By Brian Messenger
---- — METHUEN — After three terms as a city councilor and one as mayor, Stephen Zanni is no stranger to the campaign trail. Through it all, he’s worn one pair of dress shoes — his trusty brown-leather tassel loafers.
“I’ve put an awful lot into them,” said Zanni, who visited a cobbler last week. After knocking on 2,500 doors in three months, the mayor said his footwear was in need of a quick sole and heel replacement.
Councilor-at-large Zanni became Mayor Zanni in 2012. In the two years since he won the closest mayoral election in Methuen history, Zanni said voters have come to appreciate his efforts to increase the accessibility and efficiency of city government, as well as his ongoing leadership with the Methuen High School expansion and renovation.
Voters on Nov. 5 will elect either Zanni or Councilor-at-large Jennifer Kannan as their next mayor.
“I’m receiving a lot of support for what I’m trying to do,” said Zanni, 69, a retired teacher and school administrator. “I have to work hard right until Election Day. I take nothing for granted.”
Zanni said most residents believe his effort to privatize the municipal Information Technology department was a “no-brainer.” But despite multiple attempts, Zanni could not get his proposal approved by the City Council.
The mayor said he still believes IT privatization will save taxpayers money and improve the performance of the city’s computer systems, but he has not spoken in detail about plans to bring it up again if he is reelected.
Zanni said his top priority for a second term will be ensuring the Methuen High project is completed on time and on budget next year. Zanni said he got the project back on track after a budget impasse in late 2011 stalled progress.
“Look at what I’ve accomplished and what I’ve tried to accomplish that fell on deaf ears,” said Zanni. “I think that’s more than enough for people to see my direction for the city. At the end of the day, they want leadership and I think I’ve provided that leadership.”
By contrast, Zanni said Kannan has offered no details as to why she should be elected mayor.
“There’s no specifics,” said Zanni. “She’s talking about working harder and having a plan. I work hard. What is her plan?”
A veteran Merrimack Valley politician, Zanni said he brings leadership skills and a strong understanding of the issues to the mayor’s office. Zanni served on the Lawrence School Committee for eight years before moving to Methuen in 1979. He served one term on the Methuen School Committee in the 1990s and then four years as a West District city councilor.
Zanni ran unsuccessfully for mayor in 1999 before serving three consecutive terms as councilor at large beginning in 2006.
Zanni believes the biggest difference between himself and Kannan is that he has no relatives on the city payroll. Kannan’s son, daughter, brother and sister-in-law work for the city. Zanni said such family conflicts will compromise her ability to negotiate contracts with the police, fire and school departments — which represent a collective 60 percent of the city’s total operating budget, according to a letter Zanni sent Kannan earlier this month.
“I have no allegiances to anyone as far as family,” said Zanni.
Early in his term, Zanni was quietly criticized for focusing too closely on minor issues — “big on small” was a common refrain among some in the city. But Zanni said he has worked hard to instill a culture change.
Soon after taking office, Zanni said he called all City Hall employees to a meeting and told them it was no longer acceptable to casually report to work 10 or 15 minutes late, when residents may be there waiting to do business promptly at 8 a.m.
“My days here are long,” said Zanni from inside his corner City Hall office. “But I think it’s important that I set an example. I’m doing the work of the people.”
As his first term progressed, Zanni said he learned to rely more on his team of department heads.
“I think it’s important to surround yourself with good, smart people,” said Zanni. “And I think I’ve done that.”