Holyoke mayor seeks ouster of Historical Commission chairwoman

  • Holyoke City Hall GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 1/24/2023 11:16:43 AM
Modified: 1/24/2023 11:16:16 AM

HOLYOKE — Citing an incompatibility with where the city is going, Mayor Joshua Garcia has informed the chairwoman of the Holyoke Historical Commission that he intends to remove her from the panel.

On Monday afternoon, during a 90-minute hearing on her removal, Commission Chairwoman Paola Ferrario told the mayor she would fight her termination.

Joined by Brody Hale, an attorney from Lee, Ferrario defended the work she has done, including her advocacy for the Scott Tower and Anniversary Hill Park rehabilitation project.

“I do take my job really seriously,” Ferrario said.

Three city employees also offered testimony during the hearing, held at both Holyoke City Hall and remotely, and overseen by City Solicitor Lisa Ball.

Alicia Zoeller, administrator for the Community Development department, said she was concerned by a barrage of 23 emails from Ferrario from October 2022 into the new year specific to Anniversary Hill, even though no impact on historic resources has been identified for that project.

Zoeller said Ferrario was overstepping her responsibilities and unnecessarily causing a delay to processes.

“I am sorry that my being careful and doing my job has created more work for Ms. Zoeller,” Ferrario said.

The hearing followed a Jan. 10 letter to Ferrario from Garcia, which came a day after a hearing in which Ferrario told Garcia she was disappointed that he had not sought input from the commission before announcing in December that Victory Theatre would be getting $2 million in American Rescue Plan Act funding. 

“I am hereby exercising my authority and officially removing you from the Local Historic Commission, effective immediately,” Garcia wrote in that communication, citing section 34 of the city charter that gives him exclusive authority, and section 26 that states this has to be done in writing.

“I find that your leadership as a member of the commission is no longer compatible with the direction of the city,” Garcia wrote. “Therefore, it is in the best interest of the city that you be removed from your position.”

Ferrario, though, said that she believes even if Garcia, as the hearings officer, upholds his decision, that the City Council would get the ultimate decision in whether her tenure continues.

On her behalf, the hearing included testimony from Hale, who said that there are tensions and differences inherent between the commission and the Office of Planning and Economic Development, and praised Ferrario for the “diligent nature” of her work. 

Hale added that it was unusual for the mayor’s letter to be served by a city police officer. 

Ferrario also offered a video with excerpts from earlier meetings and written testimony, including from a colleague on the commission.

One witnesses who spoke on behalf of the city employees was Jennifer Keith, development specialist and staff support for the Office of Planning and Economic Development. Keith said she find herself and colleagues under constant scrutiny by Ferrario.

Aaron Vega, director of the Office of Planning and Economic Development, said there has been a different tone and tenor for the past several months since Ferrario took over leading the commission, and it’s been a struggle for him to protect employees working in his office.

“It’s been a tough road for the last year for some of my staff,” Vega said.

Vega added that the mission of his office and the commission should not be seen as conflict, with the numerous historical buildings in the city potentially ripe for commercial reuse. 

“It becomes about working together where the issues develop,” Vega said.

Garcia said he will have a written decision by the end of the week, and it will be based on how governance is being practiced in Holyoke. 

“My response has nothing to do with the work you’re doing in your respective fields,” Garcia said. 

Scott Merzbach can be reached at smerzbach@gazettenet.com.
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