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Analysis: At-large Debate Confirms Springfield Has Some Competitive Races…

AIC/P.O.W.E.R./McKnight Council Debate at Griswold Theater (via Focus Springfield screen capture)

AIC/P.O.W.E.R./McKnight Council Debate at Griswold Theater (via Focus Springfield screen capture)

SPRINGFIELD—There may not be much debating in the mayoral contest with the incumbent resisting public accountability, but the City Council races are far different. At least three at-large debates/forums are planned and the first, last week’s debate at American International College, offered a window into the race, particularly in poise—or lack thereof—among incumbents and the style of challengers.

All five incumbents—Thomas Ashe, Justin Hurst, Timothy Rooke, Bud Williams and Kateri Walsh—appeared alongside challengers Jeffery Donnelly, Jesse Lederman and Kenneth Pooler in a spirited foray into topics such as public safety, the proposed biomass plant on Page Boulevard, MGM and more. Still, the dynamic between Lederman and Williams was the most interesting and incisive.

Challengers Lamar Cook and Alexander Sherman did not attend last Tuesday’s debate.

The debate included questions debate organizers posed and questions among the councilors themselves. Though informative, the inquiries from AIC and the debate’s cosponsor, the McKnight Neighborhood Council, did not particularly unnerve candidates in any meaningful way.

Jesse Lederman (via Twitter/@jllederman)

However, a question on biomass allowed Lederman, a longtime opponent of the plant, an opening. Propelled by a recent court ruling—since appealed—that found against efforts to stop the wood-burning power plant, Lederman drew a distinction with Williams and put him on the back foot.

As Council President in 2008, Williams chaired the single City Council meeting wherein the proposal, put forward by Palmer Renewable Energy, was approved. Among councilors, he has also received the most in contributions from the Callahan family who owns PRE, a point Lederman also emphasized.

Lederman’s campaign has already gotten attention from both the media and particularly the political establishment. Both minor politicos and heavy hitters have taken notice. At the same time, Williams, despite a massive campaign war chest, has been viewed the incumbent most at risk come November 3.

Councilor Bud Williams in 2012 (WMassP&I)

Councilor Bud Williams in 2012 (WMassP&I)

Williams’s meandering defense of both biomass and his votes to support it was in stark contrast to the performance of his fellow incumbents. On other issues, Williams was better and certainly some other incumbents seemed nervous or rehearsed, but neither fact changed the tenor of the debate.

Granted, Ashe and Hurst have opposed the plant all along and Walsh has seemingly disavowed her past support in favor of suspicion, if not outright opposition. Rooke, the only councilor who has consistently supported the plant, remained calm and on-message.

“We don’t regulate air quality,” he asserted in defense of his vote. Though some of Rooke’s chronology about the plant was wrong, his position reflected his tendency to remain consistent in the face of popular opposition.

Williams, by contrast, tried to argue, as he had in recent interviews, that the developers never needed Council approval. However, that flies in the face of court documents wherein PRE’s attorneys argued that events taking place after, not before, the Council’s 2008 special permit approval obviated the need for the Council’s acquiescence.

During the inter-candidate question period, Lederman returned to the $5000 the Callahans had given Williams. Williams said it was over a 20 year period, not, as Lederman claimed, a five year period. Records with the Office of Campaign and Political Finance confirm Lederman is correct.

Lederman volunteers were live-tweeting & fact checking during the debate.

Warning Lederman that he was not going to ride to 36 Court Street on back of Bud Williams, the councilor warned, “You’ve been scolded many times before. If you wanna get it on, we’ll get it on!”

“I’m not running against Bud Williams, I am running for the city of Springfield,” Lederman later replied.

Councilor Justin Hurst in 2013 (via Facebook/Hurst campaign)

Williams did himself no favors when, posing a question to Lederman, he asked about budget minutiae. In a rapid-fire delivery that characterized much of his performance last Tuesday, Lederman rattled off overall budget details, the school department bottom line and the tax rate among other data points. Beaten, Williams merely observed Lederman neglected to name the police department budget as requested.

Odder still, Williams praised Lederman for a couple of things after this altercation.

These exchanges were in stark contrast to others during the candidate question time. Some were softballs, although they reflect the relative détente among incumbents and even some challenges. Only Walsh asked a question of an incumbent, Williams, relating to community walks he has done. Hurst asked Lederman a broad interrogatory about the city’s biggest challenge (education). Rooke asked Pooler what he would do in office (not allow the city to buy Picknelly family properties).

Jeffery Donnelly, in outlining his biomass opposition, offered a personal take as an asthmatic. (via Facebook/Donnelly campaign)

Donnelly, who has a reputation for being a bit out there turned in a reasonable, if halting performance. Offering solid notes on biomass and MGM’s redesign, Donnelly’s only strange moment was about the city’s refusal to let him sell self-published his book door-to-door. Ashe, the chair of the Council’s Public Safety Committee to whom Donnelly posed the question, is not involved in individual applications and could only say he would investigate it.

Ashe asked Pooler a question on qualifications. The former labor union head said representing a group of city workers gave him executive and political experience. But in a nod to considerably lower tension during these questions, both Ashe and Rooke were satisfied with Pooler’s answers and declined an opportunity to respond.

A theme of Pooler’s, corruption and inaction at City Hall, however, did spill over into a more blunt accusation that Walsh’s answers on crime were merely a reiteration of existing programs.

Walsh, unfazed by the criticism, did not slap back or get flustered, “The Council doesn’t always implement, but it does support what is going on.”

That’s not an incumbent panicked about this race.

The next forum for council elections, organized by the Springfield Library, is this Wednesday. The Armoury-Quadrangle Civic Association also has one on October 22.

Courtesy, Focus Springfield.