Councilor At-Large Q&A: John Gannon

John Gannon seeks re-election as Town Councilor At-Large.

Tell people about your background — family, professional background, volunteering, government, activism — and how that will help you as a Town Councilor.

I was raised in Watertown, the son of a postal worker, who served his country in World War II, and an immigrant mother, who worked as a secretary. I was the beneficiary of a rich, diverse upbringing, living in a multi-ethnic neighborhood, and welcoming regular family visitors from other countries. My long career in public service was inspired by the work of my parents, proud members of the Greatest Generation who supported their respective countries in wartime capacities, and instilled in me a lifelong spirit of giving back to my community.

After graduating from Watertown High School, where I was a student-athlete, I went to Brown University, then Suffolk University Law School, where I focused on becoming a local government attorney. My experience as a first generation college student, balancing my studies while working multiple part-time jobs, taught me multi-tasking, as well as provided me with gratitude for any successes I later achieved. More than anything I achieved, though, I’m the proud parent of my son Will, 18. After law school, I embarked on a thirty-year career as a municipal law attorney, directly representing over 100 small towns and large cities, including Watertown and Somerville. Representing multiple communities statewide, I’ve learned how strong communities govern: they listen to their residents, welcome dialogue, consider best practices and inspire responsive and effective public service.

I also believe that strong communities are enhanced through individual acts of public service. From the time of my youth, I’ve been actively involved with my community. As an attorney, I have volunteered with numerous charities to provide legal services to help them organize and succeed. Also, as an attorney I’ve worked nationwide for decades as voting rights attorney, fighting to ensure that the ballot box is open to all. As a parent, I’ve helped coach my son’s running clubs, helping my sons and his peers learn the values of teamwork and achieving individual goals.

My volunteer service as Watertown’s Americans with Disabilities Act Coordinator resulted in the town’s acquisition of grants that funded the elevator in Town Hall, and accessibility improvements in other town buildings. I’ve also worked on senior citizens services, substance abuse recovery coaching and other issues that continue to motivate me to assist others. As a Town Councilor At-Large, I’ve been fortunate to bring such issues to the attention of a larger audience.

The pandemic has created some trying and difficult times for residents and along with that for local government, and in other towns elected and hired officials have stepped down. Why during these challenging times did you decide to run for office? And with a robust group of candidates running in 2021, why do you think Watertown has so many people stepping forward to serve?

In my longtime service as a municipal lawyer serving numerous cities and towns statewide, I’ve gained the skills to work under pressure to provide the best service to my government clients, under all community challenges. As your Town Councilor, I was ready for the challenges of the pandemic. At the beginning of the pandemic, in my day position as a local government attorney working for a state agency, I drafted numerous state emergency legislation and regulations to allow local governments to continue operating, mainly through meeting remotely until safer conditions allowed a return to public meetings. In my service as a Town Councilor At-Large in Watertown, I’ve been proud of how we worked together a team to continue to function at a high capacity during the pandemic.

Despite the challenges, we’ve made much progress in building a strong Watertown. We’re building award-worthy, climate-friendly schools for our students, with no extra cost to taxpayers. We’re launching a nationwide search to find the best-qualified new town manager. After close to a year of multiple robust meetings, we adopted recommendations for a Town Charter with more public engagement. We advanced issues of climate change, diversity, and making development more neighborhood-friendly. We still face challenges, though, and we need experienced leadership to meet these challenges. I’m running to bring my experience as a trusted municipal official to tackle the challenges that face us and to keep Watertown moving in a forward manner. With respect to the engagement of new candidates, I credit that to the Zoom technology and other public participation we as a Town Council adopted, which allows to more public participation in local meetings.

Being a new town manager is difficult enough, but following such a long- term and successful Town Manager will be a tough task. What do you look for in the new manager and how will you, as a councilor, help the new Town Manager get established and be successful?

First of all, we should give credit to our retiring Town Manager Mike Driscoll, as well as to the Town Council, for elevating Watertown to such a financially-strong position, such that a new town manager can ease into the role.

