On her final day in office, a Q&A with outgoing Mayor Caroline McCarley

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Born in Birmingham, Ala., Rochester Mayor Caroline McCarley moved to Rochester more than 30 years ago raising three sons with her husband, Dan Harkinson. Today marks her final day as mayor. McCarley will be retiring after more than two decades of public service for the people of Rochester.

Prior to becoming mayor, she served 17 years on the school board, 11 as chair; and was elected three times to the State Senate. Respected for her poise in presiding over City Council meetings and her consensus building acumen, McCarley will be retiring to Brewster, Mass.

Rochester Voice editor Harrison Thorp interviewed the mayor on Thursday inside her office adjacent to City Council chambers.

The Rochester Voice: In your time as mayor of Rochester what are the some of the things you are most proud of?

Mayor McCarley: I was elected running on a campaign to see if we could really reignite the energy about downtown, and I think some of that really happens on its own. But I think the council really worked hard as a group when opportunities came up that could make a potential real difference for downtown and I'll use as an example the purchase of the properties of the Scenic Salinger block. Those were decisions that are hard for a City Council to make, because you're spending taxpayer dollars buying the property and then what are you going to do with it?

But we as a council looked really hard at what opportunities could be there and we decided it was going to be worth the risk and the money to do that because we saw it as such an incredible foundation for downtown and Main Street. We then said OK, let's consider an RFP (Request for proposal) because we wanted to control what did go in there. And because we owned it we had the ability to do that. And then Eric Chinberg (Chinberg Properties) came to us and said they were his favorite buildings, and Mr. Chinberg came out with what we think is a phenomenal addition to the downtown.

So there's more interest in the downtown now. We have some nice niche stores that have been around for a while and they're doing well. So people that live downtown have some nice shops. And there will be more people living downtown to enjoy those shops.

TRV: So you want to Portsmouth-ify it, if you will, because they have those boutiques down there and they make it work because there's such a plentiful supply of those shops they make if fun for people to go there.

Mayor McCarley: And some of those were already here: the Collec-tiques, the Skele-tones and not all have survived, but there's already a sense of a variety downtown that you add to it much more people living in the downtown and there's no question we're going to see that in the next few years.

TRV: So you think it's beyond the tipping point, that it's a solid enough environment that it's really going to happen.

Mayor McCarley: I have absolutely no doubt that we will see all the results that we want to see.

TRV: And conversely, what do you see as the most challenging issue during your time in office as mayor?

Mayor McCarley: I would say it's the ongoing challenge in terms of providing resources for the number of folks who are homeless or suffering from mental health and drug issues downtown. Shortly after I was elected I did work with the hospital to set up a support center in downtown which I was very pleased we were able to do. We worked with SOS closely as well. But I think at the end of the day we, the city, and quite frankly, the state, have never put the resources in to take care of the issue of homelessness, and those suffering from substance misuse. And I am disappointed we have not made more headway.

What we need is a 24/7 shelter with all the wraparound services so that folks that are ready to get help - they have a place where they can have a roof over their head, have a shower and have resources available to them so they can start to turn their life around.

TRV: Do you ever wonder what the responsibility of the city is to take care of homeless people, people with mental issues and those for whatever reason don't want to go to a structured shelter, for instance don't want to go to the Strafford County Homeless Shelter where they do have a structure and they have a pattern in place to bring success and independence rather just have these no-barrier homeless shelters that often see tragedy like the homeless person who died of an overdose at the homeless shelter/motel in Dover. So is there a point where you have to say if you're not willing to be in a structured setting, you're just going to have to go it alone. There are also some people that just like that lifestyle.

Mayor McCarley: There's no question this is hugely complicated and individualized to the degree that every single person finding themselves in these circumstances are there for different reasons whether they are prepared to be there or not. But I do think most people if given the opportunity to be safe overnight and not be freezing or be able to take a shower and have a roof over their heads, I think the majority of those folk given the chance would ask for help and want to see their lives different. Not all of them, and I have some issues with the high barriers that went into effect with Strafford County Homeless Shelter the last couple of years. The city has had some issues with it. I get it. I know what they're trying to do. But to me, you start with a safe environment and then you work on the issues. I think you have to be open to pretty low-barrier shelters.

TRV: History tells us that in the summer they're (the homeless) out in the woods camping because they like that lifestyle. They like under the skies. No barriers. If they want to have a beer or some wine they don't have to worry about. So maybe that's an argument in and of itself to say that you don't need them (homeless shelters) in the summer. You only need them in the cold winter. So does say that a year-round shelter might not be sensible money-wise?

Mayor McCarley: I get what you're saying but I would respectfully disagree. I think some of those folks that are living outside in the summer because you can, if given the opportunity that they could be hooked up with the kind of services that would help them get off their drug dependence, that would help with mental health issues, I think the vast majority of those folks would rather be on that road to recovery rather than the tents in the summer.

TRV: Not all of 'em

Mayor: No, not all of 'em. No question about that.

