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Patrick launches town hall meetings in Salem

Rodrique Ngowi

SALEM, Mass. — Gov. Deval Patrick, launching a statewide town hall meeting tour, said there are “no silver bullets” to solve the complex issues facing the state.

About 200 people, some from as far away as Pepperell and Reading, met with Patrick last Tuesday evening in the first of 11 similar meetings he has planned for the summer.

“I want this to be an opportunity for you to talk with me directly. I need a direct relationship from you. You need to hear from me in unfiltered terms and I want to hear from you in unfiltered terms,” Patrick said.

The informal summer crowd, some sitting on blankets with children and pets in Salem’s Armory Park, shared their concerns about issues including the economy and education. Some carried banners and wore buttons advocating issues.

“What we are trying to do for once, is not act as if there are silver-bullet answers to complex issues, institutions and habits that go back 100 years,” Patrick told them.

Speakers included a man on Social Security who said he was having trouble paying higher gasoline prices, and a boy who helped raise money to bail out Salem’s financially troubled school system. Others had concerns about education.

Ten-year-old Jonathan Marrero of Salem told the governor how he sold hot chocolate and lemonade and did chores to raise $2,400 as part of a citizen initiative to help bail out the city’s financially troubled school system and save teacher and school librarian jobs.

“I just want to point out that not only can one kid make a difference — imagine if the whole community got together,” he said to applause and cheers.

Patrick praised him for taking ownership of the problem, and jokingly asked if he were planning on running for governor.

The man who identified himself only as “Bob” from Salem asked Patrick: “Will the state be able to do something for me and all the other people who can’t afford to put gasoline in their cars?”

“We are going to have to change some things, including how often we drive and where we drive,” Patrick told him. “We are going to have to think seriously about telecommuting, we are going to have to car pool.”

The governor also urged people to get home energy audits and take advantage of subsidies for energy conserving updates before the winter heating season.

Patrick discussed his “Readiness Project” of education initiatives.

Reading school committee member David Michaud asked him what the plan could do help school districts struggling with budget cuts and the need to “spend valuable teaching time preparing our kids for a standardized test that does not measure 21st century skills,” a reference to the MCAS test.

Patrick said he supports MCAS, but said he wants to expand student assessments to “capture progress on all the dimensions of a young person’s development.”

He got applause when he said he wanted to expand the school day to make room for music, art, exercise and service learning.

Ellen Chambers, director of an advocacy group for special education students, told Patrick the state still isn’t delivering adequate services for special needs students.

“We are trying to engage the government but the government is not engaging us,” she said.

To laughter from the crowd, she asked Patrick if he could arrange a meeting with his new education chief. He said, “I’ve got that power, you know,” and asked an aide to set it up.

Patrick acknowledged that “we are in an anxious and uncertain economic time.” He said that the state’s unemployment rate has gone down over the last year relative to the national rate, and said state revenues were at or ahead of benchmark through the fiscal year that just ended. But he acknowledged that is “cold comfort” to those feeling an economic pinch from lost jobs or home foreclosures.

“I’m here to remind you that all economies are cyclical and we will cycle out of this uncertain time,” he said. And we’d better be ready … to take advantage of that upswing when it comes.”

The governor plans more town hall meetings through the end of next month, and will take his cabinet meetings on the road, to Amherst, Lowell, New Bedford and Worcester later this month.

“I want to be connected. I want to hear from, I want to govern for, human beings. Not abstract, you know, political points. And this is one way to do it,” Patrick said after last Tuesday night’s meeting.

(Associated Press)