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Joshua Garcia touts municipal management experience in campaign for mayor of Holyoke

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Joshua Garcia is running for mayor of Holyoke in the 2021 election

Voters in Holyoke, Massachusetts are electing the city’s first new mayor in almost a decade.

The two candidates on the ballot for mayor are Joshua Garcia, who is currently administrator in the town of Blandford, and Michael Sullivan, a six-term at-