|By Carley Dangona|
WESTFIELD – Two opposing ideals for securing Westfield’s future were presented during a political forum between the two mayoral candidates.
Incumbent Daniel Knapik and opponent Michael Roeder participated in the discussion hosted by the Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce on Oct. 29 in the auditorium of Westfield Vocational Technical High School.
Knapik’s biggest criticism of Roeder: he has no plan for the city’s future. “Mr. Roeder’s been running for mayor for eight months – he has no plan for the future. He doesn’t even know what he’s going to do, if he were to win, [on] Jan. 1 about the budget. That’s one of the first things you have to tackle as a mayor,” he said.
Roeder’s biggest criticism of Knapik: his spending. “We are on the tipping point of financial disaster in terms of bonding and expenses,” he said.
Knapik said he is running for re-election to continue the work he has begun over the past four years that he has served as mayor. Roeder was prompted to run rather than settling into retirement by the increased rate in property taxes.
One question posed to Knapik asked him to respond to the criticism of some that refer to him as a “bully” and his administration as a “regime.” He responded, “Go ask those folks why they think that. Some folks think I’m the worst thing that came around since the devil. The facts are the facts. I have never varied from who I am. I tell it as it is.”
A question for Roeder asked if his lack of political experience would hinder his ability to fulfill mayoral duties efficiently. He responded, “You can learn the systems, you can learn the issues and develop strategies. I have done this all my life, just not in a political environment.”
One of the main points of contention was that of the Ashley Street School Project, which is currently on hold due to a temporary injunction.
The motion was ordered after Superior Court Judge Tina Page issued a preliminary injunction thwarting the city from construction or demolition of any land under Article 97, at Cross Street Playground, without first designating a surrogate site. The National Park Service (NPS) is currently reviewing the project for determination.
Knapik said, “Well, first of all Ashley Street School, as a concept, has been years in the making. The reality is that the school conforms with the proper zoning that it needed to have there, it’s secured 70 percent reimbursement and the fact is that we have a few neighbors that aren’t happy with the school.”
He continued, “We’re presently almost completed with the NPS conversion of the project. Once we get that approval, which we are anticipating very shortly, the money for the rail trail gets freed up and we get going with these projects.”
Roeder said, “I disagree that we need a new school. The school that is currently in litigation – the Ashley Street School, in my view will never be built because it’s become so discombobulated, so strewn with legal action. Yes, I did say if elected mayor I would kill the project because we are simply wasting tons of money we don’t have on litigation and other factors.”
He continued, “The new school, wherever that may end up being is unnecessary because, in my view, what we have to do is figure out the school space we have left and properly utilize it. We cannot afford, in this point in time, a new school.”
A question posed to both candidates asked their opinion on the use of more than $1 million from the stabilization fund to balance the school budget for the past fiscal year and how to pay for these increases in the future. In the school budget, $36 million pays for teacher salaries. The new contractual rates will increase this amount by $2 million dollars in less than two years.
Knapik explained that 65 percent of the teachers fell into the highest pay scale due to their tenure and that the increases would be covered within the School Department budget.
“Essentially, that is the crux of the problem with Mr. Roeder’s proposition. Number one, you have to pay your people. Number two, over the course of the four years I’ve been in office, we have had collective bargaining agreements that have ranged between 0 percent and 1 percent. They have been very, very reasonable and favorable to the taxpayer.”
He added, “We have basically have to, in order to help manage that, is to take a look at retirements. We’re going to have to compel a number of folks to retire. One of things that we didn’t do over the years is when a senior teacher left at the top end of the scale, we didn’t replace them with younger teachers so that the scale system was more balanced.”
Roeder said that the contract set a standard that would be expected from other unions. “One thing I think we do far too much in this city is to go to stabilization any time there is a budget shortfall. I’m happy that the teachers got their contract – one, two and three percent.”
He continued, “What worries me, is what happens when we begin to negotiate with the other 15 unions next March and April because they’re going to want minimally the same – one, two, three. As a mayor, I’m going to be hard-pressed to say no because if it goes to mediation like this teachers’ contract did, they’re going to get one, two, three and maybe more.”
In terms of economic development, both candidates agreed that industrial park expansion is key and to not allow any more trucking companies to come into the northern end of the city.
When asked his opinion on the City Council being a “rubber stamp” that “lacks individual thought,” Knapik said that the job is about taking votes. He said that the councilors perform due diligence in asking questions and looking into issues when they have concerns.
Roeder said he expected more “friction” between the council and the mayor. He criticized the council for its close votes and lack of discussion on some issues. He cited the Nov. 5 election as an opportunity to create “a little more friction for the sake of progress” by electing new councilors.
Both candidates addressed the issue of transparency in government.
Knapik asked, “What more can I do?” He cited many means of communication with residents including newsletters, ward meetings, the updated website with a 24-hour complaint option and his attendance at events as examples of his own transparency.
Roeder said that “within 90 days of being elected” he would establish a citizen’s advisory committee comprised of two volunteers from each ward and a chairperson.
Knapik said that his focus if re-elected would be the education of the students and the continued accreditation of Westfield High School and that he would continue the projects already underway.
Roeder noted that he is a “fiscal conservative” and would not bond any projects that the city could not afford. The only project he would bond from the Knapik administration is the Senior Center construction. He would only bond up to $7 million for the design, construction and move into the new facility.
Comments From Our Readers:
Login to Post a Response