The polls will be bustling next Tuesday at White Brook Middle School, one of Easthampton's largest voting locations. Since it's an odd year, chances are you might even catch a glimpse of the person you're voting for, since the city's unusually closely contested mayoral race is winding to a close. There are also a number of open seats on the City Council, and the water cooler of local politics has been abuzz with what could become a substantially reshuffled cast of players going into the next decade.
This reporter had the opportunity to co-moderate a mayoral forum on Wednesday, Oct. 14 at Williston Northampton School which featured a timed-response question and answer session as each of the four mayoral candidates fielded questions conceived by myself and Daily Hampshire Gazette reporter Matt Pilon. The questions put to the candidates, and their responses, have been summarized below.
On Easthampton schools and the proposed building of a new high school:
Albert DiCarlo acknowledged the need to keep top-notch teachers, keep them up to date and pay them well. Emphasized the need to find a way to help pay for schools and questioned whether now was the time to even consider spending the proposed $48 million on a new high school.
Michael Tautznik emphasized experience in working with school superintendents and committees. Addressed immediate needs for repairs. Called himself an ardent supporter of building the new high school, and promised to bring it in on budget, pointing to his success in building the public safety complex under budget. Emphasized that the plan for a "debt exclusion" is not exactly a tax override, and stated that the city "can't afford not to build a new high school."
James P. Kwiecinski also emphasized his City Council and School Committee experience. Acknowledged the impact of lost dollars from the school-of-choice program and agreed that something needed to be done to stanch the flow of money out of Easthampton schools. Suggested forming a committee to help market Easthampton schools to parents of very young children. Was critical of the city for not having acted sooner on the high school construction issue, when the project's price-tag was pegged at a substantially lower level and greater state aid was available. Supported a provision to protect property owners on fixed incomes from undue stress from taxes.
Marge Prendergast emphasized her own School Committee and PTO experience and expressed support for financing a new high school project if the voters decide the time is right for it. Pointed to her own experience in managing a $13-million school budget; acknowledged that most available revenue is from residential property tax.
On Easthampton's residential-heavy tax base:
Tautznik expressed continued interest in re-developing older mill buildings including the Dye Works building and expanding industrial-zoned areas. Applauded things like arts, Bearfest and the bike path and promoted tourism as potential revenue source. Talked about his hopes that some manufacturing industry in Easthampton might be re-tooled or adapted for "green" manufacturing, including J.P. Stevens' possible expansion into the field of thin-film solar panel production.
Kwiecinski pointed to the need for quicker zoning resolutions and emphasized that when companies need to expand, there must be room for them to do it in Easthampton. Reminded people to support local companies by buying their products, and acknowledged Big E supermarket as an anchor of the community.
Prendergast said she would become a member of the EDIC (Economic Development and Industrial Commission), and that she would work with the mayor of Holyoke and with Holyoke Community College to try to get in on a major computer enterprise that they've been planning. Also applauded Bearfest and the arts community as possible revenue draws. Heavily emphasized the need to "shop local," especially for big-ticket items such as lumber and building supplies.
DiCarlo made this his meat-and-potatoes issue. Repeatedly condemned overly restrictive or technical requrements for businesses to establish themselves in or relocate to Easthampton, and pointed to the recent battle over a proposed Stop and Shop on Northampton Street (Rte. 10) as a glaring example of city policies that are unfriendly to business. Also said that having declared Easthampton's downtown a historic district was a big mistake, and that without "outside help" in the form of larger businesses, Easthampton was "not going to make it."
On fostering of the arts and a potential arts-driven economy:
Kwiecinski applauded Bearfest and City Arts. Encouraged more grant-writing to fund artists, the Art Walk and concerts at the new bandshell. Said we need to promote foot traffic and do a better job of turning bear-gazers into downtown shoppers and restaurant diners.
Prendergast suggested that space could be used in Easthampton to stage or create work that will be "outsourced" from Boston or New York. Also expressed great hopes that the burgeoning arts community could translate into some kind of dollars, and gave credit to many artists for being formidable businesspeople.
DiCarlo acknowledged the value of the arts as a sign of culture and progress, and said it was worth using them to try and make Easthampton more of a "destination" town, but cautioned that their potential for real economic stimulus might be naively overestimated.
Tautznik patted himself (and his administration) on the back for the renaissance that Easthampton has already undergone; cited resume items like successful grant writing and the success of Eastworks; and renewed his support for redeveloping the old town hall into an arts center. Also said that in conjunction with beautiful open spaces like Mt. Tom Park, Nonotuck Park and the Nashawanuck Pond promenade, he believes that the arts can help the tourism draw.
On the expansion of the Northampton sanitary landfill:
Prendergast pledged to protest at meetings and enact legislation. Said that if Northampton's proposed legislation passes, she will demand a hundred-million-dollar bond from them that would require them to test Easthampton's water. Emphasized support for increased recycling and composting in Easthampton to try and offset any increased need to deal with its own refuse.
DiCarlo asserted his position against Northampton expanding its landfill, citing water as a precious and irreplaceable resource that should be preserved at any cost. In response to statistics suggesting low probability of contamination said he's "not willing to gamble on the issue," and questioned the accuracy of studies put forth in support of the expansion.
Tautznik continued to implore the public to understand the complexity of the issue and re-asserted his credentials as a seminal proponent of protecting the Barnes Aquifer. Accused opponents of promulgating misinformation and pointed to the fact that the Maloney Well is already polluted with manganese and arsenic. Said the well is an emergency well, that he will never pump water from it into the city's drinking water supply, and that it is only kept online for fire protection purposes. Said that he does not support the expansion, but that currently there are no real alternative solutions to Easthampton's own solid waste issues (since it relies on the Northampton landfill).
Kwiecinski took an impressive stand on this, perhaps his primary issue. Referenced in-depth analyses by Smith College geologist Robert Newton suggesting the state Department of Environmental Protection's studies of the proposed expansion were flawed. Disparaged arguments that the Maloney Well is somehow less important to protect because it is only a backup well and contended that, contrary to the mayor's comments, its water was drinkable and as such merited protection. Promised to do whatever it takes to prevent Northampton from expanding its landfill over part of Easthampton's drinking water supply, including taking legal action, though he emphasized a preference for avoiding such action if possible.