Mayor Shaunna O'Connell's inaugural year: productivity despite pandemic
Susannah SudboroughThe Taunton Daily Gazette
TAUNTON — It's been about a year since Mayor Shaunna O'Connell took office. The former state representative has had do deal with something no other modern Taunton mayor has — a worldwide pandemic spreading through the city.
O'Connell had been mayor for less than 100 days when the pandemic hit, but she said her team was fit for the challenge.
"We have a great team here at City Hall. We kicked it into high gear. Everyone pulls together, and we were able to continue to provide city services and continue to keep our government running," she said.
O'Connell said it was a challenge to keep the city safe while still striving to meet the city's long-term goals. She said the city had to allocate a lot of time and resources to fight COVID-19 that would have been put towards other things in a different world.
While the loss of life from the virus has been heartbreaking, O'Connell said, she's extremely proud of how the community has come together to support one another, as well as how much the city was able to accomplish despite the pandemic.
"During this pandemic, we moved back to City Hall with very minimal delay and under budget. We continue to work on improving department operations and efficiencies," she said. "We've seen new businesses come into Taunton over the last year during the public health pandemic, which created more jobs and more tax revenue." O'Connell had two main priorities coming into office, she said.
Firstly, she wanted to make Taunton as business-friendly as possible. Secondly, she wanted to review and improve city departments and the way they do things so that they could provide better constituent services. As for her first goal, Taunton has seen new businesses open up during the pandemic, such as the Amazon delivery station in the industrial park and Riverhouse restaurant in Weir Village. The city has also provided many small business grants to help keep them afloat during the lockdown.
In regards to her second goal, O'Connell is in the process of reviewing each department, bringing in outside evaluators and looking for ways to improve. The Department of Public Works is already implementing many of the recommended changes.
"We realized quickly that we needed to do a lot of work to give the people of Taunton a 21st century government that provides superior services and saves taxpayers as much money as possible. So that's something that we've really focused on," O'Connell said. But there is much more to come. The city is in the process of setting up a fully online permitting system, which should streamline those processes. It is also moving forward with creating a procurement office to centralize the city's purchasing power and restarting the Taunton Redevelopment Authority, which O'Connell described as being "dormant" for a long time.
Lastly, the city will soon be looking at creating an elections commission to handle elections instead of the city clerk's office. O'Connell said this has been a recommendation to the city for many, many years, but has never been followed up on despite being so important.
"We have a very antiquated system...The duties are split between two offices, so that can create redundancies, inefficiencies and can cause confusion. So we are moving it all into one office," she said. "We want the public to be able to easily register to vote, get information they need, fill out their census and just kind of streamline that whole process."
O'Connell said she also plans to update the city's charter, which hasn't been altered since 1906, though it is unclear what her administration would change.
Otherwise, O'Connell said, the goals for 2021 are to help the city end and recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as continue pursuing last year's goals.
"We want to make sure our city is fully open as soon as possible and our kids get back to school full-time as soon as possible," she said. "We are going to continue our laser focus on being business-friendly, recruiting businesses and filling our storefronts to vitalize the downtown and our neighborhoods."
Outside city government, O'Connell said her biggest focus is on being a mom, nurturing her family and being involved with her community.
It's that community focus that drives O'Connell as a mayor. She said the most rewarding part of her job is helping solve constituents' problems.
"I love my job. I love being mayor," she said. "I am so honored to be able to serve the community that I grew up in and that I'm raising my family in."