‘Ready to be your mayor’: Joshua Garcia sworn in as Holyoke’s 45th and first Latino mayor

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  • Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia acknowledges applause as he arrives at the ballroom of City Hall for his swearing-in ceremony on Monday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia speaks to about 200 people gathered in the ballroom of City Hall for his swearing-in ceremony on Monday, Nov. 15, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia greets well-wishers following his swearing-in ceremony in the ballroom of City Hall on Monday. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia speaks to media following his swearing-in ceremony in the ballroom of City Hall on Monday, Nov. 15, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia greets well-wishers following his swearing-in ceremony in the ballroom of City Hall on Monday, Nov. 15, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia, second from left, poses for a photo with, from left, Holyoke Fire Commissioner Jeffrey Trask, Fire Chief Jeffrey Przekopowski and Fire Commissioner George Mettey following his swearing-in ceremony in the ballroom of City Hall on Monday, Nov. 15, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia speaks to about 200 people gathered in the ballroom of City Hall for his swearing-in ceremony on Monday, Nov. 15, 2021. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia, center, poses for a photo with area officials following his swearing-in ceremony in the ballroom of City Hall on Monday, Nov. 15, 2021. From left are State Sen. Adam Gomez, D-Springfield, Chicopee Ward 3 Councilor Delmarina Lopez, Hampden Co. Register of Deeds Cheryl Coakley-Rivera, Garcia, Holyoke Ward 1 Councilor Gladys Lebron-Martinez, State Rep. Carlos Gonzalez, D-Springfield, and State Rep. Orlando Ramos, D-Springfield. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Staff Writer
Published: 11/15/2021 1:21:02 PM

HOLYOKE — His right hand on a Bible and his left in the air, Joshua Garcia was greeted with a boisterous standing ovation on Monday as Holyoke District Court Judge William Hadley swore him in as the city’s 45th mayor.

“I’ve been asked a dozen times, ‘How do you feel?’” Garcia told a packed City Hall auditorium, filled with a who’s-who of the region’s politicians, dignitaries and residents. “Well, I don’t feel any less tired than I did on Election Day … But the reality is, there isn’t any time for rest.”

Garcia’s victory was a historic moment for Holyoke, where 54% of residents identify as Hispanic or Latino. Garcia won all but two of the city’s seven wards in the election, making him the city’s first Latino mayor. Raised in South Holyoke, Garcia’s mother and grandmother, like so many in the city, came to Holyoke from Puerto Rico.

In a brief speech, Garcia vowed to create an administration that reflects the values and diversity of the city, “from west Holyoke to South Holyoke.”

“Holyoke is a community of differences: differences in income, culture, the color of our skin, the language we speak and the people we choose to love,” Garcia said. His vision, he said, is to use Holyoke’s unique character to make the city a destination for families and businesses alike, and to create a transparent and inclusive city government. “I feel humbled by the challenges ahead, I feel proud to be a Holyoker and I feel ready to be your mayor.”

The room was the place to be in Holyoke on Monday morning. City department heads, city elected officials past and present, business and school leaders alike mingled with the region’s politicians and residents eager to witness the occasion.

State Sen. Adam Gomez, D-Springfield, stood at the back of the room watching the proceedings. When Gomez was sworn in earlier this year, he became the first Puerto Rican elected to the state Senate. He was also one of the first to endorse Garcia.

“Lightning struck twice for the Latino community this year,” Gomez said. He said he knew Garcia from their time studying together at Westfield State University, and that he knew big things were in store for Garcia. “We are here humbled and in solidarity.”

In an interview with the Gazette last week, Garcia said he has seen people across the city excited about his victory, not just in the Hispanic community. He said he wants to leverage that excitement to get a jump start on some of the big challenges he knows he faces.

“I want people to feel good about their investment in the city of Holyoke,” he said, whether they are renters, homeowners or business owners. If he can continue to cultivate that excitement, he added, he’s on the right path.

The work will begin immediately for Garcia, who has a significant number of seats to fill on boards and commissions. Garcia said there are also several department heads who have left or will soon be leaving their roles, including the city’s Department of Public Works superintendent, personnel director and Parks and Recreation director.

Last week, Garcia was meeting with city councilors to identify their priorities and concerns and he acknowledged that councilors just spent months talking to voters during election season, just as he did.

“Their ears are just as close to the ground as mine,” Garcia said, adding that he wants to make sure their priorities are reflected in the city’s budget when that time comes. “And just making sure we’re creating a collaborative pipeline between the Council and this office.”

