Uncivil civic discourse in Medford

Kayana Szymczak for The Boston Globe
Medford city councilors listened as Department of Public Works commissioner John “Jack’’ Buckley addressed the council during a meeting last month.

MEDFORD - On a Tuesday night in January on the second floor of Medford City Hall, City Councilor Michael Marks was getting frustrated.

For nearly an hour, the City Council had attempted to extract from the public works commissioner details on a plan to spend $500,000 to address hundreds of broken sidewalk sections and dead tree stumps.

“So you’re telling me, Mr. Buckley, that all of the stumps are going to be done with this one fell swoop?’’ Marks asked public works commissioner John “Jack’’ Buckley.


“We certainly hope to do that,’’ Buckley said.

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“Certainly hope?’’ Marks shot back.

“All we have is hope,’’ Buckley said.

“Well, I can’t operate government on hope,’’ Marks said. “There are hard facts in government, and I’m trying to get the hard facts tonight.’’

After roughly 59 minutes of debate, the sidewalk work, a small sliver of a $28 million capital improvement project still under consideration by the councilors, was through a second reading.


George R. Sacco, who has been involved in Medford politics for a half century, sat in the audience with his arms crossed. He shook his head.

“We’re down 40 police officers,’’ Sacco said in a later interview. “Our infrastructure is really in trouble. I think all of that started to pressure the council. The blood pressure started to rise.’’

And with it, he said, so has the rhetoric.

The Medford City Council, which meets once a week, often becomes a forum for outbursts, petty squabbles, and resentment of old disagreements and the city’s longtime mayor. As legislative bodies go, the seven-member Medford council has long been among the most raucous in the region.

“There has been a lot of bad behavior there,’’ said Councilor Frederick N. Dello Russo Jr., whose father, Fred Sr., served on the council from 1972 to 1978 and from 1982 to 1987. “It’s unfortunate. It prevents us from getting our job done.’’


Medford’s tradition of vibrant, outspoken politics contributes to the city’s unique DNA, some councilors said. Others described the council’s style as productive, if not a unique mishmash of personalities.

Members of the public spilled into the hallway during a meeting between the mayor and City Council in the committee room at Medford City Hall.

“I wouldn’t call it a circus, I’d call it a debate,’’ said Robert A. Maiocco, the council president for more than a dozen years. “We have council rules that have to be adhered to. . . . But some people are more aggressive than others.’’

Sacco said he feared the councilors were descending into a style of personal attack politics unseen in the city since the 1980s, when the televised meetings were viewed by many as entertainment, not governance.

“For whatever reason, [the councilors] leave the committee-of-the-whole meeting, go into the council chamber, the cameras go on, and all hell breaks loose,’’ Sacco said.

Not that many are there to hear it. Unless an issue directly touches a neighborhood or a particular group, the Howard F. Alden Memorial Chamber is usually almost empty, Sacco said, leaving councilors to sermonize at will.

“Last night, there was something that came up, and Councilor [Paul] Camuso, he made a speech,’’ he said. “It was almost like a sermon. I crossed myself like I was at church.’’

Most often the discussion centers on Mayor Michael J. McGlynn, whose 24-year incumbency is the longest of any mayor in the state.

“We have members of the City Council who give the mayor unconditional support,’’ said Marks. “If you’re not willing to give unconditional support, you get put on the back burner.’’

The mayor shrugged off the verbal jousting.

“I don’t get involved in a lot of the verbal attacks that come over the rail,’’ McGlynn said. “I know that there are some people on the council who don’t like me. But it’s not about me, and it’s not about them. It’s about the people who we provide services for.’’

Maiocco said he has always tried to keep discussion civil and productive.

“I’m not going to shut somebody off because they lose their temper over an issue,’’ he said. “But some people are more aggressive than others.’’

Councilor Richard Caraviello, the newest member of the panel, said he was elected in November on two planks: deliver better and more consistent services, and combat the aggressive tone at council meetings that often leads to shouting matches.

