Some members of the New Bedford City Council and School Committee traveled to their inaugurations in style this year.

Thanks to the free gifts of three local limousine companies — Bizarro Transportation, Blue Bird Limousine and Good Times Limousine — the elected officials evidently got to have the er … good times they evidently believe they deserve before taking office.

As for the limousines, Jason Lobo, the owner of Good Times, was nice enough to tell me that the stretch limo he provided for the occasion would have cost about $500 to transport the elected officials back and forth to the middle school and wait for them during the ceremonies. He supplied it for free, he said, at the request of City Councilor Brian Gomes, although at first he just could not remember which councilor it was that asked for the free ride, given that he talks with so many people.

“It might have been Brian. I’ve talked to him quite a bit over the years,” he said.

“It had to have been Brian,” he said later, mentioning that he also talks to Councilor Ian Abreu a lot. Abreu, however, was the sole one of the eight councilors on hand on inauguration night who did not take the limo.

Officials with Bizarro and Blue Bird were not interested in talking very long with The New Bedford Light about their gifts. 

Lobo said he wanted Good Times to do it because he felt the city deserved it after the tough pandemic year and also to send a message. “We’re basically back open!” he said.

Ah, the good times. Maybe they’ll fully be back if the limo companies ever go before a city board or the council for er …. business.

This is so emblematic of the way some on the New Bedford council relate to the community, don’t you think? Hey, you local business, don’t you think you could do this little thing for us for free? You know, in the interest of community spirit?

Not that there is anything illegal about it. State ethics law allows a gift like this as long as no single individual benefits from it personally, or there is nothing the business has to gain before the city at the time. Is there a personal benefit to a limo ride vs. an individual car? Maybe not in the middle of COVID!

It used to be that the council took a bus or van (one time they used one of the historic district’s trolleys) to travel from the council chambers to the nearby Zeiterion Theater for the inauguration. That was when there was a mayoral inauguration with the prestige of the city leadership connected to that.

But why take a bus when you can take a limousine? Indeed, why even take a bus at all when you can walk the three or four blocks from City Hall to the Zeiterion or hold the inauguration right there in your own chambers?

This was the first-ever New Bedford inauguration that only applied to the councilors, School Committee and Board of Assessors. The institution of the four-year mayoral term in New Bedford meant there was no mayoral swearing-in this year. And it evidently took Mayor Jon Mitchell all of 30 seconds to decide he didn’t want to use any of his own office’s budget to pay for a big ceremony for the council, even though it would include two city departments — School Committee and Assessors — that are not part of the council.

In fact, the mayor is arguably the most important official on the School Committee that the council ended up paying for. His response would be that he pays for the council inauguration when he’s on the entertainment card. 

His honor Mayor Mitchell didn’t even show up for the inauguration of the other half of city government at the Keith Middle School. How is that for team spirit?

Why, however, did the councilors need to travel over to Keith to be inaugurated anyway? What’s wrong with being sworn in right in their own chambers, where they do the people’s business? What’s wrong with the new School Committee members taking the oath of office in the school auditorium at the first regular committee meeting of the year?

That’s the way the U.S. House and Senate does it. That’s the way the Massachusetts state Legislature does it.

The City Council chamber is a very elegant room with a beautiful balcony. It looks like it might seat 50 or so people. Anyone who watched the overdone Jan. 3 council inaugural ceremony at Keith Middle knows that only about 50 or 60 folks showed up in the school auditorium, most of them friends and family. To say the facility was about one-tenth full would be a generous estimate.

I took some time to go online to view the inaugurations of other legislative bodies. I was more than surprised to see that the U.S. Senate itself has a very simple ceremony in which the newly elected senators, backed by another senator from their state, just walk to the front of the chamber and have the vice president swear them in. There is another unofficial ceremonial swearing-in with the veep in another room where the family can take photos. That’s it.

Unlike New Bedford, there’s no police escorts, no band, no guest singers, no guest speakers (there were three of them this year at Keith if you count master of ceremonies, retired trial court judge Armand Fernandes, who couldn’t resist speechifying himself a bit. Three members of the cloth gave three separate blessings.)

In other places, it’s more understated. Heck, even the governor of Massachusetts is sworn in during a brief ceremony, right in the well of the House by the Senate president and House Speaker. You can take five minutes and find Charlie Baker and his family doing it this way on YouTube.

House and Senate members have some traditional ceremonial aspects to their swearing in, but as I noted, it’s done right in the Legislature’s own chambers.

No sign of limousines, special flowers for the lapels as in New Bedford. And why does the city ceremony need printed invitations if anyone can just walk straight in?

For the record, the invitations to the council inauguration cost $307.07 and the flowers $48 and it came out of the City Council’s own budget, which of course is funded by the taxpayers. It’s certainly not a lot of money but it’s just the look of it. More than anything else, it’s resonant of the way the current council seems to think about what’s worth spending time, money and attention on.

I asked City Clerk Dennis Farias who were the organizers of the inauguration shindig at Keith. At first he said the council as a group organized it, but since Councilor Abreu did not partake in the limousine ride, and there was no record of a council vote, I knew that could not be true.

I pressed Farias and he eventually coughed up longtime councilors Linda Morad and Gomes as the organizers. Not easy for Dennis, but good for him as he works for these folks.

Farias said he thought the longtime councilors wanted it to be special for the newly elected councilors. “The veteran councilors wanted to make sure the freshman councilors had the same experiences they had,” he said. Only Councilor Ryan Pereira ended up attending however, as Councilor Shane Burgo (and in addition Maria Giesta and Hugh Dunn) did not make it to the ceremony because they were sick or had tested positive for COVID. City Assessor Kim Saunders was also ill and did not attend; School Committee members Colleen Dawicki and Melissa Costa said they drove themselves.

With the free limos and all the hoopla, let’s hope a good time was had by all.

To be fair, I don’t think Morad and Gomes made the big deal of the ceremony so much for egotistical purposes as because they think New Bedford has always made a big deal of inaugurations, so the council was somehow obligated to do it that way. But it would have been better if they had thought outside the box, especially for the er … transportation.

Gomes and Morad, for some reason, did not return my phone calls requesting comment.

As Mr. Farias and I agreed, there’s probably something to say for the pomp and circumstance. I guess you could argue it brings the community together, it symbolizes that this is an important event. But since so many other legislative bodies are content to do much simpler inaugurations, I wonder if that is not the real symbolism that we should be emphasizing. The American tradition of elected officials being public servants, not big leader’s yearning for the spotlight.

Certainly there is a tradition of chief executives — mayors, governors, presidents —  having expansive ceremonies and grand inaugural balls and receptions. The executive is, after all, the symbol of our government. But legislative bodies? Not so much.

I’m wondering if the New Bedford City Council and School Committee and Board of Assessors shouldn’t adopt the practices of Congress and the state Legislature and do a quiet, dignified ceremony in the council chambers.

At the very least, I’m wondering if they should can the limousines next time around.

Email Jack Spillane at jspillane@newbedfordlight.org.

Note: This column was amended on Jan. 13, 2022, to clarify information on some elected officials who did not ride in a limousine to the inaugural events.

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