An area mayor has a chance to play a front and center role in the emerging debates over the fiscal crisis facing the state and local municipalities.
Melrose Mayor Robert J. Dolan is poised to be elected president of the Massachusetts Mayors' Association at the group's annual meeting Jan. 24. The association's nominating committee voted Dec. 10 to recommend him for the unpaid position.
The leadership post would give Dolan, 37, the chance to serve as a key voice on issues related to the financial crisis. It is a task Dolan looks forward to tackling, even in what promises to be a tumultuous year.
"I have a passion for local government," said Dolan, who is about to enter his eighth year as mayor. "I think local government affects people in the most direct way, and the most personal way."
He believes there is a chance to make a difference next year.
"The one good thing, if there's any, about a real recession is that it's the only time that real change can happen," he said. "People often become comfortable when the money is there. And this might be an opportunity to make some fundamental changes that benefit taxpayers."
While cities and towns are bracing for anticipated reductions in local aid next fiscal year - and potentially sooner - Dolan said fighting those cuts will not be the main focus of his advocacy. Instead, he plans to push lawmakers to embrace changes that would provide municipalities with new cost-cutting and revenue-raising options.
"I'm not going to be one that stands there and says, 'You can't cut at all,' " he said. "I'm pragmatic. I understand the fact that when there is billions of less revenue, there need to be reductions. But there also have to be tools in the toolbox to get us through. It's not enough to say it's a tough time.
"Sometimes, the Legislature tends to be beholden to some special interests that take tools out of our toolbox. That has to be communicated to the Legislature and I hope to be the one that does that."
Among the changes Dolan will be promoting are proposals to close telecommunications tax loopholes; to allow cities and towns to design their healthcare plans without collective bargaining; and to allow a reduction in the level of union approval needed to join the state's health insurance system.
He also plans to advocate for allowing cities and towns to adopt a local meals tax; to increase the allowable local hotel tax; to remove obstacles to regionalizing services; and to allow municipalities to require drug and alcohol tests for public safety personnel without collective bargaining.
Geoffrey Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, the umbrella organization of the mayors' association, said Dolan is a good pick for the leadership post.
"He's an experienced mayor who is widely respected and admired by his colleagues," Beckwith said, adding that Dolan is not only "knowledgeable . . . in running his city and the challenges facing the communities of Massachusetts, but an innovative thinker and someone who will bring many fresh ideas and insights to policy deliberations at the state level."
"He's an excellent choice," agreed Revere Mayor Thomas G. Ambrosino. "He's very progressive. He's always trying to promote regional issues."
While it will mean some time commitment - primarily presiding at the association's monthly meetings and speaking to reporters - Dolan expects his time as president to be a personally rewarding experience.
"It allows me to see other things and to broaden my own horizons. . . . I still love my job, but you want to grow, you want to be energized, you want to learn new things," he said.
The position also promises to broaden his visibility statewide, though Dolan, a Democrat, has no political plans except to run for reelection to his mayor's post in 2011 (Melrose switched to a four-year mayoral term in 2007).
A 1989 graduate of Melrose High School, Dolan received a bachelor's degree in political science from Fordham University in 1993 and a master's degree in public administration from Northeastern University in 1998.
Dolan was supervisor of case management for Chelsea-Revere-Winthrop Elder Services from 1993 to 1995; housing and community services coordinator for East Boston Neighborhood Health Center from 1995 to 1999; and assistant executive director of a Framingham retirement community from 1999-2001.
Elected to the Melrose School Committee in 1994, Dolan served two terms before being elected to the first of two terms as an alderman at large. He narrowly won the mayor's seat in 2001, and was reelected in 2003, 2005, and 2007.
In addition to advocating for cities and towns, Dolan said one of his goals as president of the mayors' group will be to promote information sharing and collegial support among mayors.
"There's something to be said, when you are sitting at a table and have an opportunity, away from the phones and the stress, to talk with people that share the same heavy responsibility that you do."