TRV: We've noticed in the past six months or so a disturbing trend of partisan rhetoric and even snarky exchanges between city councilors. So what's the danger in this and how do you curb this kind of behavior that is detrimental to the city moving forward.

Mayor McCarley: Fair question and there has been a little bit more. I wouldn't say a lot. I've been in this community when it's been way worse (laughs). I think one of the things that happened in my last two years was COVID. We had lost a couple of board members who had been on a very long time and decided not to run. We got a couple back who hadn't been on for a while and we got two or three new people and we never had a chance to come together as a group in person and really work together. Even if you don't go out for a beer or a glass of wine after a meeting you get to the meeting early and you get to chat with them and know them as a person. We had none of that and when we finally did (return to in-person meetings) it was budget season.

TRV: And it always gets a little testy at budget time, we know that.

Mayor McCarley: Yes, but I always encourage folks to speak their mind. I think it's really important that everybody has a chance to speak. But we stress trying to be courteous. It's OK to get their views out there but there's no reason that has to turn into a hostile environment. I regret the few times we've had that happen, and I've spoke to councilors outside of the room to say to them, "You can do anything you want - I can't tell you what to do - but I can tell you this: nothing nasty said in public does any good for the city of Rochester.

TRV: This next question sort of dovetails with what we just talked about. When a City Council invokes issues that are in big play with the national media and internalize them to the local level where most taxpayers want you to just focus on running the city, where do you stand on that? We've seen this play out in several surrounding cities, so what's your take?

Mayor McCarley: That's a really fair question and I've thought about it a lot. I don't pretend. Yes, I'm a Democrat and the city of Rochester knows that.

I don't know if I'm proud of this, because sometimes you have an opportunity to lead, an opportunity to push forward things that you think are important and there are a lot of things that I think are important and I contact my own legislators in DC about them, but I have steered clear as mayor from asking this council to get terribly involved in those things.

And it was a conscious decision on my part. I've never had a City Councilor come to me and ask to do something about that. And from my perspective - again sometime I disappoint myself about this - but on balance I have never felt that the citizens of Rochester have ever asked me to go out and get involved and bring those issues home and I have respected that.

Other communities may be built very differently. I respect mayors that make other choices, but the only time in my entire tenure where I will say I did step out was when we were trying to determine what we were going to do about Martin Luther King Day in this state and in this city and I was chair of the school board at the time. I did go out on that and made it very clear that it was time to honor a hero like that and took a lot of abuse, and I don't mind taking abuse, but it really bothered a lot of people.

TRV: It bothered people that you wanted to make MLK day a holiday? And this was like the last state or next to last state to make it a holiday.

Mayor McCarley: Oh, yeah, and I think this was when I was in the state senate and on the school board. And that, quite frankly, was very personal because I am from Birmingham, Alabama. So you are correct. For the most part I have consciously stayed away from those issues, but not that time.

TRV: Do you plan on getting into politics at your new home on the Cape? Like maybe the school board?

Mayor McCarley: Absolutely not

TRV: I heard from someone that during the Field of Honor flag display for Memorial Day you paid for the flags for Evan Liberty and Chris Buslovich who were both friends with your son. Is that true?

Mayor McCarley: That's true

TRV: And can you speak to that a little ... why you did that?

Mayor McCarley: Well, I felt it was an opportunity to honor veterans. They both signed up voluntarily to serve in the Marine Corp. Chris is a particularly good friend of my son and I've always been fond of Evan Liberty and I felt it was an opportunity to put a flag up in his name and I'm glad to have done it and I got a really lovely note from his mom which I really appreciated.

TRV: Do you have any final words for the people of Rochester?

Mayor McCarley: It's been a great time. We've loved living here. My husband was born and raised here. And we came back. We never thought we'd live here, but things happen. We have loved it from the day we arrived. I'm delighted that my youngest will be living here. He and his spouse are looking forward to getting involved in the community, so ...

TRV: So there might be another member of the Harkinson family running for office?

Mayor McCarley: I have no idea if he'll run, but this (city) is what he's known his whole life.

TRV: So you never know?

Mayor McCarley: There would be nothing surprising about that

TRV: Anything else before we let you go

Mayor McCarley: One other thing I take a lot of pride in is the school building program that began in the '80s and early '90s when we decided to go to a middle school education structure and built the middle school for that type of education as well as moved our children from the Community Center back into a high school with walls.

That was a really big deal for me and a huge deal for the community and I think it continues to be the thing I'm most proud of doing. Now I worked on it with Mayor (Richard) Green, the council and the school board. It wasn't just me, but I take great pride in the decision we made in that time in the early '90s to do that, and it was a huge move and costly for the community. But I think long-term it has put us in an excellent place in terms of having the kind of facilities you need to be educating your kid.

After my last City Council meeting we went out for a drink and I said something about it and a couple of people who have been around as long as me, said, "Oh my God, we'd almost forgotten about all that that went on."

And it was a big deal. And property taxes went up a lot. Then I went over to the state Senate and worked really hard on the first bill that came out after we got the school funding change and every one of those dollars came back as a reduction in the property tax rate that following year. So I felt like I paid people back in a way.

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