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Candidates meet at debate

(Left) Domenic Sarno. (Right) Charles Ryan. Reminder Publications photos by G. Michael Dobbs
By G. Michael Dobbs

Managing Editor

SPRINGFIELD The 90-minute debate between incumbent Mayor Charles Ryan and City Councilor Domenic Sarno Thursday night may have set some of the general themes for the contest.

For Ryan, his experience and accomplishments of his two terms were cited more than once. For Sarno, his main talking points that he would repeat were that Springfield is at a crossroads and its budget priorities should be "cops and kids."

Ryan hammered several times at Sarno for his role in creating the fiscal crisis the city faced at the end of the Albano Administration. Sarno repeated a statement the city hasn't a plan to repay the $30 million it has been loaned by the state.

The city's first mayoral debate was conducted at the Rebecca Johnson School in Mason Square and was sponsored by the New England Black Chamber of Commerce. The format included a chance for each candidate to have opening and closing remarks, answer and rebut questions posed to them by a panel and by the audience.

Attorney Jamel Adkins Sherif moderated the event and the panel included Kamari Collins, Nathan Davis and Malcolm Ivy. Many of their questions concerned racial issues, economic development and solving the city's problems of poverty and violence.

There was an audience of about 100 people in the school auditorium. Before the debate started several candidates for City Council and School Committee campaigned among the crowd and there was a large group of police supervisors protesting the lack of a new contract. Out of the 29 municipal unions, the police supervisors union is the only one left working without a contract. Once the debate started the picketers brought their signs into the auditorium and stood in a single line in the back holding them.

Both Police Commissioner Edward Flynn and Deputy Chief William Fitchet attended the debate.

Although both men were polite and affable to one another, neither was afraid to attempt to make a point at their opponent's expense.

In his opening statement, Ryan spoke of the mismanagement of the Albano Administration that resulted in the city's fiscal crisis. He noted that 253 municipal employees were laid off with the approval of the City Council in 2003, which included Sarno.

Sarno said that people often asked him why he is running for mayor. He said it's because the city is losing young families and the middle class and because citizens don't feel safe. He posed the question "Do you feel safer now than two years ago?" several times to the audience throughout the debate.

Sarno thanked Ryan for his "stewardship of the city." He said, though, "It's time to pass the torch."

Issues of race were brought up by several of the panel. When asked if the two candidates believe the city is racially divided and how they would address it, Ryan noted that many of the racial situations in the center of the city are reported on by people who have left Springfield.

"We have a long ways to go," Ryan said. "Racial division on the basis of race is the curse of America."

Sarno recounted that he went to the racially integrated High School of Commerce and played sports with students of other races. He said that people need to be treated with respect and that we have to have a better understanding of one another.

When asked about the perceptions of racial inequality in the city and what he can do about it, Ryan said, "All I can do is be myself. I live my life in a simple way and I conduct myself in that way."

He asked the audience to look at the people he has hired or appointed and said the city needs the "cream of the crop."

Sarno said that, as the executive director of the South End Community Center, he "leads by example" and has a staff of nearly all African American and Latinos. He said there has been a pattern in the Ryan Administration with the controversy over remarks made by Ryan's former Chief of Staff Michelle Webber and the complaints of eight employees who charge that racism exists in City Hall.

Sarno recently called for a Department of Justice investigation into the Ryan Administration over the complaints of the eight employees. He did not allude to this statement during the debate.

As mayor, Sarno said he would bring his reputation for inclusion to the office.

When asked how he would address crime in the city, Sarno said he would add 50 police officers to the department and create a "flex squad" to attack the root causes of gang and youth violence.

In his rebuttal, Ryan said the city needs leadership capacity to better address the issue, but more importantly needs additional funding.

"It's all about generating money," he said. "We don't have the resources."

With the recent news story that Springfield is sixth in the nation in child poverty rates, the candidates were asked what they would do about the level of child poverty.

Sarno said that education is the key and the city must make an "investment in cops and kids."

Addressing his role in the events that plunged the city into a financial abyss, Sarno spoke about his responsibility as a City Councilor. He said under the Plan A form of government with a strong mayor the government created in part by Ryan in 1961 the council can only approve the budget proposed by the mayor and certified by the state's Department of Revenue.

Ryan fired back with one of sharpest exchanges of the night. "Domenic, you were asleep at the wheel," he said.

Saying, "this city hasn't had a penny in the bank since 1989," Ryan charged that Sarno "just sat there."

Ryan added that when former Gov. Mitt Romney made cuts in the city's budget during the middle of a fiscal year by $4 million the city had no reserves to cover that loss.

"We collapsed. No other city in Massachusetts collapsed," Ryan said.

When asked about why Worcester and not Springfield has seen millions of dollars in biotech industry investment, Ryan said the city had been out of the economic development business for at least 10 years when he took office. He said that with the incompetence in City Hall, "anyone serious with serious money gave Springfield a wide, wide berth."

Ryan then ticked off a list of business projects including the new Performance Food Group facility, the $14 million development of the former Basketball Hall of Fame, the plan to convert the former Chestnut Middle School into market rate housing and an expansion of Baystate Medical Center as some of the projects that make up almost $400 million in new investment in the city in the last year and a half.

In his rebuttal, Sarno said that he condemns the people in past administration that did wrong and that he would "dangle some carrots" to entice new businesses whether high tech or "green" to the city.

The next question also addressed an economic development issue and that was the "brain drain" from the city and the lack of high end and technical jobs.

Sarno said that "clean and safe streets and quality public school" were important to the city's economic well-being. He said he would be inclusive and was about change.

"I'm looking for new initiatives," he said.

Ryan noted there are 500 jobs at Baystate Health and several thousand jobs in the area "begging the people." He announced Gov. Deval Patrick would be in Springfield next week to discuss a new partnership between the city and state for workforce development.

Both men agreed on the need for more after school programs for young people, although Ryan reminded the audience that new funding was the key to making that happen. And both candidates noted the progress the Old Hill Housing Initiative has in building 100 new homes in the neighborhood for first-time low-income homebuyers.

They clashed on the question of casinos. Sarno doesn't want one in the city, but as mayor he wants to be at the negotiating table to ensure Springfield gets its share of the local hosting fee.

Ryan's anti-casino stance is well known and noted that Sarno didn't address part of the question on what his plan would be to manage the social ills that might come with a casino.

When asked how either man would prevent Springfield from a similar kind of fiscal emergency in the future Ryan said, "The only way to prevent it is to get the right leadership."

"We're not going to get a second chance," he added.

Ryan then suggested the city needs a deputy mayor whose job would be to monitor the city's financial situation in the same way Phillip Puccia did in his time as executive director of the Finance Control Board.

Sarno said the city is living on "borrowed time and a credit card" and claimed with all of the cuts and efficiencies, the city has made very little financial progress. He said the city has no plan to pay back the $30 million it has used from the $52 million loan fund set up by the Legislature.

He said he would manage the city with a "tight financial team" and help from the Department of Revenue.

The next debate will be Oct. 17 at 7 p.m. at the Classical Condominiums at 235 State St.