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Mayoral candidates to debate on hot button issues

Date: 9/8/2009

By Katelyn Gendron

Reminder Assistant Editor

WESTFIELD -- Four candidates are jockeying for the right to oust incumbent Mayor Michael Boulanger from the corner office this election season.

Boulanger will face City Councilor Daniel Knapik and Westfield residents Gaetana Aliotta, Robi Fortier and Daniel Szafran in the preliminary election on Sept. 22. The candidates will showcase their talents at a debate hosted by the Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce on Sept. 15 at the Athenaeum.

Boulanger told Reminder Publications he's focused on his work as mayor and views the debate as a forum to spread knowledge of the city's progress over the past two years.

"I just come to work everyday and do the best job I can," he said. "I like serious challenges [and] really would like to continue to work toward the goals I set [during my campaign] two years ago."

Boulanger added that he believes the city has made significant progress throughout his term including improving relations with Westfield State College and bringing the institution downtown via its art gallery and the planned student housing. He noted that other downtown improvements include plans for a Barnes & Noble, Starbucks and multi-modal transportation center.

Boulanger added that commercial and industrial growth continues with the establishment of a Home Depot and Target distribution center.

He said the most challenging aspect of his position is financing the city's operations. Boulanger noted that the economic downturn and cuts to state aid created unique challenges for the fiscal year 2010 budget process earlier this year.

"Money is always a challenge so that's a given," he said, adding that other challenges include ensuring industrial growth, infrastructure repairs, maintaining services and accountability at City Hall.

Boulanger noted that despite financial woes, he has been able to boost the city's stabilization fund from $220,000 for $3.6 million.

He said he hopes to continue his work in the corner office even with the knowledge of challenges ahead.

Knapik explained that he does not agree with Boulanger's fiscal management, however.

"Part of my message is that the fiscal situation we're in today was directly a result of the mayor failing to work with the city council, department heads and employee unions to prepare our city financially for what in all likelihood is more mid-year cuts and even less state aid in fiscal year 2011," he said.

"The mayor has prepared two full year budgets -- both of which were prepared with no input from the [City Council] Finance Committee -- resulting in a budget in fiscal [year] 2009 that was under-funded by nearly $1 million and the budget for fiscal [year] 2010 that stripped all the expense accounts of over $4 million, essentially setting up a situation where we can pay salaries but not fuel for our vehicles, repair our roads or heat our buildings," Knapik continued.

"The city council, using its ability to cut the budget, corrected the shortfall in the FY 2009 budget and required the mayor to appropriate the money we cut to the school department in order to minimize impact to our children ... My message is real simple: we cannot afford another two years of inexperience or 'go it alone' management styles," he said. "I have the municipal experience and business background to prepare our city for the future."

Knapik added that he hopes to speak about several of the other hot button issues at the upcoming debate, including the redistribution of elementary school students in light of the Moseley Elementary School closure and the transfer of students out of Juniper Park Elementary School.

He said he will continue with his door-to-door campaign -- having already tallied 1,000 doors -- with a goal of knocking on 2,500 doors prior to the election.

"If a candidate can't make the effort to get to the residents, then they shouldn't be running for mayor," Knapik added.

Aliotta explained that her campaign platform is focused on collective reasoning and problem solving in government.

"There's so many things that we can do [to improve life in Westfield] but I don't feel that the networking or communication for change is happening," she said. "When you look at our town, how has it changed in [the past] two years? Do you see anything different in the past four years?"

Aliotta explained that she does not believe the current downtown redevelopment plan will be followed and that other projects such as the Columbia Greenway Rails to Trails Project has also been put on the back burner. She said, if elected, she would work collaboratively with various local businesses and organizations to ensure that downtown redevelopment occur.

"I have a proven record of seeing the problem and doing something about it," Aliotta said. "I started the Cancer House of Hope in Westfield from an idea and understanding the needs of cancer survivors, [as one myself], I was able to form a coalition ... and got the House going. It takes skill and cooperation and action to get things done."

Aliotta said that if elected she will also focus her efforts on school dropout prevention and work with local, state and federal officials to improve school facilities.

"I'd like to build the morale of public officials and schools so that we hall have one mission and are on the same page," she explained.

Fortier said he's chosen to run for mayor because he's "doing what the people have been asking for all along: getting rid of the good old boys and [bringing] fresh ideas [to City Hall]."

He explained that since losing his job as a shipping manager several months ago, he's become cognizant of the greater need for change.

"I've had the luxury of losing my job and my career so I've gone around just listening to what everyone is complaining about," Fortier said.

"There's thousands of opportunities for the college kids at Westfield State [and] there are a lot of people fighting the growth of the college or the kids coming to [live] downtown," he continued. "[They're worried about having] 1,000 drunken college kids downtown [but] if we can control the class of kids that are going to the college we won't have that problem."

Fortier said that if elected mayor he'd work to reduce municipal spending and put money back into education. He added that he'd also focus on working with local businesses and organizations such as Noble Hospital.

Szafran could not be reached for comment by press time.

The Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce Preliminary Election Debate for mayoral and City Council Ward 2 candidates will take place in the Lang Auditorium of the Athenaeum, 6 Elm St., on Sept. 15. The Ward 2 forum will begin at 6:30 p.m. followed by the mayoral forum at 7 p.m.