WESTFIELD – As moderator for the Wards 4, 5 and 6 forums on Oct. 28, Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Kate Phelon welcomed a roomful of residents to the Senior Center, thanking Tina Gorman and her staff for hosting, Hope Tremblay of The Westfield News for timekeeping, and Ken Stomski of Channel 15 for recording the event.
Ward 4 incumbent Michael Burns and candidate Mary O’Connell began with introductions before answering four questions posed by Phelon, and ending with a closing statement; the format for all of the ward forums.
Burns said in the 22 months he has been the Ward 4 councilor he has focused on repairing, repaving and refurbishing roads in the ward, including most recently Northwest and Upper Granville. He also talked about improving public safety through a short-term rental ordinance.
O’Connell said she believed she would be a better candidate to deal with troubling debt, water contamination and crumbling infrastructure. She said during her previous tenure on the council, she had supported reductions in increases each budget season.
Asked whether the candidates were satisfied with the Western Avenue infrastructure project, neither candidate said they were. O’Connell said it had been on the books for decades and knew it would be tough. She said she had been a big part of the planning process four years ago, and had made substantive changes to the design, such as eliminating a traffic rotary, and reducing the width of the south side sidewalks to five foot.
Burns said he had never been in favor of the project; but had advocated instead for a road through the Westfield State University campus to Route 20. However, he said the project is being done, and residents have no choice. He said he meets frequently with the city engineer and mayor for updates on the progress, and in turn meets with the Westfield State president to keep the university updated.
The next question was about the relationship with the city and Westfield State, which Burns said has improved. He said he made a point to speak to every resident on Overlook Drive, and was surprised at their acceptance of the campus. “The relationship with the city and the college is good right now,” Burns said.
O’Connell said she had formerly been on a Neighborhood Advisory Board that met frequently to resolve issues that came up between residents and the university, which she said was effective. When she served on the Westfield 350 committee this past year, they involved college students in the plans. “They were great assets for many events,” O’Connell said, adding that among other contributions they designed the Westfield 350 logo. She said she would like to continue keeping the students involved.
To the question of Westfield’s weak mayor and strong council form of government being contentious at times, and how would the candidates like to improve it, O’Connell acknowledged there has been animosity at times, and said she believed it was communication on both sides. She said councilors could reach out more to the mayor but didn’t always feel welcome, and thought more cordiality is needed.
“Mayor Sullivan has been nothing but cordial to me,” said Burns, adding, “I’d like to thank him for all the help in Ward 4.” He also said people need to get along, resolve their issues on the council floor, and not be on one side or the other. “I love this city,” he added.
When asked their priorities for Ward 4, Burns listed stormwater concerns. He said sixty percent of road damage is caused by water runoff. He also talked about the challenges in his ward of private wells and septic systems, and said sidewalks suffered when Chapter 90 funds were cut. Burns also pointed out that he was one of the original sponsors for the stabilization fund for roads and sidewalks, which he hopes the next mayor will consider funding.
O’Connell said her top priority is infrastructure, with roads crumbling, and sidewalks with tree roots coming up. She said it is Ward 4’s turn to get their fair share.
In closing, O’Connell said she served on the City Council with commitment and dedication for twelve years, and was always well educated on the issues and came prepared. As the owner of two businesses, she said she understands red tape, and can identify a problem, as she did with a home rule petition that allowed pathways for private roads to become public roads. She also said water resources protection is a priority, and that she would not make false promises. “I humbly ask for your vote,” O’Connell said.
Burns said when he took over as Ward 4 councilor it was a mess up there; people couldn’t drive down Northwest or Granville roads, the repair of both which he called promises kept. He said he served on relationship, response and respect, which leads to results. “I have been so blessed. I grew up in a large family, (and learned) it’s not what you have but what you give.” He also thanked the Department of Public Works, Engineering Department and the Mayor.
After a short break, incumbent Ward 5 Councilor Leslie D. LeFebvre and At-large Councilor John J. Beltrandi, III, who is running this year as a candidate for Ward 5 were next to introduce themselves.
