FITCHBURG — Mayor Stephen L. DiNatale, the incumbent candidate, squared off with challenger and City Councilor-A-Large Samantha Squailia during the final debate before the polls open on Tuesday.
The Oct. 26 debate, hosted by Fitchburg Access Television (FATV), covered a number of topics that have been concerning candidates and residents of Fitchburg alike for the last several years. All 2023 Fitchburg municipal election debates and election videos can be found at www.fatv.org/debates.
“When I began working in public office three decades ago residents had three concerns; roads, Unitil, and taxes – particularly roads,” said DiNatale. “ I understand the frustration with the roads. I ride them every day. It’s our priority to get them in better shape.”
Although the debate covered a number of topics, like transparency and accessibility concerning the mayor’s administration, the revitalization of Fitchburg’s downtown, and retaining staff within public schools, the topic that dominated the majority of the debate was the condition of Fitchburg’s roads and the effectiveness of the Department of Public Works (DPW).
Condition of roads
DiNatale kicked off the debate by asking Squailia what her funding plan is to have the roads paved. DiNatale believes that the real story in Fitchburg is about how his administration has moved forward through economic development, “which has been unequaled in recent memory, with over 60 new businesses open.”
Squailia rebutted by noting the time in office DiNatale has spent and how she believes there has been nothing to show for it.
“I don’t know if it’s about a plan or if it’s about funding with the current administration, but [DiNatale] has been mayor for eight years, state representative for ten years before that, and city councilor before that,” she said. “If he hasn’t come up with a creative idea in 21 years to fix the roads, and the advocating for Chapter 90 funding increases has not been met with success, and it’s not about a plan, I’d like to know what the plan for the roads will be from the current administration, if reelected.”
DiNatale noted that the main factor that is causing the streets to be in poor condition is funding, quoting the opinion of former DPW Commissioner Lenny Laxo.
“While our new street scan system will result in a more efficient method for selecting public streets for paving, please keep in mind that we are so far behind with no hope of getting funds cashed up. It is futile to argue whether one street deserves to get paved more than the next one,” DiNatale said, continuing to quote Laxo. “While everyone likes to complain about the condition of the streets, nobody wants to pay for it. The reality is that, unless and until the funding problem is solved, our streets will only get worse.”
On the other hand, Squailia is convinced that the problem lies not only in funding but how the funding is used once received.
“I think, actually, it is a priority problem. I think the mayor’s administration is hamstringing the DPW, as they do with other departments, and not allowing them to focus on the little things,” said Squailia.
In an interview after the debate, Squailia said that she believes the DPW to be one of the historically least funded within the mayor’s administration budget. She believes that the DPW does an amazing job with the resources that they have but, in her experience, they have priority projects that the public is not allowed to know until they are complete at the mayor’s discretion.
DiNatale believes that Squailia fails to see the numerous other responsibilities that the DPW encounters in a city like Fitchburg, something that he explained in an interview after the debate.
“We probably have more DPW people than surrounding cities and towns, but we have more needs as well. What the councilor was alleging was that the DPW is not filling potholes [or cutting brush] at a rate that she finds to be acceptable,” said DiNatale. “There’s a host of functions that they deal with. It’s not just potholes and brush. If that’s all they had to do, there wouldn’t be an overabundance of potholes and brush.”
Revitalization of downtown vs. repaving of the roads
Throughout DiNatale’s administration, the revitalization of downtown has been something that the mayor has kept at the forefront of Fitchburg’s duties, something that Squailia views as a problem.
“Economic development is great. We absolutely need economic development, but the problem is that we don’t fully utilize that revenue to repair the roads. The priority for the residents of Fitchburg, that I speak with, is fixing the roads. And the priority has not been fixing the roads, the priority has been the revitalization of Main Street,” said Squailia.
Squailia believes that the renovation of City Hall impeded on the funding of other projects, to which DiNatale rebutted by asking: “What would you propose doing with that building?”
“One thing I would have looked to see is put the project on hold until we could actually afford it,” said Squailia. “What I would say is let’s look at this in a fiscally responsible manner, and let’s look at the holistic approach to all the capital needs that we have in the city, and then let’s determine what the best use forward is.”
DiNatale noted that while his administration focused on moving the city forward, Squailia was focused on voting no on a number of economic developments.
“You’re now running to sit in the office of a City Hall you oppose,” said DiNatale.
According to Squailia, the number one concern of constituents that she has heard over the past six years is to fix the roads. She explains that although the revitalization of Main Street is on the list of priorities, it is not among the top three priorities.
“Investing in the downtown can’t come at the detriment of the number one priority of the city of Fitchburg and see our road infrastructure continue to fail. So really what we need to do is utilize both strategies — all strategies at once — and then really focus on when it comes to the road’s efficiency and how we are spending our money on them,” said Squailia in an interview after the debate.
Retaining staff in Fitchburg public schools
Nearing the end of the debate, Squailia asked DiNatale how he will assure teachers that the mayor’s best interest is with them and the education of students; and if he can speak to why they are having such a hard time retaining staff within Fitchburg’s public schools.
“Retaining staff is a condition that exists everywhere. It’s been difficult for most communities to keep people in their jobs. We’re trying desperately. We’ve done a great job of putting together a plan to hire people that look more like the students that we have,” said DiNatale. “Seventy-eight percent of our student population identifies as non-white. Fifty-eight percent are Hispanic. We’re trying to meet that need, and we’re doing the best we can right now.”
DiNatale mentioned that the Fitchburg Education Association (FEA) commended Interim Superintendent Jonathan Thompson on their “outstanding job.”
“[The FEA is] getting along well with him. There’s a working relationship that’s going to be more effective for the population in the school system,” said DiNatale.
Squailia responded by saying that former School Superintendent Robert Jokela fired three administrators of color and filled those positions with white staff to take their place. DiNatale responded to this in confusion, asking why they are discussing the individual when they are no longer school personnel.
In an interview after the debate, DiNatale also assured that his support for teachers and education includes the support of Fitchburg State University, and that bringing students in from the university into the downtown area is something that he wants to chip away at.
“We have a terrific relationship with Fitchburg State. That relationship is based on a partnership. We nurture that. We want to stress to people that we work in unison. We work together and I think we’re pretty effective at it,” said DiNatale. “What we can do a better job at, and this hopefully will come about when we talk about improving downtown, is trying to bring some of those students more into the downtown area. Make it more appealing to them and something that they will seek out and want to be a part of.”
The 2023 municipal election will take place from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m., on November 7.