thorough discussion and buy-in from all sides of the electorate, was not good politics and not effective government.
The city deserved better.
Email columnist Jack Spillane at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Excellent analysis Jack, and for sure the city deserves better.
On New Bedford Light the NB CityCouncil Mayor or landlord bosses to do anything re affordable housing or rent stabilization BLAH BLAH BLAH. That should be the lesson that Scott Burgo should learn fron the vote to kill even a DEMOCRATIC vote on rent stabilization .How are these so called “democrats” different from those who want to restrict voting rights?It will be the organizations outside of the chummy backrooms of city hall bosses and Chamber of commerce that will affect change.LESS TALK MORE ACTION fight rent profiteers and their media enablers!
I’d imagine nearly all the council members are homeowners. As usual, this council is a representative body for the top ~30% of folks, if we’re being charitable.
The pearl clutching about putting a nonbinding referendum to a vote confuses me, what’s the danger in asking what the small slice of people with enough at stake to vote think? Surely they will skew conservative compared to the whole population and the columnist will get the no vote he wants to see. And even if it was a Yes vote, it won’t go anywhere or endanger anyone’s profits.
This is a story about representatives of the local oligarchy disagreeing about the particular manners to use while executing their duties.
This analysis is anything but excellent.
Your disdain for the many less fortunate than you living in New Bedford shines bright.
Your power of the pen is dangerous.
Your personal dislike for our city council leadership is in poor taste, and frankly unprofessional.
Leave a comment