A year in office: Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle looks back — and forward

  • Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle talks with Greg Nuttelman, the utilities supervisor, in the low head pumps room at the city's water facility on Hendrick Street, Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle talks with Greg Nuttelman, the utilities supervisor, near an aeration tower at the city’s water facility on Hendrick Street, Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2018. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle talks with Greg Nuttelman, the utilities supervisor, in the high head pumps room at the city's water facility on Hendrick Street, Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle talks with Greg Nuttelman, the utilities supervisor, in the low head pumps room at the city’s water facility on Hendrick Street, Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2018. STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle talks with Greg Nuttelman, the utilities supervisor, at the city's water facility on Hendrick Street, Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2018. New fire hydrants rest on pallets. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle talks with Greg Nuttelman, the utilities supervisor, in the well field at the city's water facility on Hendrick Street, Wednesday, Dec. 26, 2018. —STAFF PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

Staff Writer 
Published: 1/5/2019 12:28:42 AM

Bringing more transparency to municipal government. Investing in education in the city. Engaging more residents in a dialogue about everything from fixing potholes to creating affordable housing for seniors.

As a candidate, Nicole LaChapelle campaigned on making the mayor’s office more accessible to the public. A year out from her 2017 win as mayor, the Gazette checked in with LaChapelle to find out whether she feels she has fulfilled those promises. 

“I have made tremendous progress towards those goals,” LaChapelle said in a recent interview, adding that her work is not done. “But, it’s not static.”

At 51, LaChapelle is the city’s third mayor, following former mayors Michael Tautznik and Karen Cadieux. Easthampton voters enacted a change in the charter in 1996, establishing a city form of governance and replacing Town Meetings and a Board of Selectman with a mayor and city council.

LaChapelle lives on East Street, and she has cultural ties to the community she represents. She has been known to serve as a judge for the popular Valley Music Showcase at New City Brewery in Easthampton. And musicians have used her basement for practicing and recording, and she keeps tabs on the local scene, counting among her favorite bands LuxDeluxe, Lonesome Brothers and Snowhaus.

On Monday nights, LaChapelle likes to hang out with her family at The 413 bar, which she co-owns with her brother, Christian Anthony LaChapelle.

In person, LaChapelle comes across as thoughtful and inquisitive, often asking herself questions aloud. Asked why she wanted to run for mayor of Easthampton in the first place, she answered with another question she says she often asks herself: “What can government do?”

She decided to find out. Her decision to run for mayor in 2017 was based on a desire to help residents be more engaged with their local government. Residents had told her they felt barriers to participating in committees or running for office themselves.

“There seemed to be a lack of awareness on how to get involved with city government,” LaChapelle said. “It was a blind spot for way too many residents.”

LaChapelle recalled her fascination with city government beginning in kindergarten in Holyoke, where she grew up. One of her classmates was related to then-Holyoke Mayor William Taupier, and LaChapelle said meeting him made an impression on her.

“It was unique,” LaChapelle said of the experience. “As a little kid, I didn’t know about the structure of government, but I had a connection to the municipal government, the mayor and his office — a beautiful castle for a City Hall. He was somebody I knew that made truly important decisions.”

After going to Holyoke High School, LaChapelle earned a bachelor’s degree in government at Smith College in Northampton in 1989 and a law degree from Western New England University School of Law in Springfield in 2002.

In 1997, she moved to Easthampton with her daughter, Sigrid, and her partner, John, to a house on Main Street, and from 1998 to 2009, she served on the Easthampton Zoning Board of Appeals. For 20 years, LaChapelle worked for the Center for School Crisis Intervention and Assessments in Holyoke, serving as director for eight years.

In 2016, she left the crisis intervention center to pursue a career as an attorney in private practice, with a focus on civil rights advocacy, before turning her sights towards a run for her first public office.

Her tenure so far has not been without controversy. Last year, LaChapelle drew criticism for reorganizing positions in city departments and for posting a job description for chief of staff last February.

Former mayor Michael Tautznik penned a sharply worded letter to the city council warning that these actions had been taken outside what is permissible by the city’s charter and accused her actions as “creating a hostile working environment at City Hall.”

The criticism led LaChapelle to make what she called the hardest decision of her mayoral tenure. She launched an investigation into the allegations of a hostile workplace by hiring a private investigator from a New Hampshire law firm that found no evidence to support those accusations last April.

And with the support of City Council President Joseph McCoy, Finance Director Melissa Zawadzki, and Personnel Director Monica Kane, LaChapelle commissioned a $30,000 review of the city’s employment practices by the Collins Center for Public Management at the University of Massachusetts Boston. A report is expected by the end of the month, according to LaChapelle.

“I relied on past practices to reorganize my office,” LaChapelle said. “With the feedback I got formally from city council, but also from the public, the only way forward was to take a fresh look at the whole system and how all these positions got created.”

LaChapelle said the report is intended to review the charter as it pertains to job positions with department heads, to take a look at how people are paid, and to consider what jobs moving forward should be consolidated.

“I am really worried about equity and fairness,” LaChapelle said. “If you start working with the city, do you know what your opportunities are going forward? Is there assurance that you are getting paid appropriately?”

An inside view

On a typical day, LaChapelle might be talking to state officials on possible grants, working with the Massachusetts School Building Authority on the new school project or developing the city’s capital spending plan.

The day after Christmas, she took a tour of the city’s water treatment facility on Hendrick Street to see how the city treats its water.

But people also come to her to talk about their taxes, their schools and how the city is investing its funds.

“She’s bringing the public into conversations about long-range plans,” Tautznik, the first Easthampton mayor, said in a recent interview.

