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2014 prepares area for significant changes

Date: 1/2/2015

EDITOR'S NOTE: With the New Year upon us, the staff of Reminder Publications took a look back and compiled a list of some of the top stories and trends that helped shape the Pioneer Valley in 2014. Feel free to share your thoughts or memories of the past year by either emailing us at and or connecting with us via social media on Facebook ( or Twitter (@TheReminderMA).

MGM Springfield moves in

GREATER SPRINGFIELD – The issue of casino gambling in the Pioneer Valley was perhaps the most divisive issue the area faced in 2014.

MGM, which received the state’s first-ever casino gaming license in June with plans of building an $800 million resort casino in Springfield’s South End, was faced with the possibility of their efforts being for naught.

As part of the legislation, the gaming company was required to reach surrounding community agreements with local communities to help offset additional costs associated with the construction of the resort.

While East Longmeadow and Wilbraham each signed what amounted to the company’s first offer of approximately $1.5 million each in December 2013, Longmeadow and MGM were embroiled in a lengthy and contentious negotiation.

Without an agreement, MGM would not designate the town as a surrounding community, prompting the town to petition the Massachusetts Gaming Commission for that status, which the commission approved. Hampden also petitioned for surrounding community status, but was denied.

After failing to reach an agreement by the state’s deadline, the Longmeadow and MGM went to arbitration, which resulted in a favorable decision for Longmeadow in April, which requested $4.4 million. The town received an $850,000 up-front payment and will see $275,000 annual mitigation payments for 13 years once the casino opens. The agreement also calls for a 2.5 percent inflation adjustment, plus look-back studies.

With agreements in place, the company gained the license, however, weeks later the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court (SJC) announced on June 24 a referendum question sponsored by the citizens’ group Repeal the Casino Deal to reverse the legislation allowing casino gambling would be on the November ballot, sparking months of continued debate.

Longmeadow-based NoCasinoSpringfield worked alongside Repeal the Casino Deal to conduct the local campaign to overturn the legislation, taking aim not only at the casino developer, but at the Massachusetts Gaming Commission itself, questioning the credibility of both entities.

Longmeadow Selectman Alex Grant, active in NoCasinoSpringfield’s activities, called the commission “a pampered lap dog” bankrolled by the casino applicants. He also called into question the decision to reward the license in the wake of New Jersey’s decision to deny MGM a license due to reported connections to organized crime.

Voters supported maintaining the current gaming law by a margin of 60 percent to 40 percent.

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno said the casino project makes up about third of the $2.48 billion in economic development projects in the city. Springfield also announced on Nov. 20 that in addition to 22 new cadets who just graduated, the city would add up to 36 more police officers and 35 firefighters, funded by payments to the city from MGM.

Bishop Rozanski gets a baptism by fire

SPRINGFIELD – The announcement that Baltimore, MD, Auxiliary Bishop Mitchell Rozanski would succeed retiring Bishop Timothy McDonnell was met with much enthusiasm, but the honeymoon period did not last long.

Rozanski was introduced to the Diocese of Springfield on June 19 and installed as bishop on Aug. 12. At his introduction, he told Reminder Publications faith and communication would be key in the transition and the church should be a “catalyst” in the area’s recovery with strong ties to civic leaders.

However, in recent months, the diocese has been called out by a group of its members for lack of communication and movement with regards to the rebuilding of Cathedral High School on Surrey Road, which was heavily damaged by the June 1, 2011 tornado.

McDonnell had announced in March the diocese had reached a favorable settlement with its insurance provider and would also be a recipient of federal disaster relief funds that Congressman Richard Neal helped secure and declared, “We now have the brick and mortar funds to rebuild here on Surrey Road and so we shall.” He also reiterated the importance of collecting donations for the Cathedral High School Tuition Endowment Fund, explaining due to regulations regarding federal funding and the recent insurance settlement, none of those monies can be utilized for this purpose.

On Nov. 6, Rozanski stated in a letter “no clear consensus or recommendation emerged” regarding the future of the school, a move that drew significant criticism from alumni and government leaders, including Sarno and Neal. The diocese, under the direction of Monsignor John Bonzagni, the judicial vicar and director of pastoral planning, has engaged in a process to determine the future of the school, which is currently taking up residence in the closed Memorial School in Wilbraham. He said an announcement would be made by Christmas.

