Public safety, trees, downtown design aired at Northampton mayoral forum

  • FILE PHOTO FILE PHOTO

  • FILE PHOTO FILE PHOTO

  • FILE PHOTO FILE PHOTO

  • FILE PHOTO FILE PHOTO

  • Northampton City Hall FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Published: 9/14/2021 9:58:50 PM

NORTHAMPTON — The four candidates for mayor met in a virtual forum on Tuesday night, calling for changes to the city’s management of the homeless population, a compassionate response to neighborhood controversies, and a thoughtful redesign of Main Street that meets a broad set of needs.

City Council President Gina-Louise Sciarra, social worker Shanna Fishel, retired resident Roy Martin and transportation analyst Marc Warner participated in the 7 p.m. forum hosted by Northampton Neighbors, a nonprofit that works to support local seniors.

Mayor David Narkewicz is not seeking reelection.

Voters in the preliminary election will narrow the field of mayoral candidates to two, and one City Council at-large candidate will be eliminated from a field of five, for the general election on Nov. 2.

Gina-Louise Sciarra

Moderator Kenneth Dym asked the candidates if they agreed with Narkewicz’s decision to enforce city ordinances against sleeping and storing personal possessions overnight in Pulaski Park, which Dym said effectively “cleared out” the park’s homeless population earlier this month.

Sciarra, a City Council member for the past eight years and its president since 2019, said homeless residents are “part of our community,” but Pulaski Park had become “unsafe” after a series of incidents of violence.

“I think this was a situation where the mayor needed to step in and move people,” Sciarra said.

She said there is a housing crisis nationwide, and “there just aren’t enough units. We need to find a way to create more units.”

Dym asked about each candidate’s plan for launching the new Department of Community Care, a peer-led emergency response alternative that received $424,000 in the fiscal 2022 budget. Sciarra said she and Narkewicz co-created the Policing Review Commission, which recommended establishing the city-funded department, and supports the plan.

Asked who would respond to a violent emergency call at 1 a.m. — police or community care — Sciarra said, “Community care is something that people can request, but I would send a police officer to that situation.”

Dym asked how each candidate would respond to a situation like the cherry tree controversy on Warfield Place. In July, a city public works contractor chopped down nine trees to accommodate a repaving project, over the objections of neighbors who filed a lawsuit in response to the city’s actions.

“If I had been mayor at the time, I would have worked harder earlier in the process” to discuss the issue with concerned residents and seek their input, Sciarra said.

On the issue of redesigning Main Street, Sciarra said she is “most in favor” of the plan known as Alternative 3. The plan reduces on-street parking by 18% while adding vehicle turning lanes at New South/State streets and King/Pleasant streets, and makes room for public art, street furniture, sidewalk dining and outdoor commerce space.

But, Sciarra said, the city can go “bigger and bolder” and improve accessibility even further. She favors limiting parking spaces while making sure that seniors have priority access to them.

Roy Martin

Martin, a 78-year-old Marine Corps veteran, previously held jobs including fishing, working on an oil rig and running a pet supply business. He has served as president of the Walter Salvo Tenants Association.

Asked about the mayor’s actions in Pulaski Park, Martin said he knows many of the city’s homeless people personally, and that “a lot of them are just lazy.”

“The chief of police should have sent police in there and cleared out the park, and checked IDs and checked for weapons,” Martin said, adding that some of the supposedly homeless people in the city are actually housed and live in Holyoke and Springfield. “I know what’s going on with the homeless.”

Martin said many homeless people lie about being disabled veterans.

The Department of Community Care, he said, should not handle issues like domestic violence, and he would not support more funding until the department proves it can work.

“I’d say, ‘OK, let’s give them a shot,’ but we’re not going to give them millions of dollars … and two years later, you’re firing people because it didn’t work out,” Martin said.

