Reminder Assistant Editor
AGAWAM Many residents said they came to last week's mayoral debates at Agawam Middle School looking for a show and they were not disappointed.
Incumbent Richard Cohen and challenger Susan Dawson exchanged personal and professional blows, tossed town documents at one another, and debated over the town's numerous controversial issues.
A lively audience of over 150 people attended the debate, many of which showed their support or disdain for the candidates with either applause or boos each time one spoke.
The debate began with brief opening remarks from the two candidates.
"Our needs have not been met," Dawson said. She added that she is focused on economic development, deliberate town planning, providing services for all, maintaining safe schools and creating a place where small businesses can thrive.
In his opening remarks, Cohen noted his accomplishments throughout his four terms in office and his continued commitment to fiscal responsibility. He said he has produced eight balanced budgets, maintained the lowest tax rate of any surrounding community while also continuing to provide all services.
"I've not made mistakes with your tax dollars," he said.
Questions were then posed by the three-person panel, which inquired about the current state of the Police Patrolmen's Union contract negotiations and the controversial parking ordinance.
Dawson said she believes that the police base pay must be raised. She added that the Teachers' Union contract the only one signed thus far must be looked at as a model for progress.
Cohen responded by saying that negotiations have been difficult with the union but that the patrolmen are not the lowest paid in the area. He added that he must settle contracts in ways that are "equitable for the unions and fair to the tax payers."
In response to the question posed about the validity of the parking ordinance Cohen continued to defend the legislation. However, he added that some mistakes were made with the ordinance and that he has proposed suggestions to the City Council such as shuttle parking for The Big E, exempting the churches from the $200 filing fee and issuing 30-day temporary parking permits for events.
However, Dawson disagreed and said the ordinance "needs to be repealed."
"I don't believe this was ever about public safety but a power play," she said.
The third question posed by the panel prompted an uproar from the crowd. Dawson was asked to further explain the statement made in her opening remarks when she said that the basic needs of the town have been overlooked.
She said Agawam has a problem with small business growth and that there is "no place in town to buy underwear or books."
However Cohen said he disagreed with Dawson's statements. He said there are at least four new businesses coming into Agawam. His statement was met with laughter from many in the crowd.
Speaking over the laughter he added that the "[Office of] Planning and Community Development is so busy that they need another person." But the laughter continued.
"You are really not sure what is happening here Ms. Dawson," Cohen said. "Steve and Barry's will be opening at Christmas and then you will be able to buy your underwear."
A lengthy and detailed series of questions posed by Cohen to Dawson in the latter part of the debates sparked even more response from the crowd. Cohen asked her about the current annual operating budget, her ideas for utilizing these funds and the shift factor that she would be obligated, as mayor, to present to the City Council.
Dawson responded by saying that she did not have the resources to answer the question.
Cohen proceeded to toss a copy of the budget on the table in his opponent's direction.
In response to this action Dawson pushed the documents back at him and said she would not tolerate this "childish behavior and for a man to treat a woman that way is unacceptable."
Cohen's camp booed her, while the Dawson supporters cheered her on.
Nonetheless, the debate continued when Dawson asked Cohen why small businesses are being forced to leave Agawam because of the tax burden.
Cohen responded by saying, "We are not losing business. We are flourishing."
He added that the commercial tax rate has gone down from $27.73 to $25.80 since his administration. Cohen noted the projects underway on Springfield Street, Elm Street and the Ames Plaza.
In the next question posed by Cohen, he asked Dawson how she plans to negotiate with the Police Patrolmen's Union and the other 12 unions without bias after having accepted a $1,000 campaign contribution from the Police Patrolmen's Union.
He noted that he has never accepted campaign contributions from any unions, citing a conflict of interest.
"You knew better than to accept it," he said.
Dawson responded by saying that she has met with union leaders within the Police Patrolmen's Union and has only made them three promises.
"I will treat them with dignity, respect, and I will never throw a punch at their attorney," she said.
However, in Cohen's closing remarks he denied that he ever threw a punch at the lawyer representing the Police Patrolmen's Union at a previous negotiation.
He then said that he and his opponent are friends and even neighbors [on Alexander Drive] but "like two houses on a street, no two houses are alike. The difference between us is that I know the town's finances and know better than to take contributions from unions I have to negotiate with."
In Dawson's closing remarks she said she is concerned that 12 of the 13 union contracts are still unsettled and that Agawam must "create powerful relationships" with neighboring towns.
"The town needs a leader, not a politician," she said. "In the last eight years we've been graced with a great politician and I hope in the next two years to have a great leader. It's time for a change folks."