Holyoke mayoral candidates Garcia, Sullivan spar over experience at forum

  • Holyoke City Hall, as seen from Holyoke Heritage State Park, April 28. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO


  • Michael Sullivan —SUBMITTED PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 10/26/2021 9:39:09 PM

HOLYOKE — The two candidates competing to become mayor of Holyoke debated again on Tuesday evening, touching on issues ranging from the environment to their own levels of experience.

The forum, hosted by the League of Women Voters of Northampton Area and the Gazette, was the second to last before election day on Nov. 2. Competing to become the city’s next mayor to replace longtime former mayor Alex Morse are Blandford Town Administrator Joshua Garcia and At-large City Councilor Michael Sullivan.

The two candidates began with introductions. Garcia said his story in Holyoke goes back as far as his mother and grandmother, who first migrated to the city from Puerto Rico. Garcia graduated from the public schools, got degrees from Westfield State University and worked at the Holyoke Housing Authority and the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission before landing his current job.

“Learning curves are expensive,” he said “With my regional and municipal experience, I’m looking forward to hitting the ground running on day one.”

Sullivan noted that he, too, is a lifelong Holyoker. He joined the Air National Guard before starting his own business in the city, eventually becoming a city councilor for the past six years. He said the city needs a strong mayor to balance the budget and bring stability to city hall, and that he’s the man for that job.

“We don’t need another mayor who’s going to use Holyoke as a stepping stone for another career path,” he said. “I’m seeking only one job — to become your mayor.”

The two candidates clashed early over the question of their relative experience. Sullivan highlighted his City Council experience as well as his decades in private industry, whereas Garcia focused on his municipal leadership experience. Garcia compared the role of a mayor to that of a quarterback in football, whereas Sullivan said it was analogous to the CEO of a business.

Later, Garcia suggested that as a businessman, Sullivan wants to make top-down decisions, whereas he intended to work from the bottom up to collaborate with all in the city. He suggested that his experience turning around Blandford’s poor economic practices and stabilizing the town’s financial resources was more relevant than volunteering on the City Council, as he put it, and running a business.

Sullivan, in turn, said that Blandford has around 30 employees whereas Holyoke has more than 1,000. He noted the difference between Blandford’s $5 million budget and Holyoke’s $150 million budget. He said his experience running large businesses, negotiating with corporations and dealing with the budget as a city councilor have prepared him to be mayor.

Asked what Holyoke’s greatest challenges are, Sullivan said repairing the city’s crumbling infrastructure, such as its aging water and sewer systems.

“Everything we need to do in this city right now, whether it’s new housing, new schools, attracting new industry, we have to rebuild our infrastructure,” he said, noting that opioid addiction, homelessness, low income per capita and high commercial tax rates are also problems.

Garcia said that he thinks infrastructure, education, public safety and homelessness are big problems the city faces. But he said all of those quality-of-life issues are dependent on Holyoke managing its resources in a sound manner.

“The greatest challenge currently … is our budget,” he said, noting that the city has a $2 million deficit, a negative certified free cash balance and financial reporting problems.

On the question of race relations in the city, Sullivan said that he has felt that Holyokers have “always gotten along” and handled problems with racism when they arose. He said the city has always provided opportunities to everyone.

Garcia said that in a city that is 54% Hispanic, dealing with race relations means making sure local government is reflective of the community and responding to all corners of the city. He said that it would mean a lot to people to have the city’s first-ever Puerto Rican mayor, but that he is first and foremost “a Holyoker, representing west Holyoke to south Holyoke.”

Asked where they stood on the future of the quarry on Mount Tom and the Whiting Street Reservoir, neither spoke about the quarry. They both said they looked forward to the final report from the city’s Whiting Reservoir Study Committee.

Both candidates also spoke in support of an audit of the Holyoke Police Department, where overtime hours have been a topic of discussion. Garcia said high overtime hours are a symptom of management problems, regardless of the department. Sullivan said he wanted an audit to take a greater look at how the police are spending grant money, and whether resources are being allocated correctly.

The full debate will be available to stream via Holyoke Media.

Early voting is taking place through this Friday on the first floor of City Hall from 8:30 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. The Holyoke Taxpayers Association is hosting a final debate on Thursday, Oct. 28, at 5:30 p.m. in the auditorium of Holyoke High School’s North Campus.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.
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