Somerville City Council contenders share thoughts on Tufts issues

Somerville citizens vote at their polling place in West Somerville Neighborhood School on Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016. Evan Sayles / The Tufts Daily Archives

Somerville voters will go to the polls on Tuesday to elect four at-large councilors to the Somerville City Council. They will have a choice between eight candidates, and the Daily talked to seven of them about where they stand on the many issues related to Tufts. Among the most important was housing affordability in West Somerville and the payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) agreement that the city and the university are currently renegotiating. 

Jack Connolly

Jack Connolly (GA’81) was the Ward 6 Councilor (at the point, still referred to as alderman) from 1984 to 2005 and served as a councilor from 2007 to 2017. He was edged out of his seat in the last election by 934 votes or just 1.8% of the total cast, and now he’s trying to stage a comeback.

Connolly promised that of all the candidates he would be the toughest on the university.

He said that, during his time on the Council, he worked to ease tensions with the university, working to start Tufts Community Day, open up sports facilities to community use and holding Tufts to a height limit on its buildings adjacent to Powder House Boulevard.

However, Connolly said there’s still work to be done, especially on housing and Tufts’ PILOT. Like many of the other candidates, he explained that he will urge Tufts to build more housing on campus for students. 

He also said that he wanted to see the monetary PILOT payment rise automatically each year.

“I grew up right near the university, both it and the city have been around for more than 150 years, there’s certainly no doubt we will … continue to be better neighbors to each other,” Connolly said.

Stephanie Hirsch

Stephanie Hirsh is an incumbent councilor elected in 2017. Hirsch is a data analyst, who worked to launch Somerville’s data transparency projects like the ResiStat through the Mayor’s Office of Innovation and Analytics.

On PILOT, Hirsch believes that Tufts should pay 25% of its hypothetical property taxes, as it did to Boston in past years. 

She said that Tufts’ contribution to the affordable housing crisis is the most important issue in town-gown relations and said that she would be open to counting money invested in more on-campus housing towards PILOT to incentivize the university to take action

Hirsch also expressed her support for a bill making its way through the Massachusetts General Court that would allow Somerville to request an institutional master plan from the university that would outline its development plans.

Kevin Jura

Kevin Jura is a paramedic and student at Harvard University Extension School who moved to Somerville after years as a highway patrolman and first responder in Florida.

Jura said that he would bring a fresh view to the council and will work to ensure that every resident has their voice heard, including the city’s many students. He proposed a “student advisory committee” that would report on student issues to the City Council, composed of any interested college students, not just Tufts students. 

Jura also said he was concerned that the large numbers of Tufts students in West Somerville was contributing to the housing affordability crisis and promised the issue would be a focus if he were elected.

Will Mbah

Will Mbah is an incumbent who won his seat in 2017. Mbah came to the U.S. from Cameroon in 2010 and works for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Department of Environmental Health & Safety.

Mbah said his first priority for PILOT is to ensure that all of Tufts’ host communities receive payment parity and that the agreement be reached soon. He said that despite the tensions exposed by the negotiations, town-gown relations are crucial to Somerville and Tufts.

“We both depend on one another, we need one another,” Mbah said.

Mbah joined other candidates in critiquing Tufts’ recent enrollment increases and said he would hold the university accountable on housing issues.

The incumbent councilor also made his pitch to Tufts students who are Somerville voters, highlighting his advocacy against Tufts’ tiered-housing policy and for environmental justice.

Mary Jo Rossetti 

Mary Jo Rossetti is an incumbent councilor who has held a seat on the city council since 2013. She previously held seat on the Somerville School Committee for a number of years. Rossetti has been on working groups analyzing the PILOT agreements and is displeased by the lack of progress in talks between the city and the university.

“They’re not assisting the community as much as they could or should, so that is very disheartening” Rossetti said.

The three-term councilor explained it was a good sign that Tufts increased its cash payment to the city in the last fiscal year, bringing it in line with its payment to Boston.

When she was still serving on the school committee, Rossetti arranged for monthly meetings to ensure that Tufts’ programs in Somerville Public Schools were being monitored and enhanced. Rossetti added that she wanted to see more scholarships offered to Somerville students.

Rossetti said she, too, has been working to protect students from exploitative landlords and rising rent prices in West Somerville by encouraging the university to build more on-campus housing.

Kristen Strezo 

Kristen Strezo directed the Daily to Julia Friedberg, a spokeswoman.

Friedberg, a senior at Tufts, explained that Strezo sees affordability as her number one issue but that she did not have any specific stance on PILOT. Strezo’s spokeswoman also praised the non-monetary PILOT contributions like access to sports facilities and Tufts involvement in Somerville Public Schools

“Anything that can encourage interaction between students and families and youth programs and other kinds of residents in the city, great idea,” she said.

Bill White

Bill White is a local attorney and has been on the Somerville City Council since 1998. White quickly cited student housing as his principal concern and said the city needs to bargain hard with Tufts to get new on-campus housing built.

He would like to see the university pay 25% of its hypothetical property taxes. 

“It’d be one thing if Tufts was in difficult financial straits, but it’s my understanding that over the past decade their endowment has grown tremendously,” he said. “It would seem to me fair for them to pay their 25%.”

He too pointed to Tufts as a cause of the affordable housing crisis.

White was especially concerned for workers on Tufts’ campus. He supports unions on campus, praising the recent Tufts Dining workers’ campaign. He said he wants to see Tufts take a more friendly stance toward unions and pay its workers a living wage.

In an appeal to Tufts student voters, White listed his past accomplishments negotiating with Tufts when he was president of the city council and his advocacy for immigrants rights and environmental issues.

Joann Bocca-Rivieccio is also contesting the at-large councilor election, but she did not respond to questions or an interview request by press time.