Ian Donnis: New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell Welcome back to The Public's Radio.

Jon Mitchell: It's great to be back. It's been a while and it's great to see you.

Ian Donnis: We're happy to have you. There are fewer than eight months until the next November election in New Bedford. You haven't said whether you're going to seek another term after first winning election in 2011. What are your plans?

Jon Mitchell: I noticed the calendar. It's coming up pretty fast. And although I've made announcements in election cycles past in the summertime, it's obviously something I've been thinking about. The job is very gratifying. And I don't foresee my making an announcement any earlier than in times past. But I do think that, but I am giving it some thought and talking to my family and friends about it. And, you know, one of the things I consider is whether I've accomplished the things I set out to do, and whether there are still things in the pipeline that I want to tackle. And I think the answer to the first question is largely, yes. I mean, we've had a strong run over the last several years, and we've been able to bring successful reform to the school district where we've had one of the largest jumps in graduation rates in the United States. We've had a very significant drop in crime, New Bedford's a considerably safer city than it used to be.

Ian Donnis: Sounds like you're running for re election.

Jon Mitchell: Well either that or I'm doing a post mortem, one or the other. I'm leaving it very ambiguous but like I haven't made up my mind yet. But I will relatively soon.

Ian Donnis: If you were to go in a different direction. What would that be? 

Jon Mitchell: Like, what do I want to do when I grow up? Yeah, I would, I'd like it. There are a number of other things I could be doing. I have, as you know, before I was mayor, I was a federal prosecutor. And I won't be going back to that, but I've done a career pivot in the past. And so, look, I've always felt strongly that whatever I do, I'd like to be serving in some capacity and in that capacity be generally useful. I really want to have an impact. That's what gets me up in the morning as mayor.

Ian Donnis: There's speculation periodically about you winding up in the Biden or Healey administration. Is that a possibility?

Jon Mitchell: Well, I just had a long conversation with Governor Healey. I have a great relationship with her. But I'm definitely not looking for any job in her administration. And the same goes with Washington, I have not I haven't pursued that. So it's, you know, to my mind, I'm just gonna take things as they come. We've got a lot on our plate right now. And so the political decisions can wait for their time.

Ian Donnis: One of the things on your plate is the emergence of wind power as a potentially big sector in the New Bedford area. This offers economic promise, but there's a lot of concern in the fishing industry about this. Is this going to hurt the fishing industry?

Jon Mitchell: Yeah, I don't think so. We're committed to the proposition that the two industries can coexist successfully. And those two industries are going to intersect in the United States more than anywhere else in New Bedford. We're the largest commercial fishing port in the United States as you know, and hands down the center of commercial fishing on the east coast. But we also aspire to be number one in offshore wind. And we put a considerable amount of effort for us to get to that point now through infrastructure investment in the development of workforce programs, and so many other lines of effort. And so what I've told folks in the fishing industry is that I've got your back, but I also want everybody to know that it's good for... It's good for New Bedford that the offshore wind industry is setting up shop in our older industrial city. We don't have opportunities to attract large amounts of capital to our city as we do with the offshore wind industry. And we've seen it play out in Europe a number of times. So what we're trying to do is to get everybody to understand New Bedford's needs, which is to succeed in both of those industries. And insofar as the two industries conflict will work to to work out those conflicts.

Ian Donnis: I know some people who work in the calamari industry here in Rhode Island, which is a big product in Rhode Island. If the concerns of the seafood industry are realized and if wind power does have an adverse effect, what is the backup plan? What can be done to make people in those businesses whole if the worst case comes to fruition?

Jon Mitchell: Yeah, I'm not so sure I embrace the condition of your hypothetical, right? The key for the two industries to succeed together side by side, proverbially speaking, is to ensure that wind farms are not placed in the wrong areas and by that I mean, areas where there is a large amount of historical fishing, historic fishing going on, and or in areas where there are sensitive fish habitats. We don't want to be putting offshore wind farms in places where fish spawn because we want to have the next generation of fish. That's where the key is. And that's all going to. That's the key to it all. 

Ian Donnis: But is there a backup plan if the seafood industry is right to be concerned about the impact of wind power? Is there money available that would offset losses?

Jon Mitchell: Yeah. So there will be some level of conflict. And I've been a big proponent of ensuring that there are mitigation programs in place to to offset those losses. And we will see some displacement of fishing although a fairly minor amount and places like the Mass/Rhode Island wind energy areas, which you know, are areas of the Outer Continental Shelf is not that heavily fished. I know there are folks in Rhode Island who fish in particular for squid and for fluke and particularly at Point Judith, there will probably be a little more effective than folks in New Bedford, generally speaking. And that's why you have to have mitigation programs in place. They're not perfect. But again, in the long run, what the most important thing to do is not to put wind farms in the wrong place.

Ian Donnis: We're talking here with New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell, and another initiative that you've been pursuing is the redevelopment of the State Pier. This is a key piece of real estate in New Bedford. At the same time, some South Coast lawmakers have been unhappy with the decision making process around this. They say it's been too secretive. And they've called for a state review of this. To your knowledge is any kind of state review taking place?