“A majority of the complaints were: ‘What are you going to do about Tuesday nights?’ ’’ Caraviello said, describing what he heard from voters. “I know that shouldn’t be a campaign issue, but it was.’’

City officials who have disagreed on issues for years at least agreed that the tone and intensity are rooted in a general passion for politics.

“To get elected in Medford, you had to walk the streets,’’ said Stephen Puleo, a Weymouth author who spent four years reporting on the council until 1984 for the Medford Mercury. “It was retail politics.’’

The stakes felt high then, Puleo said. Scores of people would pack the chamber every Tuesday night; people would come from out of town or watch on local access TV. Meetings would sometimes stretch until 1 in the morning. At one point, hundreds turned out for a discussion of water rates.

Once, during a contract dispute, a firefighter hopped the wooden railing surrounding the dais and assaulted a councilor.

“The politics has always been rough and tumble there,’’ Puleo said. “Things were very open. Yeah, they aired their dirty laundry, but what’s wrong with that in government?’’

Now, as the council debates a nearly $30 million capital improvement plan to buy new school computers, lay water and sewer pipes, reconstruct aging police and public works facilities, build a parking garage in Medford Square, and spend hundreds of thousands on other projects, criticism has come from familiar corners.

Councilor Robert M. Penta, elected in 1980, has for years stood against McGlynn’s policies, and remains one of the mayor’s most outspoken critics on the dais. Penta, a one-term state representative in the early 1970s, was unseated by McGlynn, who held the office until he was elected mayor in 1987.

McGlynn had been in the wood-lined mayor’s office in City Hall before, although as a visitor. His father, John J. McGlynn, served three terms as mayor (1962-1967, 1970-1971, 1976-1977) when a city manager was the chief officer. Michael McGlynn became the city’s first “strong’’ mayor when he took office in 1988.

“I think a new mayor would change the whole political tempo of the city,’’ said Penta. “All these issues, and all these things that need to be repaired, have come under his watch as mayor for 24 years.’’

Fast-talking and assertive, Penta decried how the mayor has phoned councilors or met with them individually to discuss issues, in some cases to gauge support and win favor.

As the council’s longest-serving member, Penta also has a long memory.

A controversy in 2001 over a methadone clinic has remained a touchstone for Penta, who said it was the last occasion when McGlynn attended a Tuesday night council meeting in an official capacity.

McGlynn said he is not required to attend the meetings, and he chooses not to go. He confirmed that it has been more than a decade since he last appeared.

McGlynn has, however, appeared before the councilors in committee meetings in recent weeks to discuss the capital improvement plans. Some councilors said it is an improvement.

In “Malden and Everett and Somerville, while the mayor doesn’t have to go, they always go when they’re called,’’ Penta said. “It’s a different style.’’

The division on the council came to a head in December 2010, when Penta and Marks organized a vote of no-confidence against McGlynn.

Marks said the resolution was meant as a shot across the bow to the administration. The vote failed, 2-5, but it was an opportunity for other councilors to voice their thoughts.

“The only time the mayor calls us is to conquer and divide us,’’ said Councilor Breanna Lungo-Koehn before the vote.

Camuso laid blame on both parties at the time, saying “it takes two to tango.’’

In a recent interview, Camuso acknowledged that “it doesn’t sound like there is a line of communication between some of the councilors and the mayor,’’ although he said he has a working relationship with McGlynn.

That doesn’t mean Camuso shies from the fray.

In 2009, he shouted down a local activist and frequent litigant against the city, Joseph Viglione, after Viglione referred to Camuso’s infant son in a letter demanding the city act on an audit of the local access TV station.

“You can take me on as a councilor, but you’re not taking on my son [who’s] three months old,” Camuso thundered, the Globe reported in September 2009.

To an outsider, it could sound like a divorce, or a family dispute. But in Medford, it’s another Tuesday night at City Hall.

“Personalities, personalities,’’ Maoicco said, laughing. “It’s an eclectic group.’’