The search for a new town manager will be the number one priority for the next Town Council session. We will need strong, experienced leadership from each of our Town Council members to select the best candidate for the Town’s top leadership post. As a career municipal law attorney for many communities, I have direct experience in selecting strong municipal leaders. My experience has taught me well about how to conduct our wide search. I have advocated that the Town Council select an executive search firm to cast a wide net for experienced municipal professionals. I strongly support a public and open process, where residents, along with the Town Council, can ask questions of each person selected for an interview – my judgment of any potential manager will be informed on how that individual fields questions from residents with many perspectives. As a municipal official myself, I know the professional questions to ask of candidates on how they will serve Watertown, and, better yet, I know how to interpret their answers.

As for positioning the selected town manager for success, I will bring that individual to tour every Watertown neighborhood, and to encourage them to engage from day one in individual meetings with residents, town employees and other people who make Watertown a vibrant community. We as a Town Council must take leadership in communicating our expectations to the new town manager, and evaluate his or her performance using clear goals for measuring success. I will also engage with the new town manager, as one of nine councilors, and share thoughts on Watertown and its strengths and areas of promise. My dialogue with the new town manager will be ongoing, as we need our new manager to be successful from the beginning.

Do you think the voters should pass the changes to the Town Charter? Explain why you feel that way.

I strongly urge voters to approve of the changes to the Town Charter. After close to a year of healthy and robust discussion, and greater engagement from the general public than any charter review has seen, the Charter Review Committee, and the Town Council voted to recommend a number of improvements to our local “constitution.” The recommendations for improving the Charter would bring about greater transparency, accountability and openness in our local government, including strengthening the authority of our elected officials with respect to the Town Manager. Under the recommendations, Town Council will achieve greater professionalism and quicker resident responses through the hiring of a municipal analyst, who will help the Council with legislative research and analysis. The Town will also increase its availability to reach out to all residents through the hiring of a community engagement officer, and, through the creation of a resident advisory committee, provide for a broader reach in seeking candidates for appointment to local boards. In addition, the Charter changes will allow more communication
from their elected and appointed officials: calling for the Council President to give an annual address to residents on the state of the town, hosting an annual forum for residents to speak with and learn about our town officials, and for all councilors engaging with residents at an annual public meeting. I strongly advise that voters approve of the Charter changes so that we will have a stronger local government accessible to all residents. There is also a proposal on the ballot to affirm that Watertown is a city – I take no position on that question.

Police funding and the services provided by the Watertown Police have become a big topic of discussion. Should the funding be increased, decreased or is it just about right? And, would you like to see how the Police in Watertown operate (please explain your answer)?

Watertown is in a strong financial position that it does not need to reallocate funds away from one department, such as our police department, in order to fund human service programs that would divert individuals from involvement in the criminal justice system. Simply out, you don’t cut your way to success. The George Floyd murder elevated concerns about policing nationwide.

While there is more work to do with creating a more inclusive and livable Watertown, defunding the Watertown Police Department is not the solution. Police departments in Massachusetts face challenges that did not exist years ago, such as rising opioid and substance abuse addiction and mental health rates, which require additional resources to address. The availability of patrol officers to administer Narcan and take other immediate assistance makes a big difference. Policing levels have been determined to be sufficient, and officers and command staff, like any employees of the Town, need cost of living increases to address rising costs, and they need training to keep them up to date on the latest advances. The department is also unique in that officers work in a diverse community, where residents come from 60 countries and speak 45 different languages. The department is also responding to training and policy development required by the state POST Commission to ensure uniformity in the administration of policies and procedures.

With respect to addressing the town’s human service needs, Watertown is presently engaged in building additional resources on multiple fronts, and not from cutting other budgets to attain results. For example, at the request of the police department, the Town Council provided funding for two social service clinicians who work with individuals who face the scourge of substance abuse and addiction; as a member of the Council Committee on Human Services, we are researching the addition of a third clinician to work on weekends. The Town also employs two social services clinicians in the Health Department to work on human services programs to assist those who need services. The availability of funding from the federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) could provide funding that may be used to address other issues, such as housing, food and fuel insecurity.