LeFebvre spoke about his 40 years as an aerospace engineer at UTC, where he was in charge of projects, testing and deliverables. He said for the last five years he managed a project engineering group that grew from five to 50 people.
He said when he started on the City Council, his first priority was sewers for his ward, and now has a feasibility study on the table. Roads and stormwater were also on his list. “My biggest key to being successful is teamwork,” LeFebvre said about himself.
Beltrandi began by thanking the hosts and the residents for attending. He said he has been a resident of Ward 5 for 38 years, and will be married for 41 years Nov. 4. He said he has five grandchildren that he has used for political purposes in his ads, to laughter from those gathered.
Beltrandi said as a builder, an employer who pays payroll and real estate taxes, and an at-large councilor for seven years, he has an extensive background. “My experience is there. I think I can represent Ward 5,” he said.
Asked about the “hot topic” of road conditions and whether the city has a good plan in place for projects and maintenance, Beltrandi said that Ward 5 has been a recipient of road projects in the last few years. He said the city’s master plan needs millions of dollars to fund, and is based on priority. “I think the project is moving along well, and is well planned out.”
LeFebvre agreed. “There is a good plan in place. Ward 5 is in pretty good shape,” he said, adding that as the liaison to the DPW, he thinks they have been doing an excellent job.
As for opportunities for economic development in Ward 5, LeFebvre said he would like to see business increased. He said he helped Skyline Trading Company transfer its licenses there, which he believes is a good business for his ward. He said with infrastructure improvement, the city can bring in more business.
Beltrandi said there are opportunities, but the city has been without an advancement officer since Joe Mitchell resigned. He mentioned the empty storefronts on East Main Street, and the new gas station that Big Y will be bringing in.
“We need to be business friendly. We need a city advancement officer, and the council and mayor to invite businesses in,” he said.
Phelon then asked if there were to be a potential change in the golf course, what they would like to see in its place.
Beltrandi said it’s in a residential zone, and condominiums abut the property now. He talked about the ample frontage and the enormous amount of wetlands on the property. “No business is going to go there other than a golf course, other than residential use,” he said.
LeFebvre said he lives right next door, and agreed that residential would come in due to the terrain, and the canal on one side of the property. He said with condominiums right next door, they could build more like they did in Southwick, and they would be very successful.
When asked about their top priority for Ward 5, LeFebvre said “sewers”: He said in speaking to residents, everyone talked about sewers. “The first priority is to start a sewer project in the Shaker Road area,” he said.
“Residents,” answered Beltrandi, adding that it’s very important that residents feel they can reach out to councilors. He said at a recent candidate’s luncheon a resident who had been waiting two years to get a guard rail fixed asked him about it, and he got it fixed in two days. “It’s important to have someone with contacts within City Hall,” he said. He also said he didn’t see sewers happening in Ward 5 anytime soon.
In closing, Beltrandi thanked everyone, and ran down again his years of service to the city, the community, his family, and his eleven years on the Air National Guard. “As a Ward 5 councilor, it’d be important to me to provide people with answers and services. I’d like to do the job,” he said.
LeFebvre said his number one priority is also the residents. He said as a project manager, when someone calls him, he documents it, and forges a path. He said safety is another priority for him, such as more speed limit signs on Shaker Road. He said he helped put in a crosswalk at the bike path, and has asked for flashing lights.
LeFebvre said with his 40 years of experience at UTC, an engineering degree and an MBA, he has been very successful with projects that made budget. He said he is also a proud six-year veteran of the Army National Guard.
“Thank you Ward 5 for the privilege and honor of being your Ward Counselor,” LeFebvre said, and asked to be re-elected so he can continue to serve.
Up next, Ward 6 candidate Jeffrey A. Neece and incumbent William Onyski took turns introducing themselves, both beginning with thank you’s to the hosts of the forum.
Onyski also thanked the Westfield residents, friends and family for coming. He said he is privileged to have been entrusted as the Ward 6 councilor for two terms, and has also served on the Legislative & Ordinance, Personnel and Charter and Rules committee, as well as liaison to Westfield Barnes Airport.
