NEW BEDFORD — Alma del Mar Charter School students didn’t shy away from the tough questions at the City Council Candidate Forum held at the school Wednesday night. Eighth grader Angele Semedo started off the questions by asking what the candidates would do to reduce gun violence. “I live near the North End of New Bedford …. It feels like there’s a shooting every week where my family lives. My mom doesn’t like us going outside after school and I’m always worried for my younger sibling.”
All the council candidates in attendance had the option to answer four questions during the forum, and almost all of the 16 in attendance chose to answer Semedo’s.
Photos courtesy of David W. Oliveira/Standard-Times
“I think there’s an issue that’s not being fully examined and that’s what’s going on in the police department right now,” Ward 3 Councilor Hugh Dunn said. “Morale is at an all time low, you’re seeing a majority of the officers trying to transfer out of the department, and we’re expecting them to do this job while they’re having these internal struggles and they’re also working without a contract from the city.”
According to Dunn, officers are buying their own protective gear and this year bought themselves vector shields, a lightweight shield that protects against gun shots.
Dunn said one of the things they have to do to address the gun violence is, “Make sure that our departments are properly functioning and right now there’s a problem.”
Multiple candidates echoed Dunn’s statements calling for a contract with the police department, including Councilor-at-large candidate Leo Choquette and Ward 4 candidate Joseph “Jo-Jo” Fortes who said, “the leadership is not doing an effective job.”
“Its sucks when you know the difference between a firecracker and fireworks and a gunshot huh,” Ward 4 candidate Derek Baptiste said, “I live in a neighborhood like that.”
Baptiste said absentee landlords and a lack of education, funding, and resources lead to the violence in the neighborhoods.
To give people in those neighborhoods hope, Baptiste said, they need to start asking how to start programs to get more people employed and hold absentee landlords accountable, how to pay police officers more, and how to “hold each other responsible for how we take care of our neighborhoods.”
Councilor-at-large Naomi Carney blamed the violence on the revolving door she sees in the court system.
“What we need to do is legislation to stop the judges from opening the doors and letting the criminals walk out the door,” Carney said. “They go in there, there’s a shooting there’s crime there’s drug dealings… then all of a sudden they go to court they’re out on the streets again with very little bail.”
Later in the evening, candidates took a question about what should be done to ensure every kid in New Bedford has a high quality education as a chance to express their stance on charter schools.
Ward 1 candidate Melissa Costa said, ” I believe that every parent has a right to choose where they want their child to be educated, but I also believe it shouldn’t come at the expense of public school education. So we really need to beef up our public school educators.”
“I would challenge folks right now to really fight to get further investment in our public school system because that’s the system that’s successful to all the families in New Bedford,” Dunn said. “The charter system should serve as a place to test and develop programs, it shouldn’t be a long-term solution.”
“As far as the charter system goes, I’m not a huge fan of it only because I believe it takes money out of the New Bedford Public School System,” Choquette said.
Councilors-at-large Linda Morad and Carney both said the city needs to fight Boston for more funding for city schools.
Carney said, “Charter schools are public schools. It’s Boston that we have to fight.”
“I believe that the public system as well as the charter school system can coexist and need to coexist. I really feel that charter schools are the spirit of America because we need incubators of innovation and change,” Councilor-at-large Debora Coelho said.
The last question centered on drug overdoses and what can be done on a local level to prevent them. The candidates brought up that the council doesn’t have that much power when it comes to preventing drug overdoses and discussed the proposed addiction treatment center on Brigham Street.
“I’m very disappointed that we’re trying to get treatment centers in the city of New Bedford and yet some neighborhoods don’t want it. I don’t understand that,” Coelho said.
Baptiste said, “If that clinic was on Kempton Street I don’t think anyone would have a problem with it” and expressed that he’s worked with people with addiction and the first thing they talk about is childhood traumas and mental health, so there has to be resources to help people with those issues.
Councilor-at-large Brian Gomes called for holding pharmaceutical companies accountable, holding drug dealers accountable, and providing services for people suffering from addiction.
Councilor-at-large candidate Carlos Felix called for educating children about the realities of addiction and for neighbors to tell police what’s going on in their neighborhood. “If you see something and don’t say something you’re part of the problem.”
The only council candidates who weren’t in attendance were at-large candidate Michael Janson, Ward 5 Councilor Scott Lima, and Ward 6 Councilor Joseph Lopes. Both Lima and Lopes are running unopposed. Ward 2 Councilor Maria Giesta is also running unopposed but participated in Wednesday night’s forum. Alma del Mar is located in her ward.
Story originally appeared at SouthCoastToday.com