A ‘rare’ citizen sets to depart: Mayor David Narkewicz is leaving a solid foundation for the city’s next leader

  • Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz walks downtown earlier this month on his way to Historic Northampton. After a decade in office, the mayor will turn over the keys to City Hall on Monday to mayor-elect Gina-Louise Sciarra. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz walks downtown just outside City Hall earlier this month. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz listens as Laurie Sanders and Betty Sharpe, co-directors of Historic Northampton, explain the use of the Sheperd Barn as a ancillary gallery, performance venue and community space, during his last weeks as mayor. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz walks downtown earlier this month on his way to Historic Northampton. After a decade in office, the mayor will turn over the keys to City Hall on Monday to mayor-elect Gina-Louise Sciarra, who said, “There’s a solid foundation that I get to work with.” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz at Historic Northampton earlier this month. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz stands in the rainbow crosswalk on Main Street earlier this month. Narkewicz helped implement the crosswalk’s painting in 2014, an idea that came from the former executive director of the Northampton Pride march, Melinda Shaw. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz at Historic Northampton earlier this month. Gazette staff/carol lollis

  • Northampton Mayor David Narkewicz at Historic Northampton earlier this month. Gazette staff/carol lollis

Staff Writer
Published: 1/2/2022 5:49:04 PM

NORTHAMPTON — Throughout his 10 years as the city’s chief executive, Mayor David Narkewicz has crafted a reputation among his colleagues in government as a thoughtful professional and an effective manager of public resources. In two days, the Narkewicz era will come to a close when he relinquishes the key to City Hall’s corner office.

On Monday, Narkewicz will hand over responsibility for the city’s day-to-day operations and major ongoing projects — such as the implementation of the new Department of Community Care, establishing a municipal broadband service and redesigning Main Street — to Gina-Louise Sciarra, the mayor-elect who won November’s two-way race against Marc Warner with 70% of the vote.

“There’s a solid foundation that I get to work with. I’m so grateful,” Sciarra said on Thursday. “Not everyone gets to come into office feeling that way.”

Sciarra and Narkewicz both rose to the mayor’s office by way of the City Council. Each served as Ward 4 councilor, at-large councilor and president, and Sciarra said they have maintained a strong relationship for years.

“I’m going through my own sort of mourning process,” Sciarra said. “I’ll really miss working with him directly.”

A native of Shelburne Falls and a U.S. Air Force veteran, Narkewicz, 55, graduated from UMass Amherst in 1990 with a degree in political science. He worked in Washington, D.C., as the economic development director for former Democratic U.S. Rep. John Olver and as a legislative staffer for several other congressmen.

Later, he was a stay-at-home father and community volunteer, then a city councilor, while his wife Dr. Yelena Mikich worked as a physician at Baystate Medical Center in Springfield. They have two daughters.

Narkewicz, a South Park Terrace resident, served on Northampton’s Zoning Board of Appeals, the Transportation and Parking Commission and the Northampton Education Foundation. Originally elected to the City Council in 2005, he won an at-large seat in 2009 and served as council president until the resignation of Mayor Clare Higgins in September 2011.

Higgins appointed Narkewicz acting mayor, in accordance with the city charter, when she left to become executive director of the nonprofit organization Community Action Pioneer Valley. Narkewicz won election to a full term less than two months later, defeating Michael Bardsley, a retired school guidance counselor who was on the City Council for 16 years and had also served as president.

Narkewicz served one two-year term as mayor. The city amended its charter in 2012 to extend the length of the mayor’s term, among many other changes to government operations, and Narkewicz sailed to reelection to two four-year terms in 2013 and 2017. He declined to run again in 2021 and endorsed Sciarra.

On Dec. 8, dozens of elected officials and well-wishers gathered at the Hotel Northampton to pay tribute to Narkewicz.

City Councilor Bill Dwight, who served in Ward 1 from 1997 to 2005 and won his current at-large seat in 2011, commended the mayor for crafting an agenda with the best interests of the city in mind, and for his “courage.”

“Most of us don’t appreciate the amount of courage that it takes to ask your neighbors and your community to vote for you, to approve you, especially if you’re vying to be mayor,” Dwight said. “It’s the rare citizen who actually chooses to campaign while fraught with self-doubt and motivated by goodwill and hope.”

Breaking the cycle

When Narkewicz came into office, the city was still grappling with the Great Recession and trying to weather repeated cuts to state aid, so he said he developed a plan to “break the cycle” of annual budget gaps.

Voters passed a Proposition 2½ override to close a 2013 budget shortfall and set aside money for anticipated gaps for up to four years. The override provided about $1 million to schools to prevent bussing and job cuts; more than $725,000 went to city departments — including to save five police department jobs — and $773,000 went into a stabilization account.

“We made record investments in education,” infrastructure and paving, and a variety of city services, Narkewicz said this week. With careful planning and budgeting, he said, his administration made the stabilization money last for seven years.

The city’s bond rating rose from A+ to AA+ in 2014, according to Standard & Poor’s, then climbed again to the highest rating, AAA, in 2016, where it has remained ever since. The rating reflects strong creditworthiness; cities with higher bond ratings receive lower interest rates on municipal borrowing.

“All of the other aspirational things we want to do as a community” like green energy, alternative transportation and homelessness services, “all of these things come back to, what is the financial health of your community?” Narkewicz said.

City Hall delayed a second override for $2 million that voters approved in March 2020. Narkewicz said the override was “one of the cornerstones of my administration,” designed to continue the success of the first, but two weeks after it passed at the ballot box, the COVID-19 pandemic forced businesses to shut down and sent the unemployment rate soaring. The override will start affecting tax bills this fiscal year.

While businesses were closed for months, parking revenue plunged and taxes from hotels and restaurants disappeared. But in the interest of public health, the city went further than state regulations by closing its parks and recreation facilities and implementing a citywide mask mandate.

