Mayor Jason Gonzalez stood up and apologized publicly for his actions and for the actions of various Fitchburg Common Council Alders at a press conference Friday evening, but at least one community leader wasn’t buying it.
Gonzalez stood with the CEO of One City Learning Center Kaleem Caire and Peace Network head Wanda Smith and took responsibility for his behavior during a contentious budget amendment hearing earlier this week. Gonzalez did not allow Caire and two others to speak during the public comment period. The other two were not invited to the press conference.
“We are a young city. I am a young mayor,” Gonzalez said. “I am asking Mr. Caire to be a part of Forward Fitchburg. I am hoping he takes the opportunity to do so. Many people will say that Mr. Caire and Ms. Smith and I, that we started off on the wrong foot. But I know we all care deeply about the city of Fitchburg. At the end of the day we really are not that different from one another and I will do my part to move things forward.”
At that point the Mayor turned to both Kaleem Caire and Wanda Smith.
“Mr. Caire, I apologize to you and any members of the community as well as Ms. Smith and any of your supporters, and I mainly extend an apology to the City of Fitchburg. I have let you down,” he said. “I have taken this to heart. I will move forward and I ask that you hold me accountable and you work with me and you be an ally going forward so that we can be a strong community.”
Gonzalez specifically apologized to Smith for the release of unredacted reports of police contacts at her address, which were released by Alder Dorothy Krause in an apparent attempt to discredit Smith and undermine her ability to operate her after school homework club. The reports showed that Smith was not the target of any police contact.
Mayor Gonzalez said that the recent spat between citizens of Fitchburg and members of the sitting council was not appropriate and should not have happened. Much effort was made by those individuals to mend fences and move things forward as well. Neither Smith nor Krause wished to make further comment.
But both could be observed at the meeting talking amicably in an apparent attempt to move forward as allies.
For his part, Kaleem Caire was unifying in his comments to the meeting. He spoke about how it is important to confront the wrongs when they happen, as he did on Tuesday night. But after that, Caire told the meeting, you have to begin the work of bridging the divides, of healing the wounds, and working towards a future.
“I spent the last 25 years of my life focusing on helping people build bridges,” Caire said. “I met with Mayor Gonzalez. We had a very open discussion. We had a very direct conversation for almost two hours. I told him that I wasn’t even going to talk to him until I heard he was sincere in his apology and sincere in his desire to do work moving forward. Nobody’s perfect. But do you keep blaming people for their faults and dig your heels in? We live in an era where everyone wants to fight. Is our city better off because of the fights that have happened with our mayor and our city council? When are we better off? Is it when we reconcile our differences and try to move forward or is it when we continue to fight?”
For their parts Mayor Jason Gonzalez, Kaleem Caire and Wanda Smith spoke at length about healing divides and hearing one another. They sought ways to move forward. In the background during the meeting Dorothy Krause did the same work and demonstrated the same efforts to bring everyone back together onto the same page. Most of the Alders on the council were also present and all of the alders Madison365 spoke to were motivated to do whatever they could to help heal the community wounds that have taken place.
Boys and Girls Club CEO Michael Johnson made an appearance as the meeting was close to adjourning. Johnson, who initially declined an invitation to participate in the press conference, said he had been following the proceedings and called the press conference a joke.
Johnson stood at the podium as Mayor Gonzalez, Wanda Smith, Kaleem Caire and Jeremiah Edwards-El looked on.
“Never once did I hear him apologize to the parents in Allied Drive,” Johnson said. “I can’t show up to a press conference and pretend that everything will be okay. This City Council and this Mayor zeroed out funding for young people in this community. If we wanna have a press conference, bring the alders up here who are seated here and have them work out plans to find solutions to these problems. Instead, we have alders who are trying to funnel money to nonprofits they have ties to. I don’t wanna play nice anymore. Let’s put together an agenda that’s gonna move kids forward. But I refuse to be part of a press conference pretending everything is gonna be okay. This press conference is a joke.”
Johnson’s frustration and anger boiled over as he made his remarks. In the past few years there have been many issues he has attacked and each time, it seemed, he would be offered olive branches and hear talk of “moving forward.” But, Johnson believes, it was all empty talk and no palpable action has taken place.
As Johnson left the room, Gonzalez apologized to him and the Boys and Girls Club.
“Apology accepted,” Johnson said. “Now put some resources behind those words.”
Caire said he completely understands Michael Johnson’s position and his frustration. After Johnson departed, both Mayor Gonzalez and Caire continued to speak. Caire said he totally empathizes with what Johnson’s responsibilities are to both the children of Fitchburg and the multitude of parents who appreciate his work.
But, Caire reiterated that these wounds have taken place and they are real. But if we want to truly affect change, the difficult work of sitting down with one another will have to take place.