Jon Mitchell: Well, I don't think it's necessary, but I think the New Bedford state legislators should be read into the process. I understand why they weren't. This is a procurement for a real estate development. And ordinarily, legislators don't play a part in a procurement of a piece of real estate nor I don't think the public would want that. The city plays a role in it because the city has done all the planning around it. Traffic mitigation, including other maritime uses will be delivering the utilities to that site. The bottom line is it is a great project. It is a project that will serve not only New Bedford's retail needs on the waterfront. We want people to be dining and shopping by the water in New Bedford but we also as a primarily industrial port want to have that facility contribute to the maritime economy as well. And this is going to do both. It'll be shops and restaurants in the front of the pier so that people can have that experience. But most of the pier will be dedicated to things like ferry service, a fish offloading site, a fish auction, offshore wind and other traditional maritime industrial uses.

Ian Donnis: You've called for years for NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to open an office in New Bedford. They announced this week they're opening an office in Newport, Rhode Island. Why did they side with Newport over New Bedford?

Jon Mitchell: Well, I think that's probably a question that's better put to folks in the federal government. I mean, we looked at that and you know, it certainly caught my eye. Look, in New Bedford... NOAA should, in the Northeast, should be centered in New Bedford, we are hands down the largest fishing port on the east coast, the largest in the country. Just to give you a sense of it. And I hope my friends in Rhode Island don't cringe at this. But the landings in New Bedford are three times that of the entire state of Rhode Island.

Ian Donnis: Given that, why would NOAA choose Newport over New Bedford?

Jon Mitchell: Well, you'll have to ask NOAA that or ask the congressional delegation that. Kudos to Senator Reed, who's a very effective senator. And I think that may be the long and short of it. So Rhode Island is well represented by Jack Reed.

Ian Donnis: Back in New Bedford, the city council has a non binding referendum that would cut your term from four years to two years. Why is the City Council trying to do that?

Jon Mitchell: Because they don't like me. That's the way city councils and mayors operate, right? Not just in New Bedford, but everywhere. But look, it's there's nobody clamoring for that – If you look at what we have now, at long last in New Bedford is really the standard arrangement and a strong mayor government, in a city of over 100,000. A city that's a center city and not a satellite of a major metro. Four year terms are the standard. Think about it. Around the country, there may be two or three cities that are similarly situated that still have two year terms. But everybody else around the country has gone to four years.

Ian Donnis: But this seems to go well beyond the typical tension between a mayor and a city council. It seems like relations are really chilly. I'm not even sure if you're you and the city council on speaking terms, why are things so bad between you and the council?

Jon Mitchell: Well, I can only speak for myself. We are on speaking terms. And look, I think you have on every city council in America, you've got some city councilors that want to be mayor. And so sometimes you see, you see efforts like this to undermine the mayor. And so but at the end of the day, what we're all speaking to are the needs of the city. And I think the folks understand that there ought to be a four year term. That for a chief executive that runs an enterprise of some 3500 employees and a half a billion dollar budget, right. It's bigger than a lemonade stand and you need not just two years, but four years to prove yourself, incrementally. The other thing I'll just say is that look, it's been a while since the media was paying attention to the New Bedford city council and now that the spotlight is on them that there's the public starting to see that the council hasn't always operated in the public's interest and so hopefully, and it's not to say that every last counselor has gone awry, has gone off the rails, but you know, we do have some councilors who are pushing really hard to, you know, to position themselves for a run for the corner office.

Ian Donnis: Speaking of the media, it used to be the Standard Times was more robustly staffed. It is owned by Gannett and Gannet's made a lot of cuts over the years but on the other hand, Ben, my colleague Ben Berke, from The Public's Radio covers New Bedford actively there's the New Bedford Light, a nonprofit that covers New Bedford actively. How would you say the current media landscape in New Bedford now compares to the old days?

Jon Mitchell: Well, if the old days mean, circa 2018, better, right? And it's something that I've tried to cultivate, we've tried to cultivate a bigger presence from you guys. So we've had those discussions we've invited the scrutiny, right? If it same thing with the New Bedford Light, they now have five reporters and are doing long form journalism, not day to day coverage, but more longer form journalism. And the Providence New Bedford TV stations are also covering New Bedford more, which is a good thing, right? It is just my strong feeling is that – look, as much as I prefer like anybody else not to absorb the slings and arrows of media criticism. The reality is, as a resident of the city, someone who cares deeply about my city, I know that it can't function well without robust media coverage without the media, essentially officiating civic discourse. And so like no city can survive that way. And I've been very vocal about that position.

Ian Donnis: You get an amen from me on that. And we've got to leave it there. Thank you very much for joining us, the Mayor of New Bedford, Jon Michell. 

Jon Mitchell: Thanks for having me.


FILO is a dirty word in Rhode Island. That acronym stands for “First in, last out.” And it reflects how the Ocean State has for decades been the economic sick man of New England, moving into economic downturns earlier, and recovering later, than the rest of the region. With two out of state bank failures causing concern about wider economic fallout, can Rhode Island shed its longtime association with FILO? For more insights on Rhode Island politics, check out my Friday TGIF column posting around 4 today on my twitter at IanDon or at the publics

That’s our show for this week. Our producer is James Baumgartner.

I’m Ian Donnis and I’ll see you on the radio.