SPRINGFIELD Before the forum sponsored by the Armory Quadrangle Civic Association on Wednesday night, Mayor Charles Ryan and City Councilor Domenic Sarno tried to see how to best use the single microphone in front of them. They huddled together and spoke.
Seeing two reporters in the front row, Ryan said with a smile, "Write this down: we agreed on no mics and little else."
Although intended as a joke, the quip indeed was prophetic. Although both men agreed they wouldn't support a change of the city's charter to include a city manager, they didn't care for the performance of School Superintendent Joseph Burke and requiring the residency of city employees would help Springfield, they clashed on a number of issues.
The standing room only crowd in the atrium of the Classical Condominiums heard the two men crystallize their stands on a variety of issues during the hour of questions.
Sarno is resting much of his campaign on the issue of public safety. He repeated at least twice the same question he has used in other public statements: "Do you feel safer now than you did two years ago?"
Sarno's catch-phrase for the evening was "boots on the street." He once again pledged to hire 50 police officers if he is elected and tied the economic development of the city to safe and clean streets.
Ryan reviewed the progress the city has made since he became mayor about three and half years ago and the condition it was in. He said in his opening statement people "have to focus on fact." Those facts include that Springfield is the fourth largest city in New England and has the second largest school district.
It's also important to remember, according to Ryan, the previous administration was "a total abject failure."
When asked about economic development for the next two years that provide opportunities for the city's youth and possibly stem the 51 percent drop-out rate Ryan said he was optimistic because "the fundamental perception is [Springfield] is an honest community run by honest people."
Right now there are $375 million in private funds invested in projects in the city, Ryan said. He mentioned the razing of the former Chapman Valve in Indian Orchard to create a new industrial park will follow the demolition of the York Street Jail.
Developments such as these are going to create needed jobs and increase tax revenue, he added.
Sarno's answer centered on crime. He said if the city is "clean and safe, the sky's the limit." He also said that he would hire an environmental business development director to help make Springfield a model green city.
When asked if the Finance Control Board (FCB) restricted the role of mayor, both men said no. Sarno said he looked forward to an orderly transition back to life without the FCB.
"We need to start moving and stand on our own two feet," he said.
He charged the efficiencies that have been put in place have resulted in little real savings and that too much money has been spent on "Boston attorneys and consultants."
Ryan said the FCB had more impact on the role of the City Council than the mayor. Addressing Sarno by name, Ryan said the City Council had a "co-responsibility" of the events that led to the fiscal collapse of the city.
Ryan noted that under his guidance, he instituted linking the payment of property taxes with the granting of licenses. When the Board of License Commissioners told liquor license holders they would have to pay their taxes or lose their licenses, the city raked in $2 million in two weeks. Ryan pointed out that one of Sarno's supporters was among that group and paid the city $600,000 in cash in order to keep his license.
Sarno clearly chafed at the exchange asked for time for a rebuttal. Although he didn't get one, he took time during the answer of the next question to remind Ryan the city suffered millions of dollars in unexpected cuts in March 2003 from Governor Mitt Romney and the mayor devises the budget not the City Council.
Clearly wanting the opportunity to rebut as well, Ryan prefaced the answer of the following question to note that all Massachusetts communities were cut by Romney but "no one collapsed [but Springfield]."
Ryan said there has been no money in the city's bank account since 1988 and there was a minus $57 million balance in the city's free cash account when he took office. Now there is a fund of $17 million.
When asked about plans for the rehabilitation of the South End, the river front and Main Street, Ryan said the river front has been underdeveloped in the past and noted the River's Landing project. He said the city will be successful with the Court Square Hotel project and the redevelopment of the Federal Building. The city is working on a new parking garage and has allocated funding to re-open the Pynchon Steps that would connect Chestnut with Dwight Streets.
Sarno said the Court Square Hotel was "a missed opportunity for this administration" possibly referring to the impasse between the city and the Picknelly family over the payment of back property taxes on the building.
He wants to see the Hollywood section of the South End "opened up" with more demolition and is interested in a "top family attraction," such as an aquarium, to open on the river front. He also said he would like to raise the water level in the Connecticut River through the locks on the river to encourage more recreational used.
In summing up, Sarno said the city was at a crossroads and the issue is "not where we've been, but where we're going." He said he was here to "fight for the little guy" and that his administration would be about inclusion.
Ryan used an analogy of picking a surgeon and asked audience if they would pick the doctor with experience or someone walking down the hall in a white coat.
"You would go with someone who had really done it," he said.