Asked about the cherry tree issue, Martin pivoted to his thoughts on St. John Cantius, a church on Hawley Street. The church’s owner wants to demolish it and build townhouses on the site, which Martin said is not what the city needs.

Martin also said he is “not in favor of changing Main Street,” but seniors need better access to parking.

“Senior citizens don’t want to park at the parking garage or the parking lots and then walk all the way downtown,” Martin said. “What senior citizen is going to carry a whole bunch of stuff that they bought on Main Street all the way down to the garage? None. … They all go out to the shopping malls.”

Marc Warner

Warner is the founder of Warner Transportation Consulting Inc., where he has spent 29 years helping major public transportation agencies improve their operations and providing human resources management and collective bargaining services.

Northampton is a compassionate city, he said, and should have enough shelters and affordable housing. But, he said, Narkewicz was right to clear the park.

“Right now, Pulaski Park is not functioning as a park for the residents of Northampton,” Warner said, and the quality of life for residents, downtown merchants and visitors “is being undermined” by activity in the park. He said the homeless should not be treated like criminals, but it is appropriate to enforce laws against aggressive panhandling and smoking marijuana in public.

The Department of Community Care, he said, should “go seek out the homeless where they are and steer them to resources and services that can help them.” The new department, he said, “is essential to Northampton.”

Warner said “there may have been some questions” about why Warfield Place, a seldom-used side street, was slated for repaving despite neighborhood objections, and the city should listen to those concerns, “but you also have to revert to your experts.”

“You’re losing the cherry trees in this case, but you’re getting a smoother road,” a wider sidewalk and new trees in the future, Warner said, adding that some Warfield residents preferred the repaving project over the cherry trees.

When it comes to the Main Street redesign, Warner said the designs are not final yet, and the city should take the available time to better mitigate traffic on side streets and deal with other shortcomings.

“I haven’t endorsed” any of the design options, and “there’s still an opportunity for the next mayor to have an input,” Warner said.

Warner has served on Northampton’s parking and passenger rail advisory committees, as well as the charter review and charter drafting committees, which prepared the charter approved by voters in 2012. In 2015, he ran unsuccessfully for an at-large City Council seat against incumbents William Dwight and Jesse Adams, who both won reelection.

Shanna Fishel

Fishel, who uses the pronoun “they,” said that, in their career as a social worker, they try to set people up with housing, but most programs require a person to be sober or meet other requirements before a unit is made available. Fishel favors a model called Housing First, which aims to provide stable permanent housing with no conditions.

“When we clear out the park, we are just pushing people away. We are not solving the issue,” Fishel said.

They said they were “saddened” by the removal of cherry trees on Warfield Place.

“The use of the police force to bulldoze these trees is an example of waste in our police force, waste in our city planning, and waste in our budget,” Fishel said, referring to the presence of police officers at the site and the arrests of two people who climbed the cherry trees to prevent the removal work.

“There’s always going to be multiplicity of opinion; however, we can’t always go by the algorithm” that determines which streets receive priority for paving projects, Fishel said.

Fishel supports the Main Street redesign known as Alternative 3, but they said the city is “missing an opportunity” for climate mitigation, greater accessibility and the installation of underground fiber-optic cables. Climate mitigation will cut costs for the city and taxpayers, which would help fixed-income seniors, they said.

Asked about the Department of Community Care, Fishel raised the hypothetical of a domestic violence call involving a queer couple or people of color, and said that marginalized people do not always benefit from the presence of a police officer.

“If you send a cop to resolve the issue, the issue will escalate,” Fishel said. “If we are a true progressive city, we must hold values for the maximum benefit of disenfranchised people.”

There will be another virtual mayoral forum Sept. 23 at 7 p.m. organized by Climate Action Now.

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


Daily Hampshire Gazette Office

115 Conz Street
Northampton, MA 01061
413-584-5000

 

Copyright © 2021 by H.S. Gere & Sons, Inc.
Terms & Conditions - Privacy Policy