METHUEN — In a wide-ranging debate, mayoral challenger Jennifer Kannan criticized Mayor Stephen Zanni last night for lacking “vision” to lead the city forward.
Zanni fired back, questioning why Kannan would run against him without offering specifics on what she would change if Kannan is elected mayor in the Nov. 5 municipal election.
Zanni and Kannan fielded questions last night at Merrimack Valley Golf Club in a forum moderated by Methuen Community Television. Also debating last night were four of the five candidates running for three councilor-at-large seats.
At one point in the mayoral debate, an audience member asked the candidates why he should vote for them.
“I feel we need positive change,” said Kannan. “There’s no vision here. I just want to work harder for the community.”
Zanni responded by saying that shortly after taking office in January 2012, he was able to get the once-stalled Methuen High School renovation and expansion back on schedule and on budget.
“It’s moving in the right direction,” said Zanni. “The project had stopped. It took me four months to get a new contractor and get the project back on track and on time.”
Later in the debate, Zanni told the audience that under his leadership, the high school project will be completed next year.
“Now is not the time to change (mayors) midstream,” said Zanni.
“It’s not up to him,” said Kannan in response. “It’s up to the people.”
The candidates were allowed to ask their opponent one question. Zanni took the opportunity to state that Kannan has yet to propose any specifics on what she would do differently than him, if elected.
“What reason do you have to run against me?” asked Zanni.
Kannan said she is running because there is a breakdown in communication between the mayor and City Council.
During the last two-year term, Kannan said Zanni would get upset with councilors simply for voting against his wishes. She offered the mayor’s failed bids at Information Technology privatization and the recent Health Division cuts as examples.
As a result, Kannan said both issues became “political footballs.”
“Methuen is better than that,” said Kannan. “I don’t want that for my community. ... I don’t see any plans for the future. I want a better Methuen and that’s why I decided to run.”
Later in the debate, Kannan said Methuen “desperately needs” an effective communicator to lead the city.
“I am a leader and I want to represent you,” said Kannan.
Zanni said he was willing to make the tough decision to push for IT privatization after employees in the department weren’t meeting expectations. If reelected, Zanni he said he will continue to identify similar opportunities for cost savings.
“That’s how you make the city better,” said Zanni.
Both Zanni and Kannan said they will work openly with the newly-elected council and help residents facing foreclosure by offering them flexible options to pay their property taxes.
The candidates had differing views on economic development.
Zanni said he he will continue working to bring manufacturing businesses to the city. He cited his work with Century Box on Chase Street. Rather than move to North Carolina, the company decided to stay in Methuen and expand its facility after the city developed a tax increment financing plan for the project.
Kannan said she will help attract business customers to Methuen by keeping strong public safety departments and by removing graffiti and roadside weeds. Kannan also said she will also look to expand commercial development along Route 28, which she said is “rife for businesses to come in.”
At-large candidates in lively debate
Of the five candidates for councilor-at-large, only incumbent Joyce Campagnone and challengers Daniel Grayton, Robert LeBlanc and James Jajuga attended last night’s debate.
Not in attendance was challenger Sharon Birchall, who sent a letter to the moderator stating she had a prior commitment.
The candidates were asked if they would vote to hire a new city solicitor and Campagnone said she would. The current council voted earlier this year to hire a private law firm in place of a full-time solicitor.
“I believe we should have our own city solicitor,” said Campagnone.
LeBlanc said he is in favor of hiring a solicitor, but he is willing to see how the “experiment” with a private firm goes.
Grayton also took a wait-and-see approach, stating he will consider keeping the private firm if it can provide quality services while saving the city money. “I think time will tell which way we need to go,” said Grayton.
Jajuga said the private firm is working for the city, and that the council should avoid adding full-time staff when it can given the “astronomical” cost of public employee pension benefits.
All four candidates questioned the council’s recent decision to cut funding from the Health Division, which resulted in the layoff of the health director and a reduction in hours for a public health nurse.
“I think we need to take another look and revisit the situation,” said Campagnone, who voted against the health director cut.
Jajuga said he was frustrated by the decision and doesn’t know why it was made. If elected, Jajuga said he will try to restore the positions and work with the state to reinstate a regional grant that was lost as a result of the cuts.
“Instead of thinking things through ... we just cut this and created a problem with our (neighboring) communities and we lost the grant,” said Jajuga.
Both LeBlanc and Grayton questioned the true reasons behind the health cuts.
When asked to identify which recent council decision they disagreed with the most, Grayton and Jajuga said it was the council’s repeated votes against Zanni’s IT privatization proposals.
Campagnone said the current IT employees needed better equipment to do their job. Now that IT systems at City Hall have been upgraded, she said they are succeeding. Additionally, if the department was privatized, Campagnone said Methuen employees with upwards of 25 years of service would have lost their jobs.
“What were we going to do with the workers?” said Campagnone. “Throw them out the door?”