Lt. Gov Karyn Polito gives the keynote address for Women Elected Municipal Officials third annual Leadership Conference on Oct. 15.

Women Elected Municipal Officials gathered virtually on Oct. 15 for their third annual Leadership Conference, which focused on the crucial role that women leaders play in recovery efforts to establish strong, healthy communities.

“Women Leading Resilient Communities” kicked off with a keynote address from Lt. Gov Karyn Polito, who thanked attendees for their dedication to serving their communities and welcomed those who are newly elected.

“There is no better time for women’s active participation than the present in public service,” Polito said. “The time and effort you put into bettering your communities and the value you bring to your local constituents is critical, especially now.”

Polito discussed the important partnership between the administration and municipalities across the state and its key role in the ongoing COVID-19 response and recovery efforts. She highlighted the administration’s “Future of Work” report, published in July, as a marker for how COVID-19 is changing work habits and will drive the state’s housing, transportation and workforce efforts.

“Massachusetts is well-positioned as we emerge from the pandemic,” she said, “and the report provides a roadmap forward.”

Polito also discussed the administration’s plan to invest $2.8 billion in federal COVID-19 funding to support economic recovery and communities hit hardest by the pandemic, including investments in housing and homeownership, economic development, job training and workforce development, and infrastructure.

Following Polito’s address, members of the WEMO Steering Committee, chaired by Newburyport Mayor Donna Holaday, led a discussion of recovery efforts in attendees’ communities. Attendees discussed initiatives and efforts by municipal staff, boards and committees to best serve communities during the pandemic, including hosting outdoor events in downtown areas to help bring traffic to small businesses, artists and other vendors, and increasing community outreach and engagement through effective and inclusive use of social media, websites, newsletters, livestreams and community-based apps.

“We had to zig and zag as elected officials,” said Easton Select Board Member Dottie Fulginiti, who described the creation of a volunteer phone bank to reach seniors in her town.

There was a consensus that the pandemic exacerbated some challenges that communities are continuing to work on, including housing instability, supporting local businesses and workforce needs, and addressing public health concerns. A common theme was workforce-related concerns, both within municipal government and in downtown businesses.

“We are all seeing this,” said Holaday. “There is not a business in town without a help wanted sign. Everyone is burnt out. We are trying to reach out to regional stakeholders to see how we can provide relief or support.”

Salem Mayor Kim Driscoll described a successful partnership the city built with the MassHire North Shore Career Center to provide up to $800 in Visa gift cards for eligible employees who fill openings with qualified Salem businesses.

“We had 36 applicants in just 48 hours,” Driscoll said.

Lexington Select Board Member Jill Hai highlighted the need for more affordable housing and reliable regional transportation in communities that have a seasonal workforce, where housing can often be out of reach for workers.

Cohasset Select Board Member Diane Kennedy said her town is facing staffing challenges.

“We don’t have enough staff or committee members,” she said. “It’s a lot of work to apply for grants and prioritize grant programs and execute, and manage all the CARES and ARPA funding — that continues to be a challenge.”

One of two breakout sessions focused on boosting diversity, equity and inclusion in local government. Debra Roberts, vice chair of the Stoughton Select Board, discussed her community’s efforts to increase diversity on local boards and committees to better match the demographics of the town, including voter outreach.

“Progress has been made, but there is still more to improve,” Roberts said.

Stoughton is one of only six municipalities in New England to receive a Racial Equity Municipal Action Plan program grant, which it used to help address hiring and retention practices.

Methuen Councillor Eunice Zeigler said developing a strong strategy and structure is key to building a sustainable initiative, which includes ensuring there is buy-in and understanding within the community. She gave examples: reaching out to the younger population, making information and meeting schedules readily available on websites and social media, creating public forums, and coordinating with community partners.

“By having more diverse voices at the table, you are able to promote policies that are more beneficial to your community and more encompassing of your entire population,” Zeigler said.

It’s important to make it easier for residents to engage with the community and local government, she said, through public forums, public art and cultural events, which provide the opportunity for interaction about why the work of local government matters and conversations about similarities and differences. Investing in these events can also help drive economic development.

Attendees discussed best practices for holding and moderating public forums on diversity, equity and inclusion efforts, how to best report about such efforts, grant opportunities, and when to work with outside consultants.

The overarching theme of the other breakout discussion, on climate adaptation and resilience, was the value of regional collaboration.

Mayor Holaday kicked off the conversation by discussing issues facing her community, in particular with Plum Island and the Merrimack River, which include erosion, wave damage, dune loss, and lack of protection for water and sewer infrastructure. She said working with other communities along the river and other groups has been incredibly helpful.

Mayor Driscoll discussed the decision by her city and its neighbor, Beverly, to work together on resiliency issues in a way that expands available resources. She also emphasized the value of having buy-in within the community.

“City halls are not going to solve climate change alone,” Driscoll said. “We need partnerships. We need people holding us accountable, and being willing to show up when we talk about things.”

Malden Councillor Amanda Linehan discussed a project to make the Malden River more vibrant and accessible to the community, and some of the challenges the project has faced in its early phases, including outreach in diverse languages, getting community youth involved, and the need for flexible and careful design, including a reworking of the Department of Public Works yard on the river’s edge.

Attendees discussed collaborative resiliency efforts across the state over the past 10 years, state and federal grant and support resources, working with local businesses, PFAS contamination issues, and strategies for community outreach and engagement beyond boards and committees.

“We all have a tremendous amount of work ahead of us, as we move out of the immediate impact of the pandemic,” Holaday said. “We have to be able to continue to share information about best practices and how to lead and support our communities.”

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