| G. Michael Dobbs
SPRINGFIELD – The 10 candidates for the five at-large seats on the Springfield City Council met for a debate broadcast over Focus Springfield on Oct. 9.
For the first time since 1991, voters will have the opportunity of sending at least two new candidates to that part of the council, as Councilors Bud Williams, also a state representative and Timothy Rook decoded to not seek reelection.
Incumbent Thomas Ashe, Ernesto Cruz, Victor Davila, Kelli Moriarty-Finn incumbent Justin Hurst, Jesse Lederman, Jynai McDonald, Timothy Ryan, incumbent Kateri Walsh and Tracye Whitfield participated in the debate that included questions from this reporter who served as moderator, as well as from three panelists, Elizabeth Roman from the Republican/MassLive, Matt Szafranski of Western Massachusetts Politics & Insight and Morgan Drewniary, executive director of the Springfield Central Cultural District.
Questions ranged from economic development to the impact of MGM Springfield to quality of life issues.
Both McDonald and Whitfield, both of whom live in urban neighborhoods in the city, were asked about Springfield’s need for additional access to full service grocery stores in those neighborhoods.
McDonald, who lives in the South End, noted there are some small markets, but the closest full service market is in West Springfield. She said if elected she would look at the zoning in these neighborhoods to see if changes need to be made to encourage additional retail. She added services such as grocery stores are important to further develop downtown neighborhoods.
Whitfield, who lives in Liberty Heights, said there is a nearby grocery store, but grew up in Hill-McKnight where she described as a food desert. She said the elderly and residents with disabilities find it difficult to “get the nutrition that they need in order to survive.” She served on the team that was trying to develop a grocery story in the Mason Square are of the city but added retailers were not interested in participating. She believes the City council should go to retailers and ask them why they are not interested and tell them of the advantages of serving these neighborhoods.
Ashe was asked about the possibility of MGM Springfield being granted an exemption to the closing time of selling alcohol. He said is not convinced at this point such an exception should be made and that it may be “more problems than its worth.”
Walsh was asked about the city’s pension liability and its effect on the city’s financial stability, she said, “It’s the worst in the state and I think it’s a disgrace.” The council has put more resources into the budget to address the issue and Walsh believes it should be made a greater priority with the budget.
Ryan asked about how he, if elected, how would he make sure MGM Springfield upholds its commitments to the Host Community Agreement (HCA). As an attorney, Ryan said he would look closely at the HCA and its changes and said. He would be “very tough” on any future changes. He described the changes in the hotel plans for the casino as a “bait and switch.”
Hurst was also asked, as an incumbent, about the importance of monitoring the casino. He said it’s necessary to “hold MGM’s feet to the fire” and added he has been impressed with MGM’s compliance with the HCA in hiring Springfield residents, women and minorities, something “I was very adamant about.”
Cruz was asked about concerns that have been expressed about a focus on downtown development that has taken precedent over improvements in the neighborhood. He said that while city officials and members of the City council are busy throughout the city, he does believe more emphasis must be placed elsewhere in the city. “I think it comes down to advocating for more CDBG funds [Community Development Block Grant]. The federal administration has been taking those out. The council is a bully pulpit that can be used to advocate for more money from the state and federal government.” He would be and advocate for those greater funds if elected.
When asked about the potential influx of evacuees from Puerto Rico coming to Springfield to live with families and friends and what the City Council could do, Davila said he would coordinate relief efforts with local, state and federal officials. He cited his own efforts to help one evacuee who needs to open a bank account but does not have identification. He added everyone has to work together to meet the needs of these people.
Moriarty-Finn replied to a question about whether or not she supports state Rep. Carlos Gonzalez’s proposed change to the Dover Amendment – which allows group homes and other education institutions to find locations in a community without zoning or special permit restriction. She said, “I do whole-heartedly support representative Gonzalez’s proposed solution to the Dover Amendment.” Moriarty-Finn added there are “many, many neighborhoods within Springfield that have taken on more than a lion’s share of group homes and educational facilities.” The city Council currently does not have “a seat at the table” in determining locations.
Lederman was asked about his familiarity with budget matters. He said that he has budgetary experience through his role with the McKnight Neighborhood Council and the board of the Renaissance School. Lederman said they understanding the needs of all 17 neighborhoods are important with budget issues. Because the mayor writes the budget, Lederman said he would open a “great channel of communications” with the mayor’s office.
Noting the creative economy adds $50 million to the city’s economy, Drewniary chose Lederman to ask about what he would to ensure creative business come to the city and stay. He said he would like to see the creative place-making efforts expand beyond downtown to the neighborhoods to build the creative economy.
Roman asked Walsh, as an incumbent, if she could review recent initiatives she had undertaken. Walsh replied, “People are always interested in our jobs” and explained that she created the Small Business Neighborhood Committee “to help people navigate through the red tape in City Hall.” She also helped bring two businesses to the city, F.W. Webb and the pedicab business as well as pushing for high-speed rail.
Szafranski asked Whitfield about how she would balance the demands of lobbyists and special interest with the needs of the residents. She said the power of special interest often come because residents are lacking the education about issues.
“We have to get our residents out to more community meetings and educate them on what’s going on in the city,” she said.
To watch the entire debate, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=904&v=Pdt-MIPto-M.