No one quite seems to know when the tradition of the mayor of New Bedford delivering a State of the City address to a large, live audience began.

But in New Bedford, a succession of incumbent mayors have taken to the practice with gusto as the perfect setting to brag on their accomplishments to a captive audience of local movers and shakers. Mayor Jon Mitchell was very much in that tradition at his own annual State of the City address this week. The celebration of all things mayoral was back in-person after a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic.

John Bullard, who was mayor from 1986 to 1992, tells me he did the State of the City before a Chamber of Commerce-type audience and that it certainly goes back a while before him. 

The New Bedford city charter refers to an “inaugural address” that the mayor gives, but it’s not clear to me whether that’s the same thing as the State of the City talk. Recent mayors of New Bedford have given inaugural addresses whenever they’re elected and re-elected, but they also give State of the City talks every year. 

Way back when, the mayors of New Bedford held office for just one year at a time. Then it was a two-year term for a long time, and most recently, it’s up to four years as of the start of Mitchell’s fifth term. But in an era of big annual municipal budgets and millions of dollars in annual state aid, the State of the City speech is nowadays a must after every annual turn of the calendar.

The State of the City is the local version of the State of the Commonwealth or State of the Union speeches. Whoever is in power — mayor, governor or president — uses the occasion to recite long lists of accomplishments and progress the city, state or nation have purportedly made. That’s the nature of the game. Statutorily, it’s probably meant to be more of a neutral update on the state of finances and any big events. But long ago these messages evolved into “Everything is going so peachy” speeches. Politicians of all sorts being politicians, that was probably inevitable.

Mayor Mitchell is a member of this career class and a relentless booster for New Bedford, as of course all mayors are and should be. He’s added his own touches to the State of the City, including a professionally produced video that every year extols the virtues of New Bedford. And the speech for many years now has been done as part of a luncheon, catered very well by the students at New Bedford High School.

On Wednesday, while the mayor was listing all the good things happening along the Acushnet, I joked with a colleague that it could take years to do the fact checks on all his claims. But I don’t begrudge him the bragging rights all that much. There really are a number of very good things happening in the city these days. Still, this mayor is competitive with the best of them when it comes to exaggerating an accomplishment.

The biggest headline out of the 2022 speech was that New Bedford will devote $5 million of the city’s pandemic relief funds to the Zeiterion Performing Arts Center’s major renovation and expansion. That’s a good thing as The Z, more than any other arts or tourist venue in the community, is far and away the biggest multiplier of business in the increasingly revitalized downtown. Why would the city not want to give it the upgrade it needs to bring the best of 21st century live entertainment to New Bedford?

In the wake of Mitchell’s speech, there was reportedly some grumbling on the City Council that the mayor made the Z announcement without returning to the council for permission as he spends what will amount to about a third of New Bedford’s American Recovery Act Plan arts and tourism funds. 

Mitchell had to make a deal to get the majority of the council’s support for the arts and tourism money, but he’s never conceded that he needed the legislative body’s permission to spend the money.

Mayor Jon Mitchell announced the Zeiterion will receive $5 million toward a major renovation and expansion as part of the city’s pandemic relief funds. Credit: Jack Spillane / New Bedford Light

Since the funding is being awarded by way of an RFP, and the Zeiterion is a city-owned building, he may be right.

The other big headline out of the speech is that the mayor will spend an unspecified amount of ARPA funds to design a new terminal and entry way to New Bedford Regional Airport. 

The airport has undergone revamp after revamp, and runway upgrade after runway upgrade over the last 25 years and none of it has seemed to have made a difference in growing the facility very much. Maybe having a better entrance and terminal will make a difference — certainly the grimy, industrial storage facilities along the present Shawmut Avenue entrance have not been inviting. 

As with the Zeiterion, the airport is a city operation. Mitchell will argue he doesn’t need further council permission to upgrade it.

While I’m scrutinizing the mayor’s State of the City claims, I’ll cast a bit of a questioning eye on the improvements to the high school graduation rate and the decline in the city’s crime rate.

Last year, to much fanfare, the administration announced that the graduation rate has increased from 58 percent to 88 percent over the last 10 years and Mitchell touted it again at his Wednesday speech. 

Numbers on the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education website certainly bear the good graduation numbers out. But there has been criticism that the city is no longer counting the graduation rates at its two alternative high schools. There is also a disconnect with the school administration’s recent acknowledgement that 8th grade MCAS scores have continued to lag so badly that the schools unveiled a new curriculum this year and will revamp it further next year. 

According to the school administration, the English Language Arts scores remain in the bottom one and two percentiles of the state.

I’ve heard the skepticism about the graduation rates in some quarters, but when I look at the numbers it seems hard to deny the rate hasn’t improved significantly, including at the alternative schools — Whaling City Junior/High School and Trinity Day Academy. The improvements at the district level (all three high schools) are about 10 percent lower than at New Bedford High School itself, but they are still sharply up. Unless someone is cooking the numbers, the numbers are the numbers. 

Asked about the disconnect with the 8th grade scores, Mitchell spokesman Michael Lawrence said, “Students improve over time. It’s a credit to high school educators and shows how students are improving in New Bedford schools.”

I’ve also heard the criticism that, despite the crime rate claims the mayor made once again at the State of the City, the crime rate over the last several years is not really down in New Bedford. But the FBI statistics are the FBI statistics and they are undeniable. Still, under persistent skepticism of the claims among some city councilors last year, the administration acknowledged the statistics the city reports to the FBI do not include all the stats it reports to the council. The FBI simply does not count some categories.

More worrisome to me than these arguments over the crime rate is the mayor’s claim in this week’s speech that the police department “has a healthy reserve of trust among our residents.”

Mitchell even cited this as a reason New Bedford “avoided the civil unrest that plagued most American cities in 2020.” But if you lived in New Bedford in June 2020, you know just how much unrest there really was among the city’s minority community in the wake of the George Floyd killing that summer. The statewide “We are the Prey” report further spotlighted this issue or else why has the city recently hired a prominent policing expert to contemporize the department’s practices?

Perhaps the areas where the mayor’s accomplishments best live up to his rhetoric is in the scope of the economic development that is taking place on the waterfront, and the upgrades to the city’s parks, streets and sidewalks. 

There is no doubt that New Bedford is poised to expand its shipping and fishing support industries, as well as make a big splash in the coming offshore wind industry. A personal favorite of mine is the commitment to planting thousands of trees that have literally changed the look of many urban neighborhoods. The city’s economy, under a succession of mayors, is undeniably stronger than it was 30 years ago.

Sometime in the next year, Jon Mitchell will surpass Jack Markey as the longest-serving mayor in New Bedford over the last half-century. Only Charles Ashley and Arthur Harriman will have served longer back in the first half of the 20th century.

Mitchell has made a big difference in the city, changing for the better everything from the harbor to the schools to the downtown. He hasn’t done nearly all that he’s claimed. But he has presided over more than a little change.

Email Jack Spillane at jspillane@newbedfordlight.org.

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