By Carley Dangona
WESTFIELD – Ward 4 City Councilor Mary O’Connell shared her side of the Big E party inquiry, a topic that Mayor Daniel Knapik discussed on his Facebook page last week.
spoke with O’Connell on April 23.
She said, “In the fall of 2013 I filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the party list of those invited to the Big E Westfield Days. I did this because I had noticed that the mayor had been excluding regular invitees (certain elected officials, department heads, etc.) and adding his own political supporters to the list and I was concerned that this was becoming his political event. This was later verified by his own words when he indicted in his deposition on the sign case that the Big E event ‘Was my party and I will invite who I want’ (page 143, mayor deposition). There were 99 people who attended the 2013 Big E event and there is a high correlation of those who were invited to those who are on his campaign donors list.”
O’Connell continued, “I have not seen anything regarding the recent ethics investigation on the mayor. My primary concern was the change in the general tenor of the Big E party as it appeared to become a political event to benefit the mayor. This had not been the case in the past with other Westfield mayors. The mayor, after being notified that he was a subject of an Ethics Investigation, posted this news on his Facebook page. That is why this is suddenly in the news again.”
She added, “However, there are two subjects that are being blurred into one. I did file a request to see the attendee list for the Big E Event, as is my right under the laws of this Commonwealth. I am not familiar with the current ethics investigation on the mayor nor have I seen anything in writing from the Ethics Commission.”
Last week, Knapik posted comments on his Facebook page regarding an ethics complaint about him. As of April 23, the initial comments from April 15 implicating O’Connell no longer appeared on the page, but the April 16 posts remain.
Knapik’s first April 15 post read, “So it seems that the state Ethics Commission received a complaint about Westfield Day at the Big E – so it could be that all public officials that have attended their day at the Big E may have an ethics issue – I’ll keep you posted as to the decision. I wonder who complained?”
A second post that day stated, “Really Councilor O’Connell? A public records request to my office requesting the invitation list to the Mayor’s Party at the Big E? I would think with all the things going on in your life [that] you would have more important things to worry about than who was invited to the party and wasting my time with such nonsense. So here’s my advice: run for mayor, win and don’t invite me – heaven help us all.”
On April 16, Knapik posted a link to The Republican article about the issue, “Westfield Mayor Daniel M. Knapik target of Ethics Commission complaint.” Underneath the initial post, the mayor engaged in conversations with many residents who voiced their opinion on the matter.
Former Chicopee Mayor Michael Bissonnette added in, “This is sad. The community days showcase many groups in the daily parade and it is always more fun to see others from your city at the Big E. Frankly the ‘party’ is more trouble than it’s worth and the invites are technically handled by the fair management. Ethics violation? Sounds more like petty local politics.”
Patty Wright stated, “The key is to have an opinion about the actual issue and not just jump on a bandwagon ignorant. No one is questioning ‘Westfield Day’ – except the mayor, who seems to be threatening to cancel it if he doesn’t get his way (and most definitely is using that to get people emotionally involved). The issue here is only the ‘private, exclusive reception for certain chosen politicians.’ If it’s found to be a ‘violation of political ethics’ the only thing that will happen is the mayor won’t be able to have the same party he’s always had. Heaven forbid that ‘The Good Old Boys’ have their boat rocked.”
Wright continued, “An adult would have said, ‘O.K., I never saw it like that and will cooperate fully with the investigation.’ Whatever the nature of future receptions I am sure they will benefit the citizens of my city as best they can. So, for the good of the community just cancel the silly party and move along.”
Knapik responded, “Patty, there are two issues here. Years ago, before the Big E cracked down on over occupancy literally the invitation list had hundreds of people from all walks of life, the invitation list was handed down from mayor to mayor. Since many of the new fire safety and overcrowding laws have been established, the invitation list is quite small now. Each city has Big E trustees, they get to select invitees, the Big E tells you who they want on your city’s day and then you get what’s left – maybe 30 or so invites – that leaves you with past grand marshal invitees, even fewer, and various others from many businesses and organizations within the city.”
He continued, “So five years ago, I was handed a list with nearly 200 hundred people, who were invited the year before and now we are down to about 35 ... so I instituted a policy and also had to cut off many from the list. Once that was done we instituted the policy. If you were invited the year before, and didn’t attend, then no invitation the next year. So, when someone is invited and doesn’t attend they take up one of your allowed spaces – so in the end, every year, I have heard people complain that they used to get to go, why not now etc. So frankly like, Michael Bissonnette said, it has become more of a headache.”
Knapik added, “The other issue, is for the Big E – do they do business with the cities and the state they hold the party for and if so, does the party, the parade and the city’s day have some implication for the fair as a business and therefore the public officials that are invited rather a complex issue I suppose, but that’s for the ethics commission to look at. ?And, for the record, this isn’t a reception for any mayors’ ‘friends’ or a fundraiser of any kind, it is a Big E function, period.”
When questioned as to why Knapik posted the article, he responded, “I posted it because I believe it is useful for our citizens to be informed on events in your government both positive and negative and in this case a complaint can be lodged with the Ethics Commission in an anonymous format, whether it has any credibility or not. Every day I make decisions and go on the record, some of my decisions have been unpopular and open me up to legitimate criticism. I would like to think that anyone that has a concern would certainly try to address it on the record, before resorting to an anonymous complaint line.”
He further stated, “And yes, people sadly believe what they often read in anonymous forums like Masslive and Pulseline and I can’t respond to all the lies that are written. It all makes me long for the days of newspaper – letters to the editor where you have to sign your name. Anyway, that’s why I went public with it, as eventually someone in cyber world would have used it as an opportunity to sling some mud at me. I decided a long time ago, to shine sunshine on all of the inquiries we get for public records requests, etc. In my world, unfortunately, there are many people less interested in the truth or betterment of the city than they are taking a cheap shot.”
Calls to reach Knapik for comment were not returned.