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Somerville mayor loses key allies on board

New aldermen alter political landscape

Mayor Joseph Curtatone (left), shown here in December 2012 with Federal Realty senior vice president Don Briggs, has been able to push through projects such as the multimillion-dollar Assembly Square redevelopment, seen in an architectural rendering above.

Jarret Bencks/File 2012

Mayor Joseph Curtatone (left), shown here in December 2012 with Federal Realty senior vice president Don Briggs, has been able to push through projects such as the multimillion-dollar Assembly Square redevelopment, seen in an architectural rendering above.

Mayor Joe Curtatone cruised to victory for a sixth term in Tuesday’s elections, but the veteran city leader has lost several longtime political allies on the Somerville Board of Aldermen.

When the new 11-member board is sworn into office in January, there will be five newcomers taking over the reins in what some local observers have described as the biggest shakeup in the city’s political landscape in more than a decade.

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Curtatone, a popular five-term mayor who faced no opposition for reelection, has built up a formidable political machine inside City Hall during his decade-long tenure, observers said, pushing through projects — such as the multimillion-dollar renovation plan for Union Square — with the help of the majority of the board, which voted regularly as a bloc.

But with that bloc now broken up, Curtatone may not have such an easy road getting major development passed quickly.

“It’s a new day on the Board of Aldermen,” said Joe Lynch, a longtime observer of city politics and cohost of “Greater Somerville,” a local cable TV show.

“Now the mayor is going to have to work with the board and not just tell them what’s going to happen in the city.”

Curtatone did not return a phone call seeking comment.

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Three of Curtatone’s longtime allies on the board — Bruce Desmond, Tom Taylor, and Bob Trane — decided not to seek reelection this year, citing a variety of personal reasons.

Desmond had served on the board since 2001, Taylor since 1986, and Trane since 2002. Their departures follow the resignations of veteran aldermen Bill Roche and Sean O’Donovan, both also supporters of the mayor.

Shortly after Roche’s resignation in December 2012, Curtatone appointed him as part-time personnel director. The job became full time, and with raises approved by the Board of Aldermen in April, Roche now receives a city salary of $104,276, according to the city’s fiscal 2014 budget.

Meanwhile, two interim aldermen who were appointed to succeed Taylor and O’Donovan — under the city’s controversial practice of having outgoing board members nominate replacements — lost to challengers in Tuesday’s election. Three open seats were filled by newcomers.

“There’s definitely been a change of guard on the board,” said former School Committee member Mark Niedergang, who ousted Ward 5 Alderwoman Courtney O’Keefe, who was appointed by the board in April after O’Donovan resigned. “I’m not sure where it’s coming from or why, but there is a sentiment for change.”

O’Keefe did not return a phone call seeking comment.

“A lot of people had negative things to say about her because she was appointed, but I thought she did a good job as an alderman,” Niedergang said. “And she ran a great campaign.”

Under Somerville’s strong mayor form of government, aldermen have limited control over projects, but they do have say over planning and zoning changes that are often needed for large commercial and residential housing developments.

“It’s important that the board be independent, especially when we are making decisions that will affect the city for decades to come,” Niedergang said.

Niedergang said while he has disagreed with Curtatone on some issues, he thinks the mayor has “done a good job overall” and looks forward to working with him.

“I’ve had my disagreements with him, but he’s done a lot for the city and deserves credit for steering it through the worst financial crisis in a generation,” Niedergang said.

He also said Curtatone will likely face more scrutiny from the new board on many of his development plans, particularly his effort to build a hotel on the site of a municipal parking garage in Davis Square and the multimillion-dollar redevelopment of Assembly Square.

Among other changes on the board, newcomer Matt McLaughlin beat Elio LoRusso for the Ward 1 seat following his victory in the Sept. 24 preliminary election against incumbent Maureen Bastardi, another member who was appointed by the board in January after Roche resigned a month before.

McLaughlin, a Somerville native who ran with support from the mayor, said he doesn’t consider himself beholden to anyone at City Hall, and he has vowed to be an independent voice on the board on issues such as growth and development.

“I’m too young to be a good old boy,” said McLaughlin, 32, an Iraq War veteran.

The other three newcomers include Bob McWatters, who beat appointee Suzanne Bremer in Ward 3 to claim Taylor’s former seat; Katjana Ballantyne, who beat Joe Capuano to win Trane’s Ward 7 seat; and Mary Jo Rossetti, who won Desmond’s at-large seat on the board.

They take office in January.

Alderman at Large Bill White, who has clashed with the Curtatone administration on many issues since he was elected in 1998, said he thinks the new blood is good.

“These are people who don’t have established political ties at City Hall,” he said. “It’s going to be a different board, and I think that bodes well for the city.”

Christian M. Wade can be reached at cmwade1969@gmail.com.

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