There is no question, the COVID-19 pandemic has been tough on the new mayor of Medford, challenging her very ambitious social and governmental agenda and robbing her of the hallmarks of her personal governing style: the desire to include all city residents in governance, the love of planning events and the ability to reach out and hug her constituents.
“I’m known for my hugs,” Breanna Lungo-Koehn said, a year into her first term. “Now, I just give the elbow.”
The toughest challenge, she admits, has been to change gears from her ambition of bringing transparency to local government to focusing on the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We had to adjust,” said Lungo-Koehn. “We are moving the city forward as much as we can with COVID, our job now is to keep residents safe, healthy and sane.”
This past year, she has had to cancel a food truck festival, graduation plans for the city’s high school seniors, parades, road races.
“It broke my heart to say no to people,” Lungo-Koehn said. “I love to plan a party; I love to make people happy.”
Despite the setback, the mayor has managed to implement a good portion of her election platform; she has also made headway with her key element; that of bringing transparency to local government.
She points to the city’s budget.
“My goal was to make it comprehensible to all residents,” Lungo-Koehn said. The document was transposed from its original Excel program and now boasts colorful graphs and clearly stated goals.
“The city has maintained its Double AA+ bond rating and has a stable outlook,” Lungo-Koehn said, proud of the achievement given the uncertainty of state and federal aid and tax revenue due to the pandemic.
The new budget will be a challenge, she predicted, adding the city has been creative.
“We’ve helped our local businesses; giving a half million dollars to more than 50 local businesses to help them make it through,” Lungo-Koehn said, adding that local entrepreneurs can apply for funds through the office of Community Development. “Local businesses have benefitted from heat lamps, Jersey barriers, outdoor dining.”
Even the arts community reaped $30,000 from city grants to decorate the Jersey barriers, Lungo-Koehn said.
On the agenda...
The revamped “SeeClickFix” resident complaint program that fell out of favor about four years ago is ready for a rollout sometime this month (February), “March at the latest.”
The city has restructured the program to ensure that issues are directed to the proper department for resolution; pot hole complaints go directly to the Department of Public Works; dead animals to animal control. The dashboard also reflects whether the issue has been resolved or still needs attention.
“If it’s entered into the system correctly, it will be dealt directly to the person or department responsible, and addressed,” Lungo-Koehn said.
The mayor’s office staff has been reconfigured: in addition to her executive assistant, Lungo-Koehn works with a chief of staff, a director of communications and a director of community affairs. She has streamlined several city departments; combining the departments of Energy & Environment with Community Development into an over-arching division of Planning, Development and Sustainability, under the auspices of Alicia Hunt.
Combining the two departments allows the city to work with developers, landlords and brokers on new projects and allows city residents to voice concerns about projects and proposals.
“We get to keep an eye on every plan and proposal coming in,” Lungo-Koehn said.
This ties in with the city’s Comprehensive Plan, a process that solicits input from every neighborhood and demographic group as to how Medford will develop over the course of the next 20 years. This plan will take about two years to develop and will embrace policies to mitigate climate change, open space and recreation and land use planning.
Yes, the city’s Zoning Ordinance is in Lungo-Koehn’s sights for review.
The city managed to attract outside money; grants and funding, to revamp its parks: reviving basketball and tennis courts, the pool deck at Tufts pool and purchasing handicapped furniture for the pool. She wants to build Pickleball courts.
“I’m looking for more money to get all the parks done; we need them especially now, our parks were used more this past summer,” Lungo-Koehn said.
Big coup: attracting Monogram Gourmet Foods LLC, a Tennessee based commercial bakery, to the old Whole Foods bakery site on Middlesex Avenue. While the city did provide a tax incentive, the commercial baker will invest $40 million in the project and supply 250 jobs.
She is pricing body cameras for the city’s police force and hopes to have them functional by July. And the de-escalation training to reduce violent interactions between police and the public is ongoing.
Lungo-Koehn feels stymied by the slow pace of government, especially in relation to the review and reconstruction of the city’s fire service structures. Roofs are leaking, the city wants to determine if protective turnout gear traps harmful chemicals and how that hazard could be mitigated.
“Today, I’m meeting with the fire subcommittee, and it’s frustrating how long it will take to get these issues resolved,” Lungo-Koehn said. “I’m used to getting things done; checking them off the list.”
She has proposed a city charter review, it hasn’t been approved yet, plans to present a Capital Improvement Plan to the City Council on Feb. 24 and is looking to make changes in the city’s parking ordinances and practices.
Questions about parking: should Medford bring parking enforcement in-house? How to manage employees, enforcement, meters, kiosks and permitting?
Small triumphs include a bi-weekly newsletter, a Welcome Committee that meets every month on Zoom and having saved $20,000 by rebidding the robo call system. The city’s sidewalks have all been assessed for the capital improvement plan and prioritized for fixing. The city held an arts festival, a talent contest and a pumpkin carving event; all socially distanced.
The city put together a team of callers and reached out to more than 11,000 senior residents for a wellness check in the spring and to offer help with food, medication and mental health issues.
City children have been in school since Sept. 28, two days a week, and are tested weekly and staff is tested twice weekly through a program in cooperation with Tufts University.
Medford has sponsored flu vaccination clinics and plans to help seniors sign up for COVID vaccination by creating call centers. The debacle of the state’s vaccine rollout has prompted a crisis in the city’s elderly population, Lungo-Koehn said.
“We’ve gotten an average of 500 calls a day from our residents over 75, crying, anxious, upset, it’s heartbreaking,” she said.
She herself has initiated a call to the lieutenant governor, to expedite the rollout for Medford.
This year, Lungo-Koehn is looking forward to a return to normalcy: Sunshine, people outside, events in parks, full day schools in September, going to fundraisers.
“I’m ready for people to be happy again,” Lungo-Koehn said.