METHUEN — The high school renovation is back on track, a $138.8 million budget passed with minimal political theatrics and six municipal employee unions have new contracts.
It's been a busy six months in the mayor's office for Stephen Zanni, who sat down with The Eagle-Tribune last week to reflect on the first quarter of his two-year elected term.
Zanni was sworn in as mayor in January. The 68-year-old former School Committeeman and city councilor admits Methuen's top job comes with many challenges and requires long hours.
"It's humbling," said Zanni. "There's a tremendous difference between some of the other positions I've held in city government."
Zanni hit an early hurdle last winter when his bid to privatize the Information Technology department was rejected by the City Council. The mayor said his push for IT privatization — which remains a priority — helped him realize government doesn't always move quickly.
"I sometimes work a little bit too fast," said Zanni.
Zanni said he wants to leave a legacy of honesty and accessibility, but does not expect to make a decision on whether he'll run for reelection in 2013 until later this year.
"I will probably like to run for a second term," said Zanni. "It's going to be up to my family. It's 24/7. If you do the job right and you do it openly and honestly, it requires a tremendous amount of time. And it does take away from your family."
Q: How would you assess your first six months in office?
A: I think the first six months have been very challenging. There's been a lot of things that I think have been accomplished. Overall, I've really enjoyed the first six months. Now that we have the budget in place as well, I'm looking forward to setting my agenda going into the next fiscal year.
Q: What's the most significant thing you've learned so far as mayor?
A: I sometimes work a little bit too fast. I'm thinking more where things should be done yesterday as opposed to today. And I've learned that city government and government in general, you have to move a little bit slower. I've learned to start to pace myself.
Q: What has been your biggest challenge?
A: One of the biggest challenges was the high school, getting that back on task. When we started in January, there was quite a waiting period where we had to go through all the negotiations. But I'm very pleased with the outcome of that. That was a big challenge. The other thing I look at primarily is making kind of a culture change where everybody is treated equally here. And in getting around the building, making sure everybody is on task.
Q: You inherited delays with the high school renovation. Is the city out of the woods yet with that project?
A: For the most part we are. The main thing now is seeing the end product. (Project contractor) Consigli will complete this project on time in June or July of 2014, and actually on the budget that was originally proposed.
Q: The City Council passed your first budget June 21. What can residents expect for services and what can they expect for a tax increase?
A: I think services will still be very, very good. We haven't lost any of our services at all. So I feel very comfortable with that, in regards to how the budget was proposed. The tax increase right now — as was stated already, we do not have the new growth all in. As you know, we set the tax rate come November or December of this coming year. There will be a lot of new growth in the pipeline. Right now we're probably looking at $160 (increase). I'm very confident that number will go down.
Q: What's your assessment of this City Council?
A: I was a city councilor for six years. I'm working well with the City Council. We have a lot of new members on the City Council that are learning as we're going through the process as well. But I've had a good working relationship with them. And I think they're looking for the welfare of our community as well. And some of them have very strong points in their district where they call me weekly, things that they would like to see done within their district. So I think the working relationship has been good and I think being new, there was a learning curve.
Q: After spending many years on elected city boards, what's it like to now be working out of the mayor's office?
A: It's humbling. There's a tremendous difference between some of the other positions I've held in city government. This here is not a punch-in at eight and leave at four or punch-in at nine and leave at five — this is a 24/7 position. The weekends are definitely involved, where I try to attend many events. It takes a lot away from the family. But the most important thing that I see about the job, it's 24/7. You're dealing with a tremendous budget, you're dealing with a lot of employees. The challenge is there.
Q: How would you describe your leadership style?
A: My leadership style's pretty much giving an agenda, focusing on that agenda, and not deviating so much. And listening to others. If you recall going back to the election, I said I would have department head meetings. We have that every week here. In the weekly meetings we discuss many things. But what I have there is a chance to collaborate with all of the departments and getting an understanding of where they're coming from and what their needs are and what improvements can be made.
Q: When you were running for office last fall, you said you would work to change the culture of Methuen city government. Have you succeeded in doing so?
A: Most definitely. I think one of the things was the time to come in, the time to report (to work). Within the first two weeks I took office, I had the city employees here in the Great Hall. I mentioned to them in terms of the work day, from 8 to 4:30 everyday. You don't come in at 8:10, you don't come in at 8:30. You don't leave at 4:20. You leave at 4:30. Now if you want to come in at 7 o'clock in the morning and get started, if you want to stay beyond 4:30 like myself and stay here longer to do more work, I have no problem with that. However, a lot of people here feel good about that. And how you change the culture is being here. You will find me here 90 percent of the time unless I have an engagement outside in the community. But I think by leading by example, people have an opportunity to see what my work ethic is. And I think it has proven well with the others. When you talk a little about a culture change, that has been part of the change I have seen.
Q: You also said during the election that you'd work to end the city's expensive legal battles with public employees. What can we expect with the ongoing lawsuits with police Chief Joseph Solomon?
A: Good question. And I can tell you very frankly, we met (June 19) with federal Judge Wolf in his chambers. It was like mediation. He ended up stating to us, 'Go out, seek a number that you think would be beneficial to both (Solomon) and the city.' We went out, we discussed it. I came back with a number. He came back with another. The judge then turned around and said to us, 'Here is a number based on all the different lawsuits in federal court, what it could take. This is the number I'd like you to agree to. Would you please write the number on a piece of paper. Next to it, put a yes or a no.' We then went out to our own separate chambers, came back to the judge. The judge looked at mine. He said, 'You're in agreement.' I said, 'Yes, Your Honor, I agree with the number that you think because of what you mentioned with all the lawsuits.' The other party did not agree. So at that point, we're going forward with the scheduling of the court.
Q: What was the number you discussed?
A: I'm not going to tell you the number. It was done in chambers. I would think that number should come from (the judge). If you want to ask him what that number was, I have no problem. I think the number is still high.
Q: It's only been six months, but what do you hope will be your legacy as Methuen's mayor?
A: In general, being accessible and telling people the truth. And if you can't tell the truth, don't talk. I think that's been important with me. Everything I've done in six months, there's nothing hidden here. Letting the public know, letting the news media know what's happening in our community. Be forthright and honest. And if you do that, people will respect it.
Q: Will you run for a second term?
A: (Laughs) It's a little early. It's funny because just the other night my wife was discussing that with me. Her concern is with family. She knew I was going to spend time away from the home. But spending time with family's very important to me. The three most important things to me — and I've told this to the kids that come in — family is number one, your education is number two, and doing some type of community service. My wife, quite honestly at this point, is not too happy about me seeking a second term. Others have said to me, 'Oh yeah, we're going to do a second term.' So I think at this point in time it's a little premature.