The 2020 presidential election may be dominating news cycles at the moment. But in Medford, an equally important race asked voters a question on November 5 that seems to be a hallmark of American politics: will we vote for change, or will we remain stagnant?
The two candidates for Mayor of Medford were similar in many regards. Both are lifelong Medford residents that have professional careers outside of politics. Both women are Democrats with an impressive list of political credentials. But key differences set them apart. Incumbent Mayor Stephanie Burke secured the endorsement of establishment politicians like Mike McGlynn, who was Mayor of Medford for 28 years preceding Burke, and had large sums of money to spend, while City Councilor Breanna Lungo-Koehn ran a grassroots campaign with limited resources. Lungo-Koehn aims to shine a light on the closed doors and bureaucracy of Burke’s administration, including on the relationship between the city of Medford and Tufts University.
Campaign fundraising records from 2019 show that 89 percent of the donations to Lungo-Koehn’s campaign came from Medford residents, whereas over half of Mayor Burke’s campaign donations came from outside of Medford. Furthermore, 17 percent of Burke’s donations came from developers outside Medford, including $1,000 from a representative of Combined Properties, owner of multiple lots subject to the controversial Mystic Avenue zoning project proposed and then withdrawn by Mayor Burke this past year.
It was this demonstrated lack of transparency under Burke’s administration that led Lungo-Koehn to enter the race in the first place. In December of 2017, the cleaning staff of a Medford elementary school found a loaded gun magazine in the auditorium and reported it to the school principal. According to the statement put forth by the Superintendent of Schools Roy Belson, “McGylnn Middle School Principal Jake Edwards was in his office on December 30, 2017, for the purpose of cleaning his office and he claims he threw several items away that could have included the clip. Shortly thereafter, it was reported to myself as well as the School Resource Officer.”
Neither the police nor the school superintendent disclosed the incident to the public, not even to the parents of the school children. In February 2018, Lungo-Koehn was informed of the ordeal by several school personnel afraid to come forward publicly following the school’s cover-up. She immediately called the police to sweep the school. “I was shaking, not only because of what was found, but the fact that it was found on [December] 28 and, from what I understand, it was thrown away,” said Lungo-Koehn in an interview with Boston 25 News.
According to Lungo-Koehn, when the matter came to light shortly thereafter, the Burke administration attempted to downplay the issue. In a Letter to the Editor posted on Medford WickedLocal, Medford resident and parent Monique Devos explained that “what really stunned parents was the glaring lack of empathy displayed by City Hall. I, and others, felt we were being told to ‘get over our concerns for the children.’”
It was this scandal that initially drew Lungo-Koehn into the mayoral race. As a parent of three children in the Medford school system, Lungo-Koehn felt that the Mayor had not responded appropriately or honestly to the incident and that the cover-up was just one example of a larger issue in Medford politics with communication between the community and City Hall. Lungo-Koehn explained in an interview with the Observer that the first item on her agenda as Mayor is to “open the doors and let people in—everybody, not just my supporters. I want to try to bring this community together to move Medford forward in the right direction. We need more transparency. We have got to hold our leaders accountable.”
Lungo-Koehn told the Observer that she believes in the untapped potential of the Medford community—including Tufts students. According to Lungo-Koehn, as one of the only local politicians willing to admit that Medford and Tufts University are in the midst of a housing crisis, she promises to continue working with students to put pressure on our administration to take action on housing shortages and rising rent prices.
In the spring of 2018, Lungo-Koehn met with members of the student group Tufts Housing League to discuss the home rule charter petition that, if passed by the Massachusetts legislature, would require Tufts and other large institutions to provide the city of Medford with institutional master plans for any future expansion. The petition would also allow Medford to impose zoning restrictions on such institutions as needed. Tufts Housing League could not be reached for comment on the meeting.
The home rule charter petition was passed by the Medford City Council on September 5 of this year, after Lungo-Koehn spoke on its behalf and helped bring it to a vote. Lungo-Koehn told the Observer that she’d be more than willing to speak in front of the state legislature to ensure the petition’s passage.
Lungo-Koehn is committed to pushing for transparency, not just within Medford City Council, but also in the relationship between the city and the university. When asked about her plans to work with the Tufts administration, Lungo-Koehn told the Observer that she would modify the existing Payment In Lieu Of Taxes (PILOT) program between Tufts and the city of Medford. The PILOT agreement is a voluntary arrangement between Tufts and Medford regarding how much money Tufts pays Medford to compensate for the city’s loss of revenue due to Tuft’s tax-exempt status as a nonprofit organization.
Lungo-Koehn has a comprehensive, seven-point list of ideas for inclusion in any future PILOT agreements, including placing at least two graduate students from the School of Environmental Policy and Planning within Medford City Hall’s planning office and asking the Tufts Department of Education to partner with Medford’s lower-performing schools to provide guidance and resources.
Lungo-Koehn claims that the new PILOT agreement terms were seemingly stalled at various points since the previous agreement expired in June 2018 due to stagnation in talks between Mayor Burke’s office and Tufts administrators. Mayor Burke had proposed an increase in the financial assistance provided by Tufts, and after a long stretch of negotiation, the two parties solidified the terms for this new iteration of the program on September 5, 2019. The agreement requires Tufts to pay the city $450,000, up from $250,000 under the terms of the previous agreement.
“We disagree with the characterization that the discussions over a new agreement ‘stalled.’ Discussions have been ongoing and productive, with a good exchange of ideas between the cities and the University about a wide array of topics beyond PILOT payments alone,” Tufts Director of Community Relations Ricco DiRico said when asked about Lungo-Koehn’s comments. “As part of those discussions, Medford and Somerville asked for parity with Boston in terms of PILOT payments. We have met that request by paying each community the same amount. We still continue to meet with representatives from Medford and Somerville on a regular basis. We hope to come to a long term partnership agreement with each community in the near future.”
The PILOT agreement and the gun magazine incident are part of the larger transparency issue Lungo-Koehn made the centerpiece of her campaign. As Lungo-Koehn supporter and longtime Medford resident Monique DeVos explained to Medford WickedLocal, “With our last mayor holding office for almost three decades…political power in Medford is clearly not accustomed to being shared or questioned…more sunshine is needed in Medford’s government—no matter who the mayor is.”
Breanna Lungo-Koehn unseated incumbent Mayor Stephanie Burke on November 5, 2019 by a margin of 652 votes.