At-large City Councilor Peter Tallman met with Garcia, and noted that newly elected councilors also had the same chance to share their priorities with the mayor-elect last week. Speaking at Garcia’s swearing-in event, Tallman said Garcia’s election ushered in a “new day in Holyoke,” and that he was encouraged that Garcia had already opened the door to listen to the community.

“His vision of inclusiveness I think his important,” Tallman said.

As for longer-term objectives, Garcia spoke frequently on the campaign trail about addressing structural issues in Holyoke’s government. One of those changes might be to fix the city’s finance department, which some have described as fragmented becausea the treasurer is elected by voters and the City Council appoints the tax collector, assessor and auditor.

In 2015, the state’s Department of Revenue described the system as “disjointed” and lacking coordination, stating in a report that the structure “continues to restrict its ability to deal with stubborn financial management shortcomings.” The department suggested consolidating the finance department so that all finance offices — the treasurer, collector, assessor and auditor — report to a finance director appointed by the mayor and confirmed by the City Council.

Garcia said that there are several ways to make those changes, though he was hesitant to endorse any one in particular.

“Those are the little complexities, the nuances, that we as a community need to come together and figure out,” he said.

Garcia said that protecting local assets and resources can’t be political and that the city has to come up with a solution “to protect our local government no matter who is our mayor, no matter who jumps on our council.”

That applies when discussing a deficit in the city’s sewer enterprise account, Garcia said. He said the city’s past practice was to balance that account with free cash — a risky and ill-advised practice, laid bare by the fact that the city doesn’t have free cash at the moment. City residents and leaders have to understand that failing to address the deficit will cost the city more in the future, he said, noting that the city only has a few options to cover the costs: cutting city services, raising money through taxes, or raising the city’s sewer fee.

“As a manager, it’s going to be important for me to present the options to the council so that they understand the liability and the greater stake here,” he said. “That they’re making informed decisions and not political decisions … If nothing else, right now, the sewer rate has to come up to balance that budget.”

Another issue raised on the campaign trail was the Holyoke Police Department’s use of overtime. After a Gazette report shed light on how many overtime hours city police officers were using, including some of the department’s highest-paid administrators, Garcia said that he was open to an audit of the department — an idea first put forward by his opponent in the race, At-large City Councilor Michael Sullivan.

Garcia said he is still planning to look into the matter, adding later that what he has planned “is not an investigation, it’s an assessment.” He said that assessment would look at internal controls and how the department is managing resources internally.

“I don’t anticipate only looking at what we’re doing in the Police Department but all departments,” he said, noting that there are “clear operating concerns” related to the department’s use of overtime. “We can start at the Police Department and work our way through.”

Fiscal controls and responsibility were central themes in Garcia’s campaign and he said his overarching goal is to strengthen accountability in local government.

Garcia also spoke about his desire to advocate for policies that would help Holyoke on the state level, from incentives to allow developers to put blighted buildings to use to the construction of east-west rail to Boston. He said he’s eager to see how federal infrastructure funding will impact Holyoke, and how it might bring the dream of east-west rail to fruition, bringing economic opportunity to the city.

“I certainly want to do what I can to be an advocate so that that happens,” he said.

Raised in South Holyoke, Garcia said that his neighborhood growing up had a median household income of $18,000. He said that when people mention “vulnerable populations” in the city, he was part of that group, and is now the product of the programs and services the city provided to help families like his have a decent quality of life.

“I’m a result of the hard work folks have done before me, and I’m hoping I can do what I can to take the torch and continue to build,” he said. “To do what I can to continue to move the needle and continue to improve the conditions in our city.”

At his swearing-in ceremony Tuesday, many voiced similar hopes for Garcia’s tenure. Candidate for lieutenant governor and state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, noted that Garcia takes office at a time when municipalities have the opportunity to make “generational investments.”

“This is an exciting moment for the city and the region,” he said.

Frances Santos, a former co-worker of Garcia’s at the Holyoke Housing Authority, said the moment was history-making and emotional.

“He’s a nice person, humble,” Santos said. “A good father, a good husband and son. And a great coworker.”

Garcia was accompanied by his wife, Stefany, and their twin children, Allison and Ethan.

Stefany, who is a Holyoke Public Schools family access engagement coordinator, said that her husband’s victory is validating for the Hispanic community, who are too often stereotyped as holding less prestigious jobs. She said that when those children are told they can expect a better path if they work hard, they can now look to Garcia as an example, even though things may have been more challenging for him as a Latino candidate for elected office.

“It changes the story that is being told,” she said. “It shows that people like us can do jobs like these.”

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

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