“The city has been a leader in the region in responding to COVID,” Narkewicz said. “We’ve put together a really strong emergency team that, in the early months of COVID, was meeting almost on a daily basis. … In a lot of cases, we were out ahead of the state.”

He said he is proud of the emergency homeless shelter that the city and local social service agencies started at Northampton High School, and of the “incredible work of the health department” to set up a regional vaccination clinic.

“Our mantra has been, ‘Wear your mask, get vaccinated,’” Narkewicz said. “We have to listen to our health experts. That’s been my approach to it.”

The voter-approved overrides and the administration’s management of the money kept the city more financially stable than other communities in the region, he said, despite the economic devastation wrought by the pandemic.

Narkewicz’s COVID response earned the approval of his predecessor.

“I was extremely impressed with how he managed this unprecedented global crisis,” Clare Higgins said in an interview. “He did it with grace and focus in a way that served the city very well.”

She said the extension of the mayor’s term to four years “gave him the ability, and he used it, to think more long-term over a four-year span,” and she offered praise of his fiscal stewardship.

“I’m looking forward to working with Gina-Louise,” Higgins said. “I think she’s a great next mayor. Her heart is in the work of the city and she’s done great work during her time on the council.”

The closest government to the people

Sciarra said Narkewicz is a “model mayor and also a model human.” She highlighted his dedication to creating and preserving outdoor open space, his efforts to resettle Syrian refugees in Northampton, and a smooth transition process that she called “a remarkable gift to me and the city.”

Narkewicz started the senior and veteran property tax work-off program, led the redesign and beautification of Pulaski Park and live-streamed the work on the city website, and implemented a payment-in-lieu-of-taxes (PILOT) program for nonprofits. He also appointed the city’s first female police chief and public works director.

Improving energy efficiency was a hallmark of Narkewicz’s decade of service. The city’s police station, opened in December 2012, was LEED-certified and earned high marks from city officials for its energy use. Narkewicz oversaw the replacement of thousands of street lights with energy-efficient LED bulbs and, in 2019, committed the city to a policy of net carbon neutrality by 2050.

Narkewicz’s tenure, though, was not free from controversy.

Advocates for the homeless, elderly and disabled criticized the mayor’s 2013 decision to remove a half-dozen benches from Main Street sidewalks in response to complaints that a few people occupied them for long periods. At the City Council’s urging, Narkewicz reversed course and had the benches restored.

The residents of Warfield Place engaged in a months-long public dispute with the Department of Public Works earlier this year over a plan to chop down nine cherry trees and make room for a street improvement project. After a DPW contractor removed the trees in July, two residents sued for alleged violations of their legal rights and harm to their property values.

A Hampshire Superior Court judge dismissed the lawsuit this month, a decision Narkewicz praised. He said the ruling “agreed with the city’s position that this lawsuit had no merit and should be dismissed.”

Narkewicz stood his ground this summer amid criticism of his allocation to the Department of Community Care, an alternative emergency response department that would take certain non-violent calls instead of the police, and he resisted activists who urged him to double the proposed $424,000 figure. After a seven-hour budget meeting in June, the council approved the mayor’s allocation with Ward 7 councilor Rachel Maiore voting no.

On Thursday, Sciarra defended the allocation as “reasonable” for getting the department off the ground but said she “will be very happy to go to the council and ask” for more if it’s needed before the next budget cycle. She said the department also received $150,000 from the state and implementation director Sean Donovan began work several weeks ago.

Narkewicz said he tried not to govern from behind the closed door of his office. He said he enjoyed getting out of City Hall and selling his ideas to the public or hearing feedback that changed the city’s plans.

“That’s one of the strengths of local government. We are the closest government to the people that we serve,” he said. “I’ve tried to always maintain that. It’s very easy to find yourself spending too much time in your office.”

During his tenure, Narkewicz took sides on national political issues, as well. In 2015, he was one of 226 mayors nationwide to submit a brief urging the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold the right of gay and lesbian couples to marry in every state. A year before, he had signed an executive order banning the Police Department from turning over undocumented immigrants to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency after non-criminal incidents.

When voters legalized recreational marijuana in Massachusetts, Narkewicz positioned the city to welcome new adult-use dispensaries. He made the first legal recreational marijuana purchase in the state’s history on Nov. 20, 2018, when he bought a THC-infused chocolate bar at New England Treatment Access. For three years, he kept the chocolate bar on display in his office and recently donated it to Historic Northampton.

Ward 6 City Councilor Marianne LaBarge said Narkewicz was of great help in reconstructing Burts Pit Road, a plan announced in 2018 after years of complaints from residents.

“You were looking at no sidewalks at all, no quality of life for people riding bicycles, walking, anything like that,” LaBarge said. Narkewicz took action after a citizen petition reached his office and he won approval for the spending from the City Council.

“David has done a very good job in our city,” LaBarge said. “You’re not always going to make everyone happy. … Whenever I needed the mayor, he was there for me and my residents.”

Narkewicz, nearly a year after telling the Gazette, “I’m not running for office again, I’m fairly certain of that,” still has no specific plans for when he leaves office and said he will take “a moment to breathe and decompress” before finding a new path.

“I feel like I’ve left the city in good shape,” Narkewicz said, “and I can walk out of City Hall knowing that’s in a good position for 2022.”

Sciarra and all other elected officials in the city will be sworn in Monday at 10 a.m. during a ceremony at the Academy of Music. Due to COVID-related restrictions, the public can watch a livestream of the ceremony at NorthamptonOpenMedia.org, on Comcast channels 12, 15 and 23, or at Facebook.com/NorthamptonTV.

Brian Steele can be reached at bsteele@gazettenet.com.


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