Last week, the City of New Bedford installed so-called "spiked cobblestones" over the median at the "octopus" intersection, to combat panhandlers congregating on the spot.

That prompted Ward 3 Councillor Hugh Dunn to pen a letter to New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell, co-signed by Ward 2 Councillor Maria Giesta and Councillor-at-Large Ian Abreu, condemning the new structures as "inhumane architecture" and "dangerous and malicious," stating that the city “shouldn't be using infrastructure dollars to hurt people."

In his weekly appearance on WBSM, Mitchell was asked by host Barry Richard if he would have preferred the councillors speak with him directly, rather than sending out a letter and a press release.

“I was disappointed in the way they went about it. Let’s just leave it at that,” he said.

The mayor did take issue with the councillors' assessment of the purpose of the stones.

“That’s some pretty heated rhetoric,” Mitchell said of the wording of the letter. “I think they’ve heard it in stereo over the past few days, the public in general doesn’t see it the way they do. We’re trying to protect people—sometimes from themselves.”

Mitchell said the panhandling problem really became “conspicuous” three or four years ago, for two reasons: one, a number of court cases declared panhandling as “free speech,” and barred municipalities from passing laws prohibiting it; and two, the opioid epidemic has put a number of people on the street corners looking to finance their habits.

“There’s a dangerous situation there,” he said. “You have people…walking up and down the side of a state highway, many of whom are under the influence of something and aren’t physically stable. Somebody’s going to get killed.”

Mitchell said the City originally wanted to place jersey barriers at the octopus, like at the Market Basket intersection, but the Massachusetts Department of Transportation wouldn't allow it, since it is a state highway.

“They regarded the jersey barriers as a ‘sight obstacle’ for motorists coming from the east,” he said. “So we put plants there, juniper, low-lying plants, and they got trampled on by folks who were panhandling. In a few weeks, (the plants) were all dead. So, this is the next step, and it seems to be working.”

While the councillors stated in their letter that they believe the right way to address the issue is through providing services for the panhandlers that keep them off the streets, Mitchell suspects it may be politically motivated.

“If they’re trying to make names for themselves, they certainly picked the wrong side of the issue,” he said. “In the last couple of days, I’ve gotten more people that have come to me unsolicited and said, ‘I’m glad you did that.’”

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