NEW BEDFORD — In their first race for the Ward 1 City Council seat in 2021, Councilor Brad Markey and challenger Leo Choquette split the six precincts evenly, and when all ballots were counted they were separated by just 44 votes. Markey, a salesman for an industrial textiles company, returned for a third term in office; Choquette returned to work as a financial adviser.
Now the 2023 re-match, as Choquette faults Markey for slipping up on significant ward issues and Markey points to achievements since he was first elected in 2017 and says he’d like to continue work on several projects.
They’re competing to represent the far North End, a largely suburban district where voters turn out in relatively strong numbers and lean conservative. Consider that while New Bedford voters as a whole last November delivered a resounding win in the Bristol County Sheriff race for Democratic challenger Paul Heroux, Ward 1 was the only one of the six city wards to embrace the incumbent conservative Republican Thomas Hodgson.
The council race is nonpartisan, and the prevalent concerns of this Ward 1 campaign resist any customary Blue vs. Red breakdown: traffic, city taxes, sidewalks, constituent service, a park. Perhaps stirring greatest concern, a recycling company is working to expand with a trash transfer operation near homes, including the Pine Hill Acres neighborhood.
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Parallel Products — which is changing its name to South Coast Renewables — has been working in the 1,000-acre New Bedford Business Park on Duchaine Boulevard since 2018, currently recycling glass, plastic and metal. The company wants to develop a business that would take trash from cities, towns and private haulers, remove recyclable stuff and ship the rest to landfills and incinerators elsewhere.
“It’s a good project, but not in that area,” Markey said of the proposal which is up for approval by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection, then goes before the New Bedford Board of Health.
Opponents of the project point to potential hazards of contaminated water leaking from garbage, fire risk of lithium batteries, fumes from about 200 truck and tractor trailer trips expected in and out of the facility every day.
While opponents count Markey among nine of 11 council members who have spoken publicly against the project, they say that’s not good enough. Choquette picks up their argument, releasing a statement quoting from Citizens Against the Parallel Products Project, acting as a committee of the nonprofit South Coast Neighbors United.
“‘Mr. Markey was slow to act and dragged his feet on taking a stance,’” Choquette’s statement says, quoting CAPPP. The group said Markey attended protests and meetings and met with residents to talk about concerns about truck traffic on Phillips Road, “yet did nothing to address those issues, despite serving as a member of the traffic commission.’”
Wendy Morrill, president of South Coast Neighbors United — which as a nonprofit cannot make political endorsements — confirmed that Choquette gathered those quotes from CAPPP members.
Markey points to a letter he said he sent to ward residents in April 2019 about a community meeting on the Parallel Products plan. He also said that as a member of the New Bedford Traffic Commission — a nine-member body that makes decisions about, among other things, traffic signs and curb cuts — he proposed banning truck traffic on Phillips Road. He said the matter was tabled.
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A truck ban on Phillips Road is part of an agreement that Parallel Products signed with the city, but Morrill wonders who is going to enforce it. It’s a weak protection, she said.
Choquette acknowledged that the council’s part in this is chiefly as an advocate, but he argues that Markey was not forceful enough in that role.
“You can be against it now, but where were you three years ago?” Choquette said. “He didn’t put up a fight.”
Beyond Parallel Products, Choquette, 48, a graduate of UMass Law in Dartmouth and member of the city Zoning Board of Appeals, said at a candidate’s forum that the most pressing concerns for a Ward 1 councilor are “constituent service, constituent service, constituent service.”
He’s making the same promise that he made when he ran in 2021: to improve constituent service by establishing an office in the ward. He said he would pay for it out of his council salary and perhaps also use it as an office for his own work as a financial adviser.
He said he wants to be more of a presence in the ward than he claims his opponent has been.
Markey said he’s aware of the pressing concerns of residents, including a perennial complaint about property taxes.
“I tell people ‘I get it, I’m in the same boat’,” Markey said, adding that the average homeowner in the ward probably pays about $6,500 in property taxes. He said he’ll remind voters that the council cut nearly $9 million from Mayor Jon Mitchell’s proposal this year. Mitchell has said the cuts are for items that will have to be paid, raising the prospect of a new allocation in the months to come.
Markey, 65, said that when he first ran, he was thinking of serving three two-year terms, but then COVID was so disruptive it felt like a gap. So he’s seeking a fourth, and hopes to see through an effort to revive the park at Casimir Pulaski Elementary School with new playground equipment and a new entrance — probably a $2 million project. He notes that sidewalks were just installed for the first time along Braley Road on the same side as the school, and sidewalks were being upgraded around the ward.
He said he wants to see to an improvement now in the works on a chronic traffic bottleneck on Acushnet Avenue just south of Phillips Road, where there are three traffic lights within a tenth of a mile. He said the Department of Public Infrastructure is waiting on updated electronic equipment to better coordinate the new light on Acushnet Avenue near the Cumberland Farms with older lights on Phillips Road.
Choquette says that’s not good enough. He said the lights at the Cumberland Farms were a mistake, and he would advocate for a new traffic study. Markey said that the newer light makes the intersection of Acushnet and Belair Street safer.
Email reporter Arthur Hirsch at firstname.lastname@example.org.