Mayoral candidates talk differences, strengths

Mayoral candidates talk differences, strengths

At left, Mayor Bill Murray chats with Patricia Silva-Antunes at the Our Lady of Fatima Feast in Cumberland last Saturday night. (Breeze photo by Robert Emerson) At right, Democratic mayoral challenger Jeff Mutter campaigns in the vicinity of Desmarais Street and Stoney View Drive the same day. (Breeze photo by Charles Lawrence)

CUMBERLAND – Mayoral candidate Jeff Mutter says the three greatest differences between himself and Mayor Bill Murray center on temperament, experience, and the fact that he, as a challenger, is a problem-solver.

Also asked this week to share the three most significant differences between himself and his opponent, Murray said they relate to how he views the town of Cumberland and office of mayor, his view on controlling taxes and the interests of taxpayers, and how to “strongly fund” education while still watching out for the taxpayer.

The candidates were asked not only to share their greatest differences, but also their top two personal strengths as leaders.

Murray said his greatest strengths as a leader are:

• That he’s both hardworking and accessible.

• And that he has the ability to get things done by working with local, state and federal leaders. He pointed to examples such as working with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management on the purchase of the Mercy Woods open space, partnering with Lincoln on regionalization of animal control services, working with the Rhode Island Department of Transportation on replacing manhole covers on Mendon Road and the Broad Street revitalization, and working with Rep. Jim McLaughlin on installing a traffic safety island and crosswalk at One Mendon Road.

Mutter said the best qualities he possesses as a leader are:

• Integrity, saying he believes “it is better to get it right than to be right,” and he is always willing to listen to opposing viewpoints. He said he was always mindful as a council and school board member that the next person who came to the microphone would be a part of giving him the answer to solve a problem. By encouraging respectful, open, and honest conversations, he said he believes “we can solve the issues facing Cumberland.” And while sometimes his decisions won’t be popular with everyone, “you can trust that I am doing what I believe to be in the best interest of the town – not a select few,” he said.

• And resilience. As a competitive runner, said Mutter, he has “learned humility and to dig deep when the going gets tough.” He said he understands that sometimes the other side wins, and “I don’t take that personally, but instead, it encourages me to work harder.”
Murray said he differs with Mutter on how he views the town and office of mayor, saying he personally takes “the office of mayor seriously.” His campaign for re-election “has been a positive, professional campaign with a plan, based on the issues that affect all of our residents,” he said. He and his team have gotten their positive message about the direction of the town out in a variety of ways, laying out the accomplishments of his two terms, as mayor, including acquisitions of open space properties, construction of new facilities, investments in education, and maintaining lower taxes.

Murray said he has “pride in Cumberland,” and will continue to promote the great qualities of the town, all while hearing only negative comments from Mutter.

“I have always involved myself in our community, not just at election time, always attending various events in order to be accessible to all residents, especially our youth and seniors,” Murray said.

Mutter responded that criticism does not equal negativity or diminish his view of what Cumberland is and could be. Pointing out that Murray inherited a surplus of more than $12 million, and “has used that to artificially keep taxes low,” is sticking to the facts, Mutter said. He said he’ll continue to highlight what he sees as Murray’s questionable financial decisions, including spending of surplus funds to balance budgets, changing tax collection rates on a levy to avoid an increase in taxes, and counting revenues that haven’t come in yet.

To spend or not to spend

Murray calls himself a fiscal conservative, saying he’s successfully managed finances leading to two increases in the town’s bond rating and steady tax rates, all while seeing two increases to the bond rating and providing significant increases in funding to local schools.

Explaining how he’s a problem-solver, Mutter said he doesn’t believe in short-term fixes such as spending more than $60,000 to “ ‘repair’ the senior center when what is needed is a viable plan to replace a rundown building, or spending the town’s surplus to keep taxes temporarily flat when what is needed is a long-term financial plan.”

“I believe that the problems facing Cumberland – neglected facilities, lack of prudent financial planning, unregulated growth – are solvable problems when you solicit the input of all stakeholders and recognize that by working together you will develop the most effective solutions,” he said.

Murray contends that Mutter continues to take shots without providing real solutions. The $60,000 in upgrades to the senior center this year “is something needed,” he said, and officials had “no real alternative at this point” due to the fact that the center is “bulging at the seams,” up from 100 or so members when he took over as mayor to about 700 people today.

“Until we’re able to build a new senior center, this is a necessary repair,” he said.

Murray said he’s “absolutely a problem-solver.” As mayor, he’s “problem-solving almost every day” by “bringing people together, analyzing problems and dealing with them to correct them,” he said. Solving problems has been one of the strengths of his career, he said, going back to when he was vice president of a $125 million company.

On the question of surplus spending, Murray said the town still has a surplus of $11 million, $4 million over what’s required by the state, and much of the surplus spending “was approved against our best wishes,” including utilizing surplus funds to purchase the Pascale property for use as a new public works garage.

“We’ve used surplus in a very prudent and sensible way without hurting our ability to have surplus strength,” he said. “The people we hear from are saying they want us to hold the taxes as best we can.”

Asked about Murray’s contention about not being responsible for all of the surplus spending, Mutter asked, “Did he veto any of the budgets?” The challenger said he “absolutely” would have vetoed the budget over the Pascale decision.

Asked whether he sees anything good done during Murray’s four years in office, Mutter said he respects the efforts of anyone who runs for office and is elected, and has for the more than 20 years he’s been involved in local politics.