A group called the Coalition for Cathedral Action has taken up the cause of keeping the school open with the intent of rebuilding on the Surrey Road site, collecting pledges for the endowment fund and hosting standouts and rallies, including one on the steps of Springfield City Hall on Dec. 16. After that rally, Mark Dupont, secretary of Communications for the diocese, announced the church would not meet its self-imposed deadline, drawing further ire from Cathedral supporters.

Bankruptcies, ethics called into question in local races

GREATER SPRINGFIELD – Controversy was the name of the game in several local political races in 2014.

During state Sen.-elect Eric Lesser’s campaign for the 1st Hampden and Hampshire District seat, the young Longmeadow native was on both sides of questions related to ethics.

Democratic candidate Timothy Allen called into question his opponent’s residency and his campaign fundraising tactics in advance of the primary. Allen, a Springfield City Councilor first questioned whether Lesser was a legal resident of Longmeadow, a matter which the Ballot Law Commission investigated, coming to the conclusion he was. Later, Allen called for a cap on donations from outside of Massachusetts of $5,000, a challenge in which Lesser, a former White House staffer, declined to take part.

Lesser eventually edged Allen in a seesaw September primary election by less than 200 votes.

Prior to the November general election, it was Lesser’s opponent, Republican Debra Boronski, whose ethics came under fire.

Boronski’s statement of financial interests to the Massachusetts Ethics Commission was missing several requirements and needed amending. The former East Longmeadow selectman and president of the Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce was also forced to address issues regarding her marital status with East Longmeadow Board of Public Works member Daniel Burack with whom she resides due to disclosure rules regarding spousal income and affiliations.

While several publications, websites and directories listed her as Debra Boronski-Burack, she denied it, telling Reminder Publications, “Anyone anywhere that has documented that I’m married is in error.”

Lesser ultimately won with 50 percent of the vote, while Boronski received 45 percent.

In the campaign for Boronski’s seat on the East Longmeadow Board of Selectman, the bankruptcy filing made by former Selectman Peter Punderson, which was first reported by Reminder Publications, was a topic of much discussion in his run against political newcomer William Gorman.

Punderson filed for bankruptcy on Jan. 11 after Scantic Valley Oil, LLC, of which he was part owner, failed. Weeks prior, his former business partner Charles Richard filed a motion of assessment of damages and entry of final judgment in which he sought $202,800 from Punderson.

Punderson claimed he was the victim of embezzlement, which led directly to the failure of his business, but the issue haunted him throughout the campaign, including at a March 27 debate that devolved into a shouting match between he and former Selectman Joseph Townshend.

Gorman easily won the election 1,005 to 471.

Punderson was not the only politician to have his personal finances called into question.

During his run for the state House of Representatives’ 12th Hampden District, Robert Russell, a Wilbraham selectman, saw his 2011 bankruptcy come under scrutiny. Through his 2011 Chapter 7 filing, he was able to clear more than $500,000 in debt, including credit cards through USAA Federal Savings Bank Credit Card Services, Chase Bank USA, Ann Taylor and Sears with $6,106 going to unsecured creditors.

The former owner of 60 Minute Photo blamed changing technology for his company’s downfall, and also took aim at his opponent, state Rep. Angelo Puppolo Jr., blaming Puppolo, a former Springfield City Councilor, and other members of the council at the time for preventing his sale of the property on which the former Russell’s Restaurant stood.

Russell claimed to have a $700,000 deal in place that would have settled his debts, including a $220,000 mortgage he took out on the on the property, but the council blocked it. Puppolo said the council’s decision was based on neighborhood feedback and the property issue had little to do with Russell’s current financial situation.

Puppolo won re-election, taking 65 percent of the vote.

New leadership in the Hampden County Courthouse

SPRINGFIELD – Anthony Gulluni, a 33-year-old Forest Park resident, took on a crowded field of Democrats for Hampden County District Attorney (DA), and was the runaway winner in the Sept. 9 primary election, receiving 44 percent of the vote to defeat Brett Vottero, a former Hampden County assistant district attorney and assistant U.S. attorney, Holyoke defense attorney Shawn Allyn and Hal Etkin, also a former assistant district attorney and director of the Western Massachusetts Police Academy, for the position.

Because there were no Republican or Independent candidates, the primary election decided the successor of Mark Mastroianni, who vacated the position to accept an appointment as a federal judge at the U.S. District Court in Springfield.

Until the election, former first assistant James Orenstein, who was appointed by Gov. Deval Patrick, filled the DA’s seat.   

