I’m walking along the upper part of Rockdale Avenue with John Robinson when I suddenly realize he has a written list of problems in his neighborhood that he has been reading from. We’d been walking for almost an hour and he had all kinds of things in this neighborhood, located hard by Interstate 195 and the Dartmouth town line, that he had wanted to address. And he didn’t want to finish until he had told me about each one of them. So he had taken this list with him.
Here are some of the things that Robinson said are on people’s minds in his neighborhood:
- Trash that’s dumped along the shoulder of I-195 off Wilbur Street, both on the state and city’s side of the fence.
- Decades passing, with the city never constructing streetlights on single-family streets.
- A residential neighborhood on Pamela Drive where the cars routinely drive 60 mph in 35 mph zones.
- A dangerous Hathaway Road intersection where the lack of a street light has caused vehicles to plow into a house three times.
- A broken telephone pole where two poles have been nailed together, terrifying the neighbors there will be a fire.
John Robinson speaks with Jack Spillane:
When Robinson first thought about running for City Council, he said he thought he would talk about things like the city’s effort to develop a wind turbine business and how the city could lower property taxes and still provide the same level of services to homeowners. But when he began knocking on doors, he found out what was really on people’s minds and those matters were issues closer to home.
“When I started, I let the neighbors, they directed my campaign for me. They’re the ones that … they tell me all the concerns that they have,” he said.
A ward councilor, Robinson said, doesn’t so much look at the intricacies of things like wind turbine policies. “The main role of a councilor is somebody to keep on top of things in the ward.”
Robinson has found the recent ward councilors in Ward 3 lacking in that ability. And although he said he does not want to run a negative campaign, he said the people he has been talking with have been frustrated with just-resigned Councilor Hugh Dunn.
“So many people said that when we talked to Dunn, nothing ever happened,” he said. “And criticism of him, and this is on the record, ‘There’s two meetings a month, God you might have to drive an hour to attend the meeting or not. You accepted the position!’”
Robinson was talking about the fact Dunn resigned because he said a long commute to a new job in Boston would not allow him to perform his councilor duties.
Robinson said it’s not that Dunn did not do anything good, he once warned them about a slumlord about to purchase a property, but in general, he was not a good advocate for the neighborhood.
Dunn did not return my phone call asking him for comment.
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Robinson also expressed frustration with former Ward 3 Councilor Kathy Dehner, who lives in the same neighborhood as him and whom he described as “a nice person.” “But the reason she was there before, she missed a tremendous amount of City Council meetings,” he said.
Dehner was previously defeated in a re-election bid in 2011, and was criticized at the time for missing meetings and being poor on constituent services. She has said she has learned from her mistakes during this campaign.
“I will be at every meeting. Absolutely,” Robinson said. “The one thing I do, whenever I take hold of anything at all, it’s a responsibility. It’s not something I take lightly. I wouldn’t take it if I didn’t want to do the job.”
Robinson, 64, was a music teacher up until the pandemic shut down his business. A graduate of Berklee College of Music, he had a business teaching in private (mostly Catholic schools) that stretched from Rhode Island to Cape Cod.
In running his own business, he said, he learned the importance of good communication. When he got home every night from teaching, he had to answer calls to parents. “If you don’t do that, you don’t have a business,” he said.
Robinson said it’s the same thing for a city councilor. “You gotta do the job.”
“I think a lot of the people aren’t so much interested in doing the job as being the job,” he said. “They want to be seen as a city councilor. They don’t really want to do the work, or (they want to) let someone else do the work.”
When you walk around Robinson’s neighborhood with him, you can tell how much he cares about the state of things, and you can tell he is old enough to remember when the service was good.
On Wilbur Street, he points out the rubbish on the road’s shoulder and said the neighbors got so tired of waiting for the city and the state they sometimes cleaned it up themselves.
“Every single neighbor told me this,” he said.
“This has never been cleaned up in how long. The city always cleaned it up for years,” he says of years gone by.
And there’s no street light for a long stretch of this street, Robinson said, even though the residents of the area pay as high taxes as anyone else. He knows for a fact that one of the neighbors has asked the city for a street light, Robinson said.
“It’s very, very, very dark. And we’ve asked and asked and asked and asked.”
Over on Pamela Drive, Robinson said the residents were so upset about motorists speeding on the through the street lined with single-family homes, that they formed a neighborhood group. They met with the Traffic Commission, but their quest for a streetlight was denied. They tried to get a stop sign instead but were left with a sign that measures the speed of passing motorists, something that hasn’t fixed the problem, he said.
“They told the neighbors, see how it works out. If it works out, we’ll keep it, if it doesn’t work out, then…,” his voice trailed off. “They don’t like it,” Robinson said. “They still would like to have a stop sign.”
And down the road, the neighbors would like a bus stop that was eliminated after an accident to be reinstalled, Robinson said. And the neighbors would also like a sidewalk on Rockdale Avenue, where the elderly and disabled are unable to go for a walk.
A ward councilor has to have the personality to work with people, to talk to people and get things done, Robinson said. “The more I looked at this … the more I said: ‘Is this a microcosm of the whole city? Is communication the main problem?’”
“I just don’t see it happening over here,” he said, “And the more I looked on it, I wonder if all these problems, if they’re here, I wonder if they exist all over the city, too. You have the same things. They just don’t tend to get done.”
Robinson reminds me a little of that news anchor in the old movie “Network” who becomes so frustrated with things not working that one night he shouts out “I’m mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.”
Not because Robinson is not a serious guy; he is. He’s smart, and he understands the city’s issues. He can talk to you about the problems with the traffic on Hathaway Road, or why it has taken so long to develop the Advanced Manufacturing Campus at the golf course or the Hicks-Logan neighborhood on the waterfront.
He’s just one of those guys who remembers when things worked better and wonders why they can’t work better again.
As he has gone around the neighborhood, he has found the residents are not even familiar with the issues like the coming industrial park or the marijuana dispensary slated for Hathaway Road. I suggest it may be the decline of newspapers, and he says maybe I’m right.
I think he knows he’s poured his heart out to me, and he says he’s a little nervous talking to me because he’s not a professional politician.
“Up until 10 or 15 years ago, I knew what was going on on the City Council. I knew the city councilors. I had an idea what they stand for. Now I don’t,” Robinson said. “And I don’t hear much coming out about what’s going to happen, what’s going on with the mayor or whatever.”
Editor’s note: This is one in a series of walking profiles with each of the seven candidates in the Jan. 24 preliminary election for Ward 3 city councilor. Read Jack Spillane’s overview of the race with links to all seven profiles.
Email Jack Spillane at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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