Friday, April 12, 2024

First-time City Council candidate came across as a man of few words but many ideas at an August election forum. (Photo: Marc Levy)

Students in a summer Harvard journalism course interviewed some challengers for City Council as part of a class assignment, and their work — some as profiles and some in question-and-answer format — is running, one a week, on Cambridge Day. First up was Charles Marquardt; next up is Matt Nelson.

As a first-time candidate for City Council, Gary Mello is wasting no time — or words.

His answers are blunt and plain-spoken, but he was also the sole candidate at an Aug. 31 candidates forum to decline chances to speak with the explanation it would be a disservice to turn complex issues into “sound bites.”

He does have succinct policy proposals for the city, though.

A cornerstone is to make Cambridge Health Alliance the insurer for municipal employees. “Cambridge is spending about $1 million a week for employee health care in other insurance agencies while CHA is suffering financial distress,” Mello said in an interview last month. “The city shouldn’t be spending so much on other insurers when our own insurance company is in desperate need.”

Fixing the budget of Cambridge is another reason for his candidacy. “In the next City Council meeting, the city of Cambridge will become a half-billion-dollar-a-year enterprise, which is crazy,” Mello said during the same summer interview. “Cambridge is so far out of whack from other communities in spending. I’m proposing to cap our spending at $450 million per year, which is a $9 million reduction.”

Because he is worried about the city’s ability to afford funding pensions and benefits for current and retired city employees, Mello suggests setting aside $15 million line item dedicated solely for those purposes.

Overall, Mello said he is happy with the city and how it is run, as well as with the services it provides. He does not criticize the council as a whole, or individual councillors — but he does wish they were more enterprising and involved to the extent allowed by the city’s Plan E style of government instead of allowing City Manager Robert W. Healy to make so many decisions. “Healy is probably going to be leaving at some point [next] year and it is important to find a proper individual, or a group of individuals, to substitute for him,” Mello said.

Blunt answers that can provoke

Mello, 58, is a lifelong resident of Central Square who sends his kids, a third-grader and an eighth-grader, to Cambridge public schools. He holds degrees in engineering but has worked in a pharmacy for many years. He has not been visible in city politics or prominent in civic life in at least the two years since the most recent community election.

As a result, he didn’t have answers to every topic asked about at the August forum. In one instance, questioned how he would approach two pending wrongful-termination lawsuits against the city similar to one it recently lost and ultimately settled for some $8.3 million — not including its own legal fees — Mello’s response was simple: “I really don’t have any useful input on this topic.”

If elected, the suggestion he might carry this approach forward into council meetings is intriguing. The current nine members of the council include some accomplished extemporaneous speakers, able to carry on at length with passion and sometimes poetry.

Some of his acerbity, though, may have been opposition to a debate format he clearly disliked.

When asked his approach to Cambridge’s homeless and the building and maintaining of an affordable-housing stock, Mello seemed to explore a couple of directions before declining to give a too-short answer. “Affordable housing and subsidized housing are very different issues,” he said. “Once upon a time we had a thing called rent control,” he ventured. Finally, he said, “This is much too much to do in 15 seconds.”

One of his textbook blunt answers also provoked the sole moment of impassioned exchange between the candidates. When asked about perceived and real safety and crime in the city and specifically Central Square, he mentioned forcing police to put a permanent patrol in Central, noticeably occupied by the homeless and addicted and occasionally the scene of stabbings and shootings. He also sparked a moment of controversy:

“What I want to do concretely in Central Square is I want to close 240 Albany St.,” he said, referring to a shelter at that address. “I know that comes as a shock to you people, but when their permits expire, I just want them to go out of business.”

It brought fellow candidate Larry Ward to his feet, when his turn came, to question Mello’s plan.

“The thought of closing 240 Albany St., that’s somewhat egregious. If you close the shelter down, where are people going? Onto the streets,” he asked the crowd. “As a community, we are responsible for each other. And the shelter is in our community. And it’s here to stay, and it should stay.”

Ward drew applause, and Mello claimed the microphone back for a response.

But if the audience and moderator were expecting a battle royale, Mello again showed restraint.

“I should get a chance to respond here,” Mello said. “I won’t. This is something that should be debated at great length. I know it’s the kind of thing people don’t just throw out there — it’s a worthy topic, let’s do it at the right time. Let’s give it the amount of time it needs.”

Mello has no campaign website. His bare profile on the Cambridge Civic Journal is here.

Marc Levy contributed to this report. It was updated Sept. 21, 2011, to add information about his academic degrees and correct information about his employment.