Twenty-four year old Ryan Pereira may be the youngest member of the incoming City Council, but he will be emphasizing a return to a time-honored tradition on the council when he is sworn in on Jan. 3. 

Pereira says he will be focusing first and foremost on constituent services. As a ward councilor, he wants to deliver constituent services that are “second to none.”

It’s an approach to city government that has worked for longtime New Bedford councilors from George Rogers to David Alves and it seems to be making a comeback on the third floor of City Hall. It played a big role in this year’s election campaign across the city.  

But even though all city councilors talk a lot about this thing called constituent services, the truth is it’s an awfully vague term.

It covers everything from helping someone get a streetlight replaced quickly to helping someone get to the front of the line to obtain a city job. Some of it’s good, some of it’s bad. Nearly all of it is about cutting through the bureaucracy of municipal government. Which you might not think is that big a deal, but in Fiscal Year 2022 the budget of the city of New Bedford is close to $400 million. It’s not a small operation, and finding the right person to get something done can be tough.  

Here’s the way it works. Say, you have a problem with a rooming house across the street, or a noisy neighbor who is having loud parties at all hours. You call up the police department or the building inspector and, if you can get their attention at all, they’re probably going to tell you there is only so much they can do.

“If you’re able to solve someone’s problem, they’re going to vote for you.”

Former Ward 5 Councilor Jane Gonsalves

Ah, but if you call up your city councilor, now there is a person who can get a department head’s attention. He or she is, after all, one of 11 people who have the ability to cut the city budget every year, including the individual department budgets. You are going to get a return phone call.

It’s not supposed to work exactly this way. Mayor Jon Mitchell has emphasized over and again how he has sought to professionalize New Bedford city government. There are supposed to be processes for city services that are based on merit. But politics is politics, and there is always a way to get something done, it seems.

“If you’re able to solve someone’s problem, they’re going to vote for you,” said former Ward 5 Councilor Jane Gonsalves, who spent 20 years on the council between 1994 and 2014. And she says this is true regardless of whether the caller agrees with the councilor on matters of policy.

Incumbent Councilor-at-large Ian Abreu, who has topped the at-large ballot in the last two municipal elections and who has a good reputation for constituent services, said a lot of times people just want to be paid attention to and respected. He described it as being “open, accessible and transparent.”

“It’s the little things that end up being important,” he said.

In an effort to take some of the politics out of constituent services, previous mayors have sometimes required councilors to go through the mayor’s office, the chief executive, to talk to department heads. But it’s hard to imagine most of the councilors actually ever doing that, given the nature of politics.

So it’s no big surprise that Pereira, who campaigned on improving constituent services, is coming in emphasizing it. It’s an approach to politics that works. In fact, Pereira built his campaign around what he contended was City Council President Joe Lopes growing out of touch with the concerns of Ward 6 residents.

And though the city’s southernmost ward has arguably had more than its share of attention in recent years — construction of a new school and addition to a second school, two elevated waterfront walkways and a combined new police and fire station have all been built — it was the neighborhood issues that Pereira pounded on during the campaign.

He talked about crime in certain sections of the ward and raised concerns about what genuinely seems like a poor city permitting process connected to both the opening of the popular resort-themed Cisco Brewery and a recreational water park at the tip of the ward’s peninsula.

Pereira also made the promise that council candidates have made forever. He’s going to have regular office hours every week and move around the locations. This, even though the truth is people pick up the phone when they want to chat with a councilor, though nowadays they might text them first, I guess.

Even though it’s not new, Pereira’s constituent services mantra has already had an effect. 

The current council has moved to address the parking complaints at Cisco, asking the Traffic Commission to allow residential-only parking on the side streets nearest to the complex. It’s a measure that during the campaign Pereira said should have already been done in the planning process — before the residents had to live through a summer of partying in front of their homes.

Pereira also has solutions on tap for other constituent complaints. He wants to move the summertime water park on East Beach farther south, and away from the adjacent neighborhood of beachfront homes where some neighbors complained about noise and trash. It no doubt has not hurt that one of his biggest supporters, Barry Sylvia, was one the leading complainants about the park. No doubt a form of constituent services!

Pereira, who majored in business at UMass Dartmouth and is a member of one of the city’s most prominent Portuguese-American business families, is smart and already has a good grasp on some of the policy matters that also occupy councilors. It’s not only constituent service matters that interest him. 

He says he wants a quicker process for demolishing or redeveloping burnt houses in the three-family sections of the ward — some of which have remained as charred shells for years after fires. And like some of the incumbent councilors, he wants Mayor Mitchell to devote more of the millions in federal (American Rescue Act Plan) money the city is set to receive, to helping control water and sewer fees that are set to increase because of Environmental Protection Agency clean-water mandates.

But it is dedication to fixing the everyday problems of the residents who call to complain that Pereira is staking his reputation on. We’re about to see if constituent services are still king when it comes to the New Bedford City Council.

Email Jack Spillane at jspillane@newbedfordlight.org

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