At-large candidates vie for voter support

WESTFIELD – More than 100 residents turned out at the Westfield Technical Academy auditorium last night to listen to 13 of the 14 candidates seeking election as one of the seven At-large members of the City Council in the Nov. 3 general election.
Residents listened to the candidates, many of whom are seeking elective office for the first time, as they responded to questions about taxes, generating additional revenue, expanding the city’s tax base, spending priorities and education.
The pool of candidates has five incumbents, Dan Allie, Brent B. Bean II, David A. Flaherty, Cindy Harris and Matt VanHeynigen, and two former councilors seeking to return to the city’s legislative body, John J. Beltrandi III and three-term Mayor Daniel M. Knapik.
The pool also has seven candidates seeking their first elective post including: Mark Butler, Steve Dondley, Richard Holcomb, Muneed Mahmood, Kevin Medeiros, Rudolph Musterait and Carl Vincent. Medeiros was unable to attend the forum last night.
The candidates were given a minute for an opening statement and opportunity to begin to establish their platforms.
Allie said that he and his family moved to Westfield for the quality of its schools and the fact that Westfield did not feel like a big city.
“I am concerned about the schools,” Allie said.
Bean, who is seeking his seventh term on the City Council, said he became “involved in politics to make Westfield a better place” to live and raise his family.
Flaherty said his “major focus is on finances and taxes.”
Harris said she plans to continued to be “a strong voice for homeowners” and that she will oppose shifting a greater tax burden onto homeowners.
VanHeynigen said he is concerned with quality of life issues and willing to make hard decisions, such as disbanding the Business Improvement District (BID) to benefit the community.
Beltrandi said that during his first two terms he served on the License, Legislative & Ordinance, and Finance committees and that he hopes to have the opportunity to do more. Beltrandi said that his children, and now grandchildren, are a major focus of his life so he has “a huge interest in the future of Westfield.”
Butler, who at 20 years of age is the youngest of the candidates, said he planned to move out of Westfield but that Allie and State Reprehensive John Velis urged him to become part of the solution, not the problem.
“They taught me that I could be part of making a difference,” Butler said.
Dondley said that the City Council has been divisive and that he would work to “find common ground” with other members to build consensus on issues dividing the community.
Holcomb, the only retired candidate, said he plans to be a voice for residents on fixed incomes, “people who can’t stand every increase in the tax rate and uncontrolled spending.”
Knapik, who said the city is in a much better financial position today than in 2009 when he first ran for mayor, is seeking “to return to my roots on the City Council.”
Mahmood said people are tired and disgusted with the divisive politics and that his goal is to “work together as a team.”
Musterait said he plans to be “an independent voice on the council for the residents of Westfield and that his issue is taxes, declaring “people can’t take any more of it.”
Vincent, currently a member of the Planning Board, said he seeks office because residents seeking change are often frustrated by the slow pace of municipal action.
Candidates were then asked which candidates for Mayor they support and which City Council members they align with politically. Each has 30 seconds to respond, but none used that whole allotted time.
Allie, Harris, VanHeynigen, Musterait, and Vincent said support of a particular mayoral candidate is a personal choice and declined to elaborate further.
Bean said he plans to support Brian Sullivan because of their long tenure together on the City Council and that on council issues he would align with VanHeynigen and Beltrandi because they approach issues the same way.
Flaherty said he supports Roeder because he is “conservative and an outsider. We need change in Westfield.”
Beltrandi said that he worked with Sullivan for four years, but also felt that it is a private decision to be made in the voting booth.
Butler said that he plans “to work with the other side” if elected.
Dondley said he plans “to build bridges and work with everyone and that there is opportunity, even when you differed on particular issues,” to find a compromise.
Holcomb said he supports Roeder and is aligned with Ward 4 Councilor Mary O’Connell, who urged him to seek office.
Knapik said that the next mayor will have to have the ability to craft a $120 million municipal budget and that he thinks Sullivan “is the right person, with the right experience” to do that job. Knapik also said that he would seek compromise with other council members because “half a loaf is better than no loaf.”
Mahmood said that he is not aligned with any candidate or council members and that his view of politics “is it’s about working together.”
The 14 candidates were then paired and each pair asked a question.
Allie and Vincent were asked where they would make cuts on the budget and what spending priorities they would support.
Allie said the issue of setting priorities is about leadership, such as when he initiated an ad hoc committee to list possible cuts from the city budget and warned that “we’re looking at a significant tax increase” this year.
Vincent said municipal leaders needs to “look for innovation, to look to the boots-on-the-ground employees and let them be part of the solution. Many of them see things that upper management doesn’t see.”
Musterait and Bean were asked to detail their plan to foster retail and industrial growth in the city.
Musterait said, that as a small business owner, he is an advocate for small business development and that the city needs to create vehicles to advertise, create zoning to encourage small business growth and adopt zoning which are less restrictive in regards to signs for businesses.
Bean said that Westfield, as a city, does not sell itself well to attract business from outside the state and even overseas to Westfield.
“We have a hospital, and airport, municipal water, municipal utility, open space that can be developed, but we don’t do well in marketing Westfield,” Bean said. “We have to get better at selling ourselves to companies outside the state, across the country and even overseas.”
Flaherty, who had been paired with the absent Medeiros, was asked to define his most important concerns facing the city today.
Flaherty said “we are in tough financial shape today and we still have financial challengers. We’ve survived by using one-time money for operational expenses, money that should have been used for one-time expenses.”
Mahmood and Harris were each asked to which segment, home property owners or commercial, industrial and personal property owners should carry the higher tax burden.
Mahmood said he would seek ways to increase the tax base to relieve the tax burden on all classes of property.
Harris said that residential property owners are currently paying 72.33 percent of the tax revenue collected by the city and that she would oppose any shift that would increase that burden on homeowners.
“Residents don’t need tax increases,” she said.
VanHeynigen and Knapik were asked for innovative ideas to generate revenue for the city.
VanHeynigen said that the Westfield Technical Academy is creating a program which will provide a new generation of skilled technicians to foster commercial and industrial growth, which in turn will create new jobs.
Knapik said that the city has assembled land for development off Cabot Road and next to Barnes Regional Airport and that the new aviation program at Westfield Technical Academy will supply technicians needed by existing and future aviation companies located at the airport.
Holcomb and Beltrandi were asked how they would fund road improvements in the city, through a mix of bonding, use of free cash and stabilization funds.
Holcomb said he is not opposed to bonding, although he would prefer not to increase debt, only if there is a comprehensive plan for infrastructure improvement.
Beltrandi said that well-maintained roads are critical for public safety and that he would support either bonding or the use of free cash and that he also ‘favors funding the Department of Public Works (Highway division) at a higher extent because they have been cut to a skeleton.”
Butler and Dondley were asked for their experience in analyzing budgets.
Butler said he has had only experience with the results of past budgets and the poor road conditions.
“We see increases in the tax rate and decreases in the services the city provides,” he said.
Dondley said that as a business owner he routinely deals with budget issues, experience that “will translate into government service. We are in a very tough spot. That’s why I’m in favor of bringing in more revenue for the city.”

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