An initiative out of the mayor’s office, in coordination with the Easthampton Police Department, is aiming to bring in more perspectives from community residents and stakeholders with a newly created municipal board. The Community Relations Committee will consist of 11 members, the vast majority from Easthampton, and is tasked with creating a greater sense of unity in the city.

LaChapelle said the committee will “proactively deal with issues that affect the quality of life for residents of Easthampton — whether that’s housing, transportation services, or quality of schools.” The city council will decide on whether to approve those members appointed by the mayor at a Jan. 16 meeting.

Through televised segments aired on the community access channel Easthampton Media, the mayor participates in weekly updates that she says give residents an inside view into the Municipal Building, city council and municipal departments. On her segments, LaChapelle encourages guests to “not just give a checklist of what they’re doing, but who they are and what they enjoy,” she said. “I’ve asked the city planner three times what his favorite breakfast is — and it’s always a banana.”

The mayor also makes frequent visits to the Easthampton Council on Aging, often inviting other city representatives to join, such as state Sen. Don Humason, R-Westfield.

The visits to the council “are informal, comfortable and really good for the people of the town,” Humason said, adding that it gives seniors a chance to “ask questions about what’s going on with state government.”

Considering all ages

In May, voters approved a debt exclusion override for a new pre-kindergarten-through-8th grade school, a project estimated to cost $109 million, with some $60 million to be financed through local property taxes.

City resident Michael Buehrle, Sr., who served as chairman of the Easthampton High School Building Committee, believes the mayor and city council were able to balance the needs of the young and old.

The city council eased the tax burden for low-income, senior homeowners by increasing an annual rebate from $700 to $1,000 for those who qualify, and lowering the age threshold from 70 to 65.

“She’s supporting the school systems and trying different ways to make the budget compatible for everyone,” Buehrle said, “not just the young, but middle-aged and elders.”

What will happen to Center, Pepin, and Maple Street Schools is yet to be determined once the new consolidated school opens in the fall of 2021 at the site of White Brook Middle School, which will be torn down afterward.

At the moment, “We are looking at those buildings with ideas and energy,” LaChapelle said in her office in the Municipal Building, with a window overlooking Nashawannuck Pond. “We want to capture that energy in a formal way that is public and forum-driven.”

In November, the city announced a $50,000 grant awarded to Easthampton from the state to develop a strategic plan for downtown to consider re-uses for the three schools as well as the needs of Cottage and Union streets.

Additionally, the city will contribute $15,000 to hire a consultant to hold public meetings, engage residents and business owners, and to prepare a plan based on gathered input and downtown needs assessments, according to City Planner Jeffrey Bagg.

The needs assessment, LaChapelle said, “is getting hard data now and a vision to see what folds into or is different than the master plan.”

Among the needs she is anticipating are housing and parking. The needs assessment will take inventory of the number of parking spaces available downtown as well as the number of businesses on Union and Cottage streets.

The assessment, coupled with public information sessions during the spring, will inform the city on how to move forward, LaChapelle said.

Jim Terruso, who has lived in Easthampton since 1999, said he has seen “a lot of changes in his time,” and would like to see the school buildings turned into low-income housing for seniors.

“Seniors are hurting the most with taxes going up,” Terruso said on a recent morning, sitting at Tandem Bagel Company. Housing, he said, “could be payback to the senior population, who have a lower income, for paying for the new school. Maybe they could move into the old buildings.”

LaChapelle said senior and affordable housing is a “clearer priority than other types of housing,” but she also wants to find a balance between immediate housing and long-term housing needs as part of the downtown strategic plan.

Another city resident, Michael Garjian, said seniors in Easthampton are very concerned about their ability to remain in their homes due to financial constraints.

“As far as I am concerned, Easthampton is moving in a direction that does not provide much comfort for seniors,” Garjian said. “It’s been shown that the most stressful thing you can do to a senior is move them out of an environment that has been comfortable for many years.”

​​​Work to be done

One of LaChapelle’s challenges is balancing the needs of the 16,000 residents in Easthampton who come from different backgrounds.

An eclectic mix of artists, a rapidly growing senior population and longtime residents who are seeing young professionals move into the city are constantly on LaChapelle’s mind as she prioritizes projects that the city can tackle.

Under LaChapelle’s tenure, the city approved a $45 million redevelopment project for 1 Ferry St., the last piece of the Mill District envisioned by the 2008 Master Plan.

“I’m happy that the city is continuing in the direction that it started in years and years ago with the redeveloping of the mills,” Tautznik said, adding that he gives LaChapelle “high marks for following the plan in place.”

Plans call for the redevelopment to the 310,000-square-foot mill complex into 152 units of housing, office spaces, and a fitness club, among other mixed uses. Michael Michon, who owns and developed Mill 180, is the developer for the 1 Ferry St. project.

The project was made possible through coordination with the city council — which designated Ferry Street as a Development Improvement Financing district in July — that allowed the city to apply for a $3.5 million grant awarded by the state’s MassWorks Infrastructure program in November.

LaChapelle called the project a “grand slam” for Easthampton.

“The hope and vision of a city is the bedrock of any city,” LaChapelle said. “To actually build upon that foundation, and walk people through to a better quality of life and be a part of that process, is humbling.”

And while the Mill District development has attracted a lot of buzz, some Easthampton residents are more concerned with everyday issues. Terruso, for instance, wants to see the mayor address improvements to roads and sidewalks at Union and Cottage Streets.

Last month, Easthampton artist Denise Herzog was struck by a minivan in a crosswalk a short distance from One Cottage Street, and later died from her injuries. At a city council meeting in December, LaChapelle called the accident a “cruel, tragic twist,” considering the fact that the city is close to making safety improvements and upgrades to that same crosswalk using a $217,455 state grant.

Luis Fieldman can be reached at lfieldman@gazettenet.com




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