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Watertown City Council candidates spar over neighborhood initiatives


The two challengers and two incumbents running for City Council had vastly different views on how the city of Watertown should become involved in cleaning up troubled neighborhoods plagued by deteriorating housing stock, drugs, crime and lower education successes.

The issue dominated Friday night’s nearly two-hour candidate forum at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church, 1330 Gotham St.

Many of the 29 questions revolved around challenger Stephen A. Jennings’s proposal for helping neighborhoods through a “wholistic” approach, with the city, Jefferson County, law enforcement, business leaders, the city school system and others coming together to help solve those problems.

With about 25 people in the audience, Mr. Jennings was also joined at the forum by the other three candidates — incumbents Jeffrey M. Smith and Teresa R. Macaluso and political newcomer Cody J. Horbacz — during what became a lively discussion of the role of city government.

The top two vote-getters will be elected to four-year terms on Nov. 5. It was the first — and only scheduled — meeting of the candidates since the primary a month ago that ousted two other challengers.

Mr. Smith, who has been on the Watertown City Council for a dozen years, blasted the idea that the city should get involved — especially financially — in helping neighborhoods. He insisted “it’s not the role of city government,” instead saying that nonprofit organizations, churches and other agencies already do that work and they do it well.

In promoting less government, Mr. Smith contended the state and federal governments unsuccessfully provide those kinds of programs.

“The city does not have the money,” Mr. Smith said, adding it would become the biggest expense in the city’s history if Watertown were to take on that role.

In agreeing with her colleague, Ms. Macaluso, who’s running for a second term, contended it would be too burdensome on city taxpayers. She also pointed out that Neighbors of Watertown Inc. already works on fixing up housing and is involved in other neighborhood issues.

In saying it’s the biggest problem facing Watertown, Mr. Jennings argued that his idea was not being presented “accurately,” adding that it would not take money to implement it. He believes it should be addressed through a collaborative effort.

“I’m talking about bringing people around the table,” he said.

Mr. Jennings said he decided to make the proposal as a basis of his campaign after reading last spring’s report by the state comptroller that showed 18 percent of city residents are living in poverty.

So he looked further into the data and statistics, and concluded “you could map out which neighborhoods are distressed.”

“It’s not the city of Watertown’s problem to fight poverty,” Mr. Smith said, adding that keeping the city’s finances in order and taxes down are the basis of his campaign platform.

One woman asked how the Board of Education would be a part of that type of effort. A domino effect now exists, in which low scholastic attainment leads to joblessness and that leads to crime and then people turn to drug dealing as a way to make an income, Mr. Jennings explained.

In asking Mr. Smith the question directly, another woman in the audience wondered why the city would not want to try to get involved with such social issues, since it would help city residents. Mr. Smith said he has “compassion” for people, but, at the same time, they have to “pick themselves up by their boot straps” and “must be responsible for themselves.”

With the proposal as the backdrop, the forum demonstrated what could be a tight race between the two men, since Mr. Smith topped Mr. Jennings by 45 votes and finished in second place in the Sept. 10 primary.

During the forum, Mr. Horbacz generally agreed the city should be involved in a discussion to do more to help neighborhoods and poverty. While differences with the plan came out among the other three candidates, he talked about other ways he would like to help the city’s youth.

As he has on the campaign trail, Mr. Horbacz brought up proposals to make drastic improvements to the city’s playgrounds and bringing back the days when the city installed open-air ice rinks in every neighborhood. He also wants the city to find a way to construct a dog park, he said.

Meanwhile, Ms. Macaluso seemed to be trying to convince voters that a change is not needed. She believes the city is headed in the right direction, with such big economic development projects as the redevelopment of the old Mercy Hospital, the historic Woolworth landmark and Lincoln Building on the horizon.

She said council members work well as a team and she relies on city staff for providing information for her to make the right decision. And she always looks to her constituents to get their views before she votes on issues.

“I think I’ve done a good job,” she said.

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