Metro, Newton

Mayor Ruthanne Fuller and Former City Councilor Amy Mah Sangiolo Face Off In Debate

Newton mayoral candidates Mayor Ruthanne Fuller and former Councilor Amy Mah Sangiolo disagreed on the handling of the pandemic in the city, tax breaks for large businesses coming to Newton, and the institution of a diversity, equity, and inclusion officer in the city in a debate hosted by Charles River Regional Chamber President Greg Reibman on Thursday. 

Fuller was elected as the first female mayor of Newton in 2017. Sangiolo served as a city councilor at-large in Ward 4 from 1997 to 2017 and placed third in the 2017 mayoral election. The two candidates moved forward in the mayoral race following the preliminary election in September

The candidates spent much of the hour debating proposed additional positions in Newton City Hall, including Sangiolo’s proposed “small business liaison” position. 

Although Newton already has an economic development position, Sangiolo said that the position is not easily accessible to small businesses.

“I’ve been talking to a lot of the store owners, the retail shops, as well as the restaurants, and I feel like there just isn’t enough outreach to them—there isn’t enough support,” Sangiolo said. “We do have an economic development person, but I think there has to be somebody who is dedicated to our small businesses.” 

Fuller said that she is proud the city already has a small business liaison, Devra Bailin, whose official title is economic development director. Bailin acts as a concierge for small businesses. Fuller said all of the businesses have Bailin’s cell phone number and reach out to her regularly. She cited recent programs to help small businesses, including Project: Pop-Up and Newton Hires, that have come in part from the economic development director. 

“With Devra’s help, we have given out $610,000 worth of grants with no strings attached to over 54 businesses, including women and minorities businesses,” Fuller said. 

Sangiolo said she will be interested to examine the data for Newton Hires to see how many businesses have utilized the program. While Project: Pop-Up is a good way to start to fill empty storefronts, Sangiolo said more needs to be done. She suggested directing American Rescue Plan Act funds to small businesses for rental and mortgage assistance. 

The candidates also discussed creating a diversity, equity, and inclusion officer position in Newton. Fuller pointed to the director of community engagement and inclusion, a position that she established in 2017, as already fulfilling the role. Fuller said she hired a full-time consultant to help determine if additional staffing is necessary to provide adequate services in promoting diversity and inclusion in the community. 

Sangiolo said that the position does not focus enough on diversity, equity, and inclusion both within the city government and the larger Newton community. Opposed to hiring a consulting firm, Sangiolo said her approach is to hire a director. 

“I would definitely hire a director of diversity, equity, and inclusion and not just sprinkle our boards and commissions with racial and ethnic and gender diversity, but really give them the opportunity to have real equity and inclusion in our planning and decision making because that’s what really is important and what is missing now,” Sangiolo said. 

Sangiolo said the initial community engagement and inclusion director did not have the necessary skill set or training and that she is not sure about the current director’s skill set or training. 

Reibman later moved the debate to providing tax breaks to encourage companies to move to Newton. Sangiolo said she supports this idea, but Fuller said is reluctant toward that type of tax break, citing the several companies who have moved into Newton without the added incentive.

“I would definitely give tax breaks,” Sangiolo said. “It depends on the type of industry that’s coming here. We have to identify which industries we want.” Sangiolo said her criteria would include the available resources for the business and making sure that business is committed to employing city residents. 

Fuller said Bright Horizons recently moved its headquarters to Newton without a tax break. Fuller said she wants to instead invest funds in infrastructure to support businesses, as done in West Newton Square and Newtonville. 

Prior to closing arguments, Reibman asked the candidates to express how they want their campaigns to proceed as election day draws closer. Both candidates expressed a desire to keep the election about the issues and to provide a platform for the open discussion of ideas.

The candidates also discussed vaccine mandates. Fuller expressed support for a vaccine mandate without a testing alternative. Sangiolo did not provide a stance on whether or not Newton should impose a vaccine mandate, but she did stress her support for a testing alternative.

The debate ended with Sangiolo expressing her dissatisfaction of Fuller’s handling of the pandemic, especially concerning the reopening of Newton’s schools. 

“I think there was a mismanagement of our reopening of our schools,” Sangiolo said. “I think that could have been handled much better. … I think there should have been an oversight over the ventilation and testing of our HVAC systems.”

She also said there was a delay in creating a medical advisory committee during the pandemic until a petition was created by about 400 physicians. Sanigolo additionally said small homeowner renovations were shut down while large projects moved forward, which she said created hardships and was not based on advice from the medical community. 

Fuller defended her record amid the pandemic, saying that she listened to medical guidance and continued to evolve to consider what would be safest for all Newton residents. 

“I am actually really proud of our team for the amazing work that they did,” Fuller said. “Could we have done some things better? You betcha.”

The candidates will continue to campaign among the community for the next three weeks until election day on Nov. 2.

October 17, 2021