Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse calls for debates with Anthony Soto, Fran O’Connell

This story originally appeared on MassLive.com on Wednesday, August 5, 2015.

HOLYOKE — Mayor Alex B. Morse has called for debates with the two candidates trying to unseat him in the Sept. 22 preliminary election.

Anthony Soto, the Ward 2 representative on the City Council, and Fran O’Connell, owner of the business O’Connell Care at Home, both said they are eager for such forums to discuss Morse’s record and issues important to voters.

Only the two top finishers in the preliminary election will survive to compete on Election Day Nov. 3. Third place means elimination.

Usually it’s left to challengers to demand debates to get access to and exposure with the incumbent. Morse, in a press release emailed by campaign manager David Grizzanti, said he was taking the step of seeking debates because voters deserved to hear directly from candidates.

Morse asked that community organizations or media outlets try to set up three debates among mayoral candidates in the seven weeks leading to the preliminary election.

“Holyokers deserve a meaningful debate about the issues our city faces, and with the preliminary drawing near, time is running out for that dialogue to happen,” said Morse, who is seeking a third term in the Nov. 3 election.

“Voters are entitled to know who they are supporting and public debates empower folks to hear directly from candidates in public and unscripted forums.

“This race should be based on our ideas, our records, and our visions. I encourage local media and community organizations to hold these debates, and I expect that my opponents will agree to participate. I’m ready for this conversation to start, and I know Holyokers are, too,” Morse said.

Soto said in a text message that he is ready for such an exchange with Morse and O’Connell.

“I would be happy to debate the issues. This city needs more transparency and the debates will be a great way to answer the many concerns voters have on how the city is being run,” Soto said.

O’Connell, in a response through public relations consultant Market Mentors LLC of West Springfield, said: “I look forward to an opportunity to discuss the issues facing the city of Holyoke and the current administration’s record of performance. Our campaign is available to meet with the parties who would be involved to discuss debate details including such things as location, format, dates, etc.”

Likely issues in the mayor’s race include:

–Experience: Morse will argue he is the only candidate with experience being mayor for nearly four years. Soto is in his second term as Ward 2 councilor and O’Connell has never held elected office but founded the successful O’Connell Care at Home in 1987.

–Leadership: O’Connell and Soto are expected to slam Morse for failing to do enough, as School Committee chairman, to stop the state’s take over of the public schools. Morse and state officials have said that was a decision made by the state alone.

–Addressing abandoned and otherwise vacant buildings.

–Should the city adopt the Community Preservation Act?

–What should happen with the 76-year-old Lyman Terrace public housing complex and is pursuit of a $34 million renovation realistic?

–What are the candidates’ plans to bring jobs here? Holyoke’s unemployment rate has been dropping. It was 7.9 percent in June, down from 9.9 percent in June 2014. But Holyoke’s rate remains consistently higher than the state average, which as of June was 4.9 percent.

–The $45,000 separation agreement that Morse made with former city solicitor Heather G. Egan, who resigned as head of the Law Department April 29, 2014. The agreement between Morse and Egan includes a nondisclosure, and they have refused to say why Egan received a payment. Morse said he did what was best for the city. The Republican and MassLive.com outlined the reasons why the separation agreement included a cash payment in a seven-part series, “Port In A Storm.”

O’Connell’s decision to move the headquarters of his own business O’Connell Care at Home from here to Springfield after a dispute with the Morse administration. O’Connell said he was unable to find a suitable location here. Morse said that that’s not what happened and that O’Connell received the “utmost attention from me personally and our economic development team” to find another site here.

–Words that haunt: Remarks incumbents and challengers make can resonate and lead to criticism. Examples:

Morse: He addressed the naysayers who have doubted that $34 million can be secured to renovate Lyman Terrace by saying July 22, “This project’s going to happen, whether people want it to or not.”

O’Connell: In an interview with The Republican and MassLive.com May 1 in which he first announced he would run for mayor, he said: “In all honesty and candor, I really do not want the job. I don’t want the job. I have a wonderful life. My business is doing really well. I have a band. I want to run for mayor because I have a heart-felt need to help my community. I don’t like the direction we’re going at all.”

Soto: He filed this order at the Oct. 7 City Council meeting: “Ordered, that the City Council approve a non-binding public opinion advisory question to be placed on the ballot of the 2015 municipal election asking whether the citizens approve of the City of Holyoke going on record to refuse Saturday mail delivery by U.S. Postal Service.”

Soto said the objective was to help the federal government and the financially strapped post office by having Holyoke go on record as supporting an end to Saturday mail, and possibly in return, have the amount the city gets in funding for Community Development Block Grants (CDBG) increased.

The majority of councilors by voice vote withdrew the order, some questioning why the City Council would wade into a federal issue. That included a piqued Councilor at Large Peter R. Tallman, who sits next to Soto, is employed as a letter carrier for the post office and questioned why Soto never raised the issue with him before filing the order.

The Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce has scheduled debates but they are after the Sept. 22 preliminary election and include candidates in other races. On Oct. 15, debates will be held between the two candidates for mayor and those running for School Committee.

On Oct. 22, debates will be held between City Council candidates and the two candidates running for city treasurer. The location of the chamber debates could be the Holyoke High School auditorium at 500 Beech St. and the times are being determined, a chamber official said.