He said since he’s been on the council, he’s worked on sewer projects, the FAA noise ordinance, zone changes, and water runoff. “It’s satisfying to help,” he said.
Neece said he is new to city politics, but has been a ward resident for 34 years, and has “worked everywhere else.” He retired from running nine departments in the city of Chicopee for 60,000 people. He said behind the scenes, he advised the city council in Chicopee.
“It’s time to give back to the city where I live,” Neece said.
Phelon then asked about water concerns in Ward 6, and whether the candidates believe the city has taken the best course of action to provide clean water and seek funds to pay for the costs of filtration of Wells 1, 2, 7 and 8.
Neece said he has a water operator’s license from the state. “I could run the Water Department if I wanted to,” he said. He then asked whether the water problem was solved, and answered, “I think not.”
He said the scientists at University of Massachusetts, Amherst, are saying there are 5,000 PFAS contaminants that exist, and it is not known if they can be tested or filtered out. He said he believes the solution is to connect to another community for another source of water.
Onyski said he believes the city has taken the best course of action. “The Westfield City Council after several votes made the decision to clean the water,” he said. He added that he does not advocate going to another city for water, which opens up a lot of other issues that need to be addressed.
Onyski agreed there should be a Plan B, but the immediate concern is getting the wells filtered. “The city did what they had to do,” he said.
Candidates were then asked about their thoughts on the proposal to exclude development in the north side through a change in zoning.
Onyski said zoning is constantly being looked at in the city, but there is no firm proposal in place. “We need business to grow; we can’t make everything residential,” he said, adding that he’s leery of any massive zone changes. He also said the airport is being set up to be able to accept more business development soon.
Neece agreed that any across the board restrictions on zoning in a ward restricts new growth, and it’s important to keep flexibility. However, he said certain facilities could be restricted.
Asked about solutions to traffic congestion at Exit 3 on the turnpike, Neece acknowledged that it is a problem, pointing especially to truck traffic on the Mass Pike that ends up on Holyoke Road going to Lane’s Quarry. “You can’t totally restrict truck traffic from roads. They have the right to drive the roads,” he said, adding that the city can have a road plan, and suggest alternate routes.
“The problem is not only at the interchange; that’s where it shows,’ Onyski said. He said there is not enough room to get onto the Turnpike, and the city and state looked at putting in a slip ramp access across from Savage Arms, but it didn’t work.
“There is no real easy solution to this,” Onyski said, adding that he’s been looking at it for four years. He said another problem is that the bridge on East Mountain Road is too low. He acknowledged that truck traffic is a problem, not only at the interchange, but throughout the city and Ward 6.
Onyski said his top priorities are water, traffic, and quality of life issues for residents. He talked about the recent tree clearing on East Mountain Road which he’s been working on with the city.
“Although a person allegedly does something wrong, the city needs to go through the proper channels,” he said.
Onyski also mentioned education, which he said hadn’t been mentioned in the forums. “I fully support education,” he said, adding that he supports the Franklin Avenue Elementary School remodel, and then after that Westfield High School. “Good education, good high schools bring people in. It’s very important for residents,” he said.
Neece said his biggest priority is cleaning the water. He said the city has done a great first step with the filtration systems, but doesn’t believe they are safe enough because all compounds won’t be filtered out. He said he can help with the problem, because he has a water operator’s license.
His second priority is infrastructure. He said he wants to see the city increase funds for road improvement every year, and believes he could help get more federal Transportation Improvement Program funding through his experience serving on the Joint Transportation Committee locally.
In closing, Neece thanked residents for educating themselves at the forum. “I feel that I’m a very valid candidate,” he said, referring back to his experience managing city departments in Chicopee. He said his is a new voice with experience, and could bring tools to the city.
Onyski also thanked everybody. He said since August he had personally visited over 1,200 homes in Ward 6. He said he heard a lot of different things, one being that a lot of residents are very happy to live in Westfield. “It’s not all doom and gloom,” he said.
“Please know in all cases, my vote has always been for the best interests of the residents in Ward 6,” Onyski added, before wishing his mother-in-law in the audience a happy birthday.