In their last debate before Tuesday’s mayoral election in Newton, challenger Ted Hess-Mahan accused incumbent Setti Warren of “stifling” public debate and mismanaging City Hall, while Warren questioned whether Hess-Mahan could lead citywide discussions without “poisoning the atmosphere and throwing bombs.”
Voters will head to the polls Tuesday to decide between Hess-Mahan, a longtime alderman, and Warren, who is running for his second term. Polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.
“Voters in Newton can trust me to put Newton first, ahead of my own political ambitions, to be open and honest with you, and to put together a strong leadership team that’s going to stop the revolving door in City Hall,” Hess-Mahan said during the debate.
Warren said that as mayor, he has devoted himself to ensuring that the tone of public discussion is civil no matter how heated passions become, and that is what has allowed him to successfully push through big projects like Chestnut Hill Square and the recently approved Station at Riverside.
“There’s a difference in executive leadership between myself and my opponent in this race,” said Warren. “We’ve got to continue the work that we started; we’ve got to make sure we don’t poison the atmosphere so much that we can’t work together.”
‘One of the things that really concerns me is that apparently the administra-tion’s going to scrutinize who’s going to live in affordable housing.’
During the campaign, Warren has pointed to his success in settling contracts with the city’s unions and eliminating the structural budget deficit, while Hess-Mahan has run as an affordable-housing advocate dedicated to transparency in government.
Campaign finance reports filed last week show Warren with a commanding lead over Hess-Mahan in both fund-raising and spending. Warren raised $40,165 toward his campaign between Jan. 1 and Oct. 18, and spent $44,826, while Hess-Mahan raised $11,364 and spent $4,709.
In the September preliminary election that knocked out two other candidates, Warren won 69 percent of the vote while Hess-Mahan won 22 percent.
In their final debate, sponsored by NewTV and the Newton-Needham Chamber of Commerce, the candidates sparred over affordable housing, lawsuits filed against the city, and staff turnover in City Hall. The questions were posed by NewTV’s Jenn Adams, the Newton Tab’s Trevor Jones, and Evan Allen of the Globe. The moderator was Greg Reibman, president of the chamber and blogger at Village 14.
Hess-Mahan accused Warren of shutting down public debate over Engine 6, an affordable housing project proposed in Waban over the summer. The project, which would have housed nine chronically homeless disabled adults and one staff member, drew protests from many residents who worried about its potential to increase crime and lower property values. Warren decided not to approve $1.4 million in federal funds for the project.
“One of the things that really concerns me is that apparently the administration’s going to scrutinize who’s going to live in affordable housing,” said Hess-Mahan. “And that really creates an issue of whether there’s discrimination in doing so.”
A group of the project’s supporters last week filed a discrimination complaint with the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development , saying that the city’s decision to block funding was based on neighbors’ “stereotypical fears or prejudices about persons with disabilities,” and violates the Fair Housing Act.
But Warren said the Engine 6 proposal was full of holes that could not be filled.
“This isn’t about creating housing units; it’s about people,” he said during the debate, adding that the residents of Engine 6 would not have had access to the services they would need.
“When we think about affordable housing, I’m really proud of the approach that we’ve taken here in Newton,” said Warren, who pointed to developments like the recently approved Riverside project, which contain 44 affordable units, as an example of his “comprehensive” approach to housing.
Hess-Mahan also attacked the mayor over lawsuits filed against the city by current and former staff, including complaints stemming from turmoil in the Police Department. A department secretary has sued the city in state and federal court, alleging she was set up on theft charges in retaliation for complaining about then-police chief Matthew Cummings, whom Warren fired for “conduct unbecoming” last year.
The secretary was acquitted of the theft charges this year. An arbitrator ruled last month that the city was wrong to fire Cummings and ordered that he be reinstated, but the city has challenged the decision in Middlesex Superior Court.
“This seems to be an ongoing problem,” said Hess-Mahan, who called Warren’s handling of the situation a “knee-jerk reaction.”
But Warren said he stands behind his decision to fire Cummings.
“When you’re chief executive of a city this size . . . you have to make difficult decisions to make sure you have the right leadership in place,” said Warren. “We are one of the safest cities in America because we have one of the best police forces in America.”
Hess-Mahan has repeatedly criticized the mayor over turnover in City Hall, and has said in previous debates that during the mayor’s term, a third of the city’s staff has left. However, according to chief operating officer Robert Rooney, the turnover rate for the last fiscal year was just 7.5 percent, and the vacancy rate for staff jobs is just under 3 percent.
Hess-Mahan said he based his numbers on a viewing of tax forms online and a list of names of employees who have left. His major concern, he said, is that City Hall has lost staff in management positions.
But Warren said that when he ran for mayor four years ago, voters asked him to make the necessary personnel changes to ensure accountability and performance.
“I fulfilled that commitment,” he said. “We take delivery of services seriously in this city.”
Hess-Mahan said he supports full-day kindergarten, while Warren said the city is already working to improve the kindergarten program. Hess-Mahan defended his decision to run for both mayor and alderman, saying that no one from his ward stepped up to run for his seat on the board. Both candidates said they would support a medical marijuana dispensary locating in Newton.