City Councilor Jack McCullough is the first candidate to declare his intention to seek Montpelier’s vacant mayor’s chair.
McCullough, who represents District 2 on the city council, said he hopes to replace Anne Watson for the second time in his political career. He was appointed to fill Watson’s council seat when she was first elected mayor in 2018, and he was re-elected in 2019 and 2021. Watson was elected as one of Washington County’s three state senators in November and will step down as mayor with a year remaining in her term.
Voters will choose a new mayor to complete Watson’s term in a special election on Town Meeting Day, March 7. Candidates have until Jan. 30 to file paperwork to seek city office. McCullough’s council term expires in March, meaning the district will have two new faces. Fellow district 2 councilor Conor Casey resigned after being elected as a state representative.
McCullough, 69, is an attorney for the Mental Health Law Project at Vermont Legal Aid. He moved to Montpelier from Michigan in 1983 and with his wife raised two sons who were born in Vermont.
He said he intends to essentially continue the agenda established by Watson and the council in recent years with an emphasis on creating more housing in the city.
“Anne has been great. I do not see much space between me and Anne in our visions for the city,” McCullough said. “I hope we can continue to make progress and address the critical needs of the city, keep the management of the city on good financial standing, and continue to be responsive to the community.”
Watson welcomed McCullough’s decision.
“I’m so pleased that Jack is running. I think he would make a great mayor,” Watson said.
McCullough said the results of a recent survey indicate that residents are mostly concerned about the city’s aging public works infrastructure, street conditions, and public safety, followed by the need for more housing options at all price levels. He pointed to the recently acquired Country Club Road parcel as an opportunity for direct city involvement in the creation of new housing and also sees a pathway for housing in Sabin’s Pasture and downtown.
“The people of Montpelier and the people on the council realize that housing is a tremendous need,” he said. “The city can have all the desire to make housing happen but we don’t always have the ability to make it happen. We are now at a point where we control the property and have a unique opportunity to make it happen.”
Despite frequent criticism about the condition of city streets and persistent issues with broken water pipes, McCullough says he believes city staff have developed plans to address the problems. He said part of the negative perception is because those plans aren’t being effectively communicated to the public.
“Every time we get a report (from city staff) it is detailed, comprehensive, and professional,” he said. “One of the things we need to do is get that information out to residents so they know that good people are working on solutions and those problems are not being ignored.”
To that end, he said the council has hired a consultant to redesign the city’s website. The council is also in the midst of crafting a fiscal 2024 budget that is likely to be at least $1 million higher than last year’s. Inflation and renegotiated labor agreements are contributing to the increase, he said.
The city renegotiated its contracts with its police and public works unions because, it said, the city was unable to attract qualified workers under the existing deal.
“It’s been hard in many places to hire good, qualified people and we wanted to be sure we could fully staff the (police) department and that the people we hire would be the kind of people we expect to hire for the city of Montpelier,” McCullough said.
He also said that the council will revisit the proposed development of Confluence Park, a boat launch and recreation area near the junction of the Winooski and North Branch rivers. Voters approved $600,000 for the project as part of a larger bond vote, but estimates of the project’s cost are now close to $3 million, city officials said. McCullough said he would likely not support the proposal at that price point.
“It’s pretty hard to do that compared to other needs the city has,” he said.
McCullough said he believes his experience as council president during the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic has prepared him for the job of mayor.
“I think we handled the pandemic very well and I want to be available to use my knowledge of the issues and the leadership I’ve established through community efforts and the council to keep moving forward on the key areas in Montpelier. I think I’m well-suited to continue to make progress in those areas.”
City Council Appointment Dec. 21
The city council will appoint a person to fill the District 2 city council seat vacated by Conor Casey at its Dec. 21 meeting. Merrick Modun and Pelin Kohn are the only residents to formally seek the interim appointment.
Voters on Town Meeting Day will choose a councilor to serve the final year of Casey’s term. Modun, an 18-year-old senior at Montpelier High School, ran unsuccessfully for a House seat in the August Democratic primary. Kohn is a leadership educator at Norwich University.