Gloucester Mayor Greg Verga promises reset of City Hall
New mayor navigating mask policies, affordable housing
One in a series looking at newly-elected mayors across the Commonwealth.
GLOUCESTER MAYOR Greg Verga was sworn into office on New Year’s Day promising to reset the tone in City Hall after a contentious term by former mayor Sefatia Romeo Theken.
Verga, 53, is a lifelong Gloucester resident who held several jobs. He started working in shipping at an aerospace manufacturing company when he was a night student at Salem State University. He went on to work for manufacturing and software companies, before going into real estate.
Verga has long experience in municipal politics, serving for eight years on the Gloucester School Committee and six on the City Council. He takes office at a challenging time, with the Omicron variant of COVID-19 ravaging the state. Already, Verga said, he is getting vitriolic emails containing Nazi imagery and threats from residents who oppose new city mask regulations.
COMMONWEALTH: What got you interested in politics?
GREG VERGA: I was working full time and going to school two days a week. In 1999, I graduated. I had little kids. The youngest was four. One was in elementary school, the other was heading to middle school. The time I set aside for going to school and studying was free, so I decided I’d like to get involved and help out. I ran for school committee and lost. Two years later, I ran again and served four terms on the school committee. As my kids got older and graduated, I said it’s time to do something else. That’s why I switched to the city council. I did that for four years as a ward councilor and two years at large. I ran for mayor in 2015 and didn’t win.
CW: Why did you run for mayor now?
VERGA: There were a lot of issues that came out in the press that were concerning with my predecessor. Some lawsuits, claims of a toxic work environment. I felt it was time to reset the tone in Gloucester, clean the slate, let’s start over and focus on doing the job, and get rid of the personality conflicts.
CW: After the complaints that former mayor Romeo-Theken created a hostile work environment, how is morale in city government and how do you restore that?
VERGA: I think it’s happening in phases. Through the election, a lot of the employees were keeping their heads down, they didn’t know which way it would go. The transition period, after I won, I could really see this sigh of relief from all corners of city employees.
Obviously, there were some who were okay with the way things were. Even those are coming around and realizing it’s a more open, more transparent, more inclusive way of governing. And I’m feeling it. I’m completing my second full week today [Friday] and I’m really feeling pretty good about the vibe that’s among city employee right now.
VERGA: I’m trying to get the message across to all employees, managers, rank and file, that we’re all in this together. We don’t have to agree. I don’t mind if people disagree. We’ll debate the issues respectfully. In the end once a decision is made, we’ll get behind it. If I win or lose, we’ll get behind what’s decided on. There’s no sense spending months saying well, I didn’t support that. We all get a say, and sometimes we win, sometimes we lose, but we have one goal – to make the city a better place tomorrow than it is today, so the residents feel it.
CW: Climate change is a big issue for a North Shore community like Gloucester that has a large waterfront-based economy. What needs to be done on a municipal level to address climate change?
VERGA: Unfortunately, I think a lot of what we cities and towns throughout the country can do is work on mitigation and protection, to buy time. We don’t have the power to change regulations or change the mindset in Washington, DC, where some people still think climate change is fake. Unfortunately, we’re not going to be able to stop carbon output from factories. Boston didn’t put the world in the mess we’re in. What’s left is for us to do what we can locally to try to slow it.
The previous administration got money to a build a water treatment plant below sea level, and our high school is below sea level. We started putting barriers around those two facilities. Hopefully changes in Washington and at the United Nations can change the mindset, the policies that are going to prevent polar ice caps from melting.
A lot of our main roads in towns are all fill. Mother Nature will take back what Mother Nature once owned. For mayors and select people, it’s trying to protect what we have and buy time.
CW: How do you address post-pandemic learning loss and developmental loss in the schools?
VERGA: First we have to get to the post-pandemic stage, which we thought we were there over the summer. It’s going to be tough. We need to work closely locally and with the state. There’s going to be a lot of lost learning time. Then dealing with emotional and psychological issues, just looking at classmates through a mask the last 24 months.
I can’t talk about what we’re going to do until we get there. It’s like two steps forward, one step back with COVID. We just need to keep our fingers crossed and hope the next variant is even less deadly than Omicron. But we do have to be prepared. Until we reach the end of the line, it’s really just waiting.
CW: Would you like to see the state take a more active role in school policy?
VERGA: The state needs to set goals, but they have to have some recognition [of local circumstances]. I was on the school committee when the MCAS came to be. They’ve got to understand kids spent the last two years in what’s certainly not a traditional education. There’s going to be a lot of catching up to do. The state has to recognize that. They run the show in terms of education. I’ll be looking to them for some guidelines.
CW: Should the state be allowing remote learning?