Gulluni, who had been serving as an assistant district attorney in the Hampden County Office, has since formed a transition team and has reportedly notified members of the staff of his plans regarding personnel.

Vottero, who finished second with 28 percent of the vote, told Reminder Publications he would not run for the office again after his second failed attempt. Allyn was non-committal on his future plans.

While Gulluni’s race was over early, another campaign for a prominent position in the Hampden County Hall of Justice went down to the wire.

Political newcomer and independent candidate Suzanne Seguin defeated a prominent Western Massachusetts Democrat in state Sen. Gale Candaras to win a term as Register of Probate in an extremely tight contest that went past election night into the following morning.

Seguin, the interim head of the Probate Department since Thomas Moriarty resigned mid-term in 2012, touted herself during her campaign as an experienced worker within the Hampden County Hall of Justice and not a politician. She managed to sway voters with a modest budget compared to Candaras’ war chest.

With a slim 50-vote lead and 99 percent of precincts reporting and Hampden and Brimfield still outstanding at 1:04 a.m. on Nov. 5, Seguin declared victory, but her opponent declined to concede until all precincts were in.

Seguin was eventually declared the winner by 278 votes. Candaras contemplated a recount, but eventually decided against it.
Local school districts continue PARCC debate

GREATER SPRINGFIELD – After local districts were selected by the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) to participate in pilot testing of the new Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) this spring, the school committees were charged with determining whether they would commit to continuing the testing during the 2014-2015 school year, the pilot’s second year.

The pilot was designed, according to Massachusetts officials, to identify issues and problems related to the test and not to assess student achievement. Following the 2014-2015 school year, the DESE will vote as to whether or not PARCC will be adopted in Massachusetts, taking into consideration feedback from the school systems.

Opinions were split throughout the Bay State and Western Massachusetts was no different.

In June, the Longmeadow and Hampden-Wilbraham school committees voted unanimously to continue its use of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) tests until after DESE makes a determination on whether to adopt PARCC assessments to replace MCAS in the fall 2015.

East Longmeadow School Committee members, meanwhile, took more time to come to a consensus, agreeing in September that students in grades 3 through 8 would participate in paper and pencil assessments, opting out of computer-based testing.

Rail car company to comes to Springfield

SPRINGFIELD – Chinese rail car manufacturer CNR MA announced on Oct. 22 the company would construct its first North American facility on the grounds of the former Westinghouse plant on Page Boulevard, marking the city’s largest non-casino related economic development in recent memory.

The company was selected by the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority to construct 52 new Orange Line cars and 132 Red Line cars in its 150,000-square-foot factory, which will be built in the fall of 2015.

Gov. Deval Patrick said the new $50 million plant would create 150 permanent jobs and 100 construction jobs, while Secretary of Transportation Richard Davey said he believed the plant could “seed” other manufacturing ventures in the city and region.

Putnam Vocational and Technical Academy, the Regional Employment Board, Springfield Technical Community College, Holyoke Community College and Western New England University will work together to develop workforce readiness programs.

Thorpe ousted as Board of Selectmen chair

EAST LONGMEADOW – In an unprecedented move, the East Longmeadow Board of Selectmen voted to remove Selectman Angela Thorpe as chair mid-term.

Gorman, who nominated Thorpe for the position after he won a three-year term on the board in the April Town Election, suggested a motion to reinstate Selectman Paul Federici, who had previously served as head of the board, as chair.

Gorman took issue with Thorpe’s leadership, claiming the board was unable to complete business in a timely manner and criticized her handling of personnel matters, including hiring for open positions and corrective measures.

He also cited alleged instances of impropriety, including an incident at the Country Side Store and a complaint at his home from the animal control officer, who claimed Thorpe attempted to receive a discount for her cat at a local animal hospital, both of which he said he investigated. He added he also witnessed Thorpe utilize her issued badge to receive professional courtesy.

Thorpe denied the claims and said she was confident Gorman’s investigations into the allegations would come up empty.

She eventually accepted the board’s nomination as clerk after abstaining from the vote, but reiterated her belief that it was not the position she should fill.

Longmeadow selectmen, town manager do battle

LONGMEADOW – Stephen Crane’s one-year performance review was the battleground for the Longmeadow town manager and his Select Board in June as the two sides butted heads over the roles and responsibilities and the level of control the board should have over the town’s chief executive officer.
Crane received primarily poor reviews from the selectmen, many of who cited lack of communication and willingness to take direction from the board as points of emphasis. Crane, meanwhile, defended his position that the board’s supervisory role over him extends only to matters of policy and his day-to-day handling of town business was not subject to their scrutiny.