“I would never say that Mayor Murray has not done some good things for the town,” he said, but emphasized that he takes issue with the incumbent proclaiming himself a fiscal conservative based on his actions. Last year, the mayor was part of approving a 4 percent budget increase “when there were 400 people in the room,” Mutter said, and that 4 percent is what the final increase should have been, but the mayor then tried to use bond proceeds he wasn’t authorized to use to bring that number down before changing projected collection estimates when he found out he couldn’t use the proceeds. He should have “stuck to the truth of the ordinance,” said Mutter.

“He chose another path,” he said.

On education funding

Education funding has taken a central role in this campaign, with Mutter often complaining about the Murray campaign’s statements that he plans to dramatically increase funding to schools at unaffordable levels.

Mutter said he thinks Murray uses the education issue as a “political issue” and “weapon.” During non-election years, Murray “promises the world and tells everyone that he wants to work with them,” he said, but then makes unfounded accusations during election years about school board members intentionally hiding money.

A great education system benefits everyone in town, Mutter said, and remains the town’s biggest expenditure. He said he believes there are improvements the town needs to make in its schools, particularly achievement scores at certain schools, “and I want to be the mayor who works with them (school leaders) solving those problems ...”

Mutter said he wants to lead the district to a top-5 designation. (It’s currently ninth overall in the state.)

“I’m looking to partner with people who want to see that improvement,” he said. “If people want to make it a political issue, I have to hope I can change their minds.”

Murray has highlighted the increases in funding to the schools during his tenure, saying millions in additional funding shows nearly unprecedented support for the local education system.

Hot temper?

On the issue of temperament, Murray took issue with Mutter’s suggestion that he can’t get along with people.

“When I’m attacked, I respond to fight for what I believe is the right thing,” Murray said.

There have been two people on the council who have constantly attacked him and “constantly tried to find something wrong with the town,” said Murray, but he gets along with nearly everyone else.

As mayor, says Mutter, a person serves the people “and set the tone for public discourse.” He said he welcomes opposing points of view, and believes by listening that one can find answers and solutions.

“Too often, Mayor Murray’s temper has flared when faced with an opposing view. I promise to repair the damaged relationship Mayor Murray has created between the administration, Town Council, School Committee and our representatives in the General Assembly,” he said. “We all need to be able to work together for the good of the people, and when I am elected your mayor, I pledge to get everyone back on the same page and working together as a team.”

Murray declined to respond on how he feels about Mutter’s temperament, but said he personally has proven that he gets along with nearly everyone. State Rep. Jim McLaughlin, who previously was a political opponent, is now one of his most aggressive campaigners, he said, and former mayoral challenger Dan Alves has been a great friend over the past four years.

“He believes strongly in what I’m doing,” he said.

Murray also pointed to his fundraising success as proof of his strong relationships.

“You don’t raise money the way I did without getting along with people,” he said.

The mayor also noted his relationships with U.S. Sen. Jack Reed, who is appearing with him at an event this week, other municipal leaders, and state officials. He said his colleagues on both the Northern Rhode Island Coalition of Mayors and the Rhode Island League of Cities and Towns also entrusted him with serving in leadership positions.

Who has the experience?

Mutter contends that differences in experience set these candidates apart. In addition to operating a local family business, he said he brings 17 years of town legislative experience to the table.

“Not only do I understand the financial issues facing the town, but I am well aware that spending down the town’s rainy day fund to keep taxes low is not a long-term solution,” he said. “This strategy merely has created a long-term structural deficit that if left unchecked will hinder our ability to improve the lives of our citizens.”

As a business owner, Mutter said he understands the challenges of serving the public and meeting a payroll. He pledged to “right the financial wrongs” of Murray’s administration, cut “over-reliance on surplus funds, and close our structural deficit.”

Murray declined to compare his own experience with Mutter’s, but said his four years as mayor and previous two years as a councilman have given him the knowledge he needs to keep doing the job well. He said he’s also used his experience in the corporate world, running 17 operations across the country as a senior vice president before running his own sales company.

“That experience has certainly shown over four years running the town,” he said, noting the numerous upgrades that have been made to Cumberland’s operations.

Comments

After many weeks of campaigning and many opportunities to give specifics on his vision for the town I am still waiting for Mr. Mutter to outline his platform. It does seem like he was advised to run a campaign of complaints and attacks while not providing details on what he will do for the town as Mayor. I went to his webpage hoping for details and it is all slogans and sound bytes. If you have the experience you claim then saying you will develop a plan is not enough.

On the Senior Center, would Mr. Mutter look to overturn the ordinance (which I understand now he championed years ago) to allow the Senior Center to expand at the Monastery? He complains about spending and touts his expertise with the town budget but will he cut spending or increase spending? Some claim he will raise taxes to give more funding to the schools which is okay but what specific areas will he seek to fund and at what impact to taxpayers? Does he agree with Councilor Kane and Beaulieu's cutting traffic calming measures out of the town budget? How about the these council members cutting the Holiday party for town workers who work so hard to deliver services for the town?

Mayor Murray has a very good track record and achieved quite a bit while balancing the impact on taxpayers. He may not be friends with a few council members but he deserves two more years to continue to deliver specific results!

In response to the comment above, as well as a recent full-page ad in the Breeze - no one “deserves” to be elected to office. You earn the PRIVILEGE of holding any office, whether local or statewide. The voters of our town would be well-served to keep that in mind during this upcoming election season. We all need to vote for the candidates that continually work hard to EARN our approval and support, not the ones who sit back and think it’s an entitled right.