VERGA: If things get worse at our high school, its already down dozens and dozens of staff and students that are out. If you test positive or have symptoms, you have to stay out at least five days. We’re way down in just capacity of staff to teach kids. We have large groups meeting in the auditorium or cafeteria because there’s not enough staff to teach. It would be wise for the state to put out some ‘just in case scenario’ for if thing get worse, and cities and towns can be prepared to go remote. If there’s 30 kids in a classroom, if no one’s there to teach them, it’s very difficult to learn. If you can go to remote learning, it can be a good alternative to not having school at all. If we start having more absences, I don’t know what the tipping point is when you have just too much staff out that you can’t provide the product.
CW: How are Gloucester’s businesses doing right now, and what if anything needs to be done to help them recover?
VERGA: Overall, it’s been pretty good. These new regulations the Board of Health voted in the other day were less stringent than they were the first time around in terms of mask regulations. But as numbers go up in terms of infections, the fear goes up and people may be, like, I’m just going to stay home and order from Amazon or eat at home instead of going to a restaurant. We do have all the [American Rescue Plan Act] money that’s intended to help. We’re working on a plan [for spending it].
This is a tipping point. Is it going to be worse or is it going to be better? Hopefully if everyone does their part, we can at least slow down the spread.
CW: What response are you getting to the new rules?
VERGA: I got some really frightening emails from anti-mask people. They go over the top in some of their imagery. If you don’t want to wear a mask, don’t wear a mask, but don’t be a jerk about it. Masks aren’t 100 percent effective; they are helpful. Short of everyone staying home and not doing anything, as we go out to live our lives, masks can be an effective tool to slow the spread.
I got a lot of imagery about Nazis and threats of the Nuremberg Code, do you know what the punishment is, some choice historical photos. The problem with COVID, masking, vaccines, it’s not left or right, it’s not Democrat or Republican, it’s life or death. And, unfortunately, it’s been made into a political issue. Politicians who have helped create it have been vaccinated but they let their people run wild with ‘the vaccines are ridiculous, are fake.’ I’ve said it a million times, I stand by science.
My wife’s a nurse, my daughter’s a nurse. I watched them go to work through the height of the pandemic wondering what they’ll bring home to me, to grandparents. People have to understand this is real. Not something created. I don’t know why they think people push for vaccines – other than Bill Gates has a secret microchip in the vaccine which I think is ridiculous. They’re already tracking us every day with cell phones, they don’t need to put a microchip in a vaccine.
CW: Rising housing prices are a big issue statewide. What’s going on with Gloucester’s property values and is there a need for more housing?
VERGA: Yes, absolutely there’s a need for more housing and a large need for more affordable housing. I was in real estate up until November. In my old neighborhood, my last transaction before I went out of business was I sold the house I grew up in for $550,000, which was unthinkable two years ago. Little single-family houses on a 5,000 square foot lot are selling for high prices. Rents are through the roof.
We had a housing production plan started pre-pandemic. The planning board was able to get to reviewing those, they sent recommendations to the city council. The problem with the recommendations is some view them as a giveaway for big developers. I’m talking to city councilors who come through the office, I say you have a chance to tweak them, make it work. I’m interested to hear public input on these problems.
We do have a real problem. Other than one huge apartment complex, most big developments have been half-a-million dollar condos to multimillion dollar condos. If you build more market rate, affordable numbers are lacking. It’s tough because we’re on the ocean, it’s desirable. It’s great if you want to sell, but if I want to sell a house to move laterally it’s almost impossible because there’s nothing to buy and prices are ridiculous. The upsizing days are done. Downsizing is not as easy because where do the elderly go? It’s high demand and low inventory that created raised prices.
Six of us ran for mayor and every one of us said the same thing. If this were easy it would have been done to solve the affordable housing crisis, or just the housing crisis.
CW: Are there ways you think you can use federal ARPA money that would transform the city of Gloucester?
VERGA: I’m hopeful. Gloucester was on tap to get $23 million. It’s waiting for us. There’s a process they recommend, to have an ARPA czar to oversee the whole process. Federal money has strings attached. The last thing we want to do is be drunken sailors and spend $23 million on just anything. I’ll look to have a person or firm help us find the best places to spend it. I want to do the most good for the most people.
CW: How will you measure success at the end of your first term?
VERGA: If we’re able to have a government that’s functioning with transparency, efficiency, and collaboration. Transparency, I’m working to make sure I am consistent on it down the line. At the end of this term, if people feel like I didn’t always agree with him but I knew where he was coming from, that’s the first measure of success for me.
CW: On a personal note, you’re a musician. What kind of music do you play?
VERGA: The Beatles were before my time, but that’s my favorite band. I like the ‘60s and I like the ‘80s, which is when I was in high school. The music I play and write with friends is alternative.CW: Is there anything else I haven’t asked that you think is important?
VERGA: It’s just important that people understand at least where I’m coming from. I just want to leave the city better than it is today. I have two grandchildren. The key thing for me is what are they going to inherit. I feel strongly my being elected sets things on a course of being a lot more functional, a lot more responsive to the people, trying to make sure everyone has their voice heard. Sometimes the answer’s no, but you have to at least listen to what people are asking.