Crane was supported by former Charter Commission members who earlier in the year penned a letter criticizing the board for overstepping its bounds and former commission Clerk Rebecca Townsend reiterated those concerns to Reminder Publications shortly after the performance review, which was broadcasted live for the public.

Crane received a 4 percent raise and the board agreed to have 30-, 60- and 90-day evaluations to determine the level of improvement Crane has exhibited in areas they deemed unsatisfactory. However, Crane had not received any supplemental reviews for well over 90 days. The board did not address the subject again until its Nov. 17 meeting and the process is still ongoing.

Meanwhile, Crane has sought work elsewhere. He was a finalist for the town administrator position in Tynsgboro, closer to his native Lowell, but was not selected by that town’s Board of Selectmen.

Selectmen fumble Recreation Department complaints

EAST LONGMEADOW – Two members of the East Longmeadow Board of Selectmen may have violated Open Meeting Law when handling disciplinary action of town employees, but no formal complaint was ever made.

At the board’s at its Aug. 1 meeting, then-board Chair Angela Thorpe and Selectman William Gorman conducted an executive session hearing to address complaints regarding Recreation Department employee Timothy Larocca without him present, an action that raised concerns from Town Employees’ Union President Debbie Milliken.

Larocca and Recreation Director Colin Drury were both the subject of complaints regarding his office’s handling of a private soccer clinic run by East Longmeadow High School girls soccer coach Jennifer Serafino.

Massachusetts law states the subject of an executive session disciplinary hearing has the right to be present, be accompanied by counsel and have a record of the session. Milliken told Reminder Publications Larocca, through the union’s attorney, requested the hearing be moved because he was at an out of town training, but the board declined.

Drury opted to have his hearing in open session, but objected to the process, stating he was never informed of the complaints against him, a violation of his employment contract.

The hearing was rescheduled and eventually the complaints against Larocca and Drury were withdrawn. Larocca left the Recreation Department for another opportunity, while Drury has remained as director, having recently been elected president of the Pioneer Valley Park and Recreation Association.

According to Massachusetts law, an Open Meeting Law complaint must first be submitted to and addressed by the public body in question, in this case the Board of Selectmen. If the complainant is not satisfied with the response, he or she can then pursue further action with the Attorney General’s Office. The board did not address any such complaints.

HWRSD considers further consolidation

WILBRAHAM – The Hampden-Wilbraham Regional School Committee recently decided to allow its Middle School Task Force (MSTF) to continue exploring the option of one regional middle school, doing away with the current model in which each town has its own school.

Superintendent of Schools M. Martin O’Shea told the School Committee in October the 2014-2015 school year enrollment in the middle schools was 744 students and the projected enrollment for the 2020-2012 school year is 564 students, based on current K-5 enrollment, according to data released by the New England School Development Council.

After several meetings and examinations of both buildings, O’Shea made a recommendation to move forward in December to the MSTF, a message was delivered to the School Committee and approved. O’Shea stated at the MSTF’s Dec. 4 meeting that the district would also save between $675,000 and $1.2 million from personnel at a unified regional middle school.

Marc Ducey, School Committee and MSTF chair, said both towns would need to approve of changes to its regional agreement.
Longmeadow residents fight for free full-day kindergarten

LONGMEADOW – Residents for Equality in Kindergarten Education in Longmeadow, a citizens’ group headed by resident Stephanie Jasmin, called for the addition of $407,459 to the school department’s fiscal year 2015 (FY15) budget to fund free full-day kindergarten for the community at the May 12 Annual Town Meeting, but the motion was shot down by voters.

The School Committee had voted to do away with the previous kindergarten system, which included a lottery and cost of more than $4,000 per student in order to offer full-day kindergarten to all interested for $3,000 per year, but Jasmin’s group asserted the full-day option should be financed by the town.

Jasmin suggested the money to fund the program could come out of the $1.1 million Free Cash fund.

Town officials claimed the augmentation of the school budget would result in cuts to other budgets and programs offered by the town. Town Manager Stephen Crane also noted that use of free cash for recurring expenses would violate the town’s budgeting policy.

Following the Town Meeting, Jasmin blamed “misinformation” for the failure of her budget amendment and vowed to continue to fight the school district’s “two-tiered system,” that she said creates “a divide between the haves and the have-nots.”