What issue in Watertown that might not be getting enough attention would you want to work on as a councilor, and how would you like the Town government to address the issue?

One of my top priorities as Town Councilor At-Large for the next two years, as it was two years ago when I first ran, is to ensure that our Town government is providing the best accessible communication with residents as possible. Without transparency and openness, residents will not be able to know how their tax dollars are spent, and cannot debate issues concerning their government. So far, we’ve created progress in this regard: we hired a new Chief Information Officer, and a social media coordinator; they are working on a more user-friendly, accessible Town website. Also, if the charter amendments are adopted, recommendations for improving the Charter will bring about greater transparency, accountability and openness in our local government, including strengthening the authority of our elected officials with respect to the Town Manager and creating a community engagement officer to help reach out to greater audiences whose voices are not typically heard. All of these resources allow Watertown residents to remain informed on the issues that are vital to them, to know that their government is on their side and to provide the information necessary to ask followup questions. Yet, we must always find ways to communicate Town information to wider audiences. Creating an evaluation mechanism for our new town manager to prioritize communication issues, for example, would allow Watertown to aim higher in transparency and openness. We must always ensure that we as a community respond to the needs of our neighbors.

Watertown has taken a lot of steps to become more green and to address climate change. Do you think the Town has done enough, or would you like more to be done — if so what would you like to see?

After the release of a study by the United Nations last summer combining the work of over 2,000 scientists, and hundreds of other scientific studies, it should be clear to everybody that climate change is a deadly force that threatens our futures and those of our children’s and grandchildren’s. There’s no doubt we need to make Watertown more resilient in the face of these threats. Since I got elected in 2019 as a Town Councilor At-Large, I’ve been on the forefront of fighting for Watertown’s future, and that includes doing our part in this global fight. Locally, I’ve supported maximizing energy-efficiency standards for our town buildings, and on that note, I’m heartened we are opening the doors to two brand new elementary schools, both of which are statewide examples, producing net-zero emissions.

That effort took the combined efforts of the School Building Committee and local climate activists. I’ve also been supportive of increasing the number energy-efficient town vehicles in the town’s fleet, where feasible. When DPW Superintendent Greg St. Louis recently described the need for funding of new DPW vehicles, I was pleased to hear that he will be phasing in energy-efficient vehicles into the fleet, as that technology evolves. Reducing our carbon footprint requires more green spaces, as well as protecting our wetlands, which provide pollution control and a habitat for wildlife. Building accessible parks and green spaces also provide substantial health benefits for all Watertown residents. We as a Town Council will also be working to adopt the Town’s Climate Action Plan in the next term. There is so much more that we need to do, but it takes electing officials with demonstrated concern and experience in working on the dangers of climate change to take the steps locally to protect Watertown’s and the world’s future. I will continue to be one such voice.

What is something that people may not know about you that residents would find interesting?

I could say that I miss Russo’s, but since every Watertown resident feels the same way, that wouldn’t be very interesting. I will share that I have been a lifelong fan of the Charles River, Watertown’s hidden, and not so hidden, gem. As a child, I enjoyed fishing along the banks of the Charles, and riding my bike on paths that were practically rural in setting. Over the years, I’ve run, biked, and walked the many paths along the river. I’ve felt both a community with people sharing the paths, and I’ve savored alone time as I pondered the opportunities, and challenges, that face one in life. I feel an even more special bond with my son, when he runs, bikes and walks with me along the Charles. I’ve seen my son’s elevation into adulthood along the shores of the Charles, from running with him in a jog stroller to more recent days appreciating that he is now a faster runner that I am. During the pandemic, the Charles offered a calm environment, as a shelter from local and world heartache, as the cycle of infections and death circled around us. I’ve been on, and sometimes in, its waters. I enjoy kayaking and getting a better view of Watertown from its waters, as I ponder how the Charles River provided nurture to its earlier native populations. I’ve also had the professional experience with the river, as an attorney for Watertown years ago, when the state began expanding the river’s network of community paths toward Waltham. I will always have a place in my heart for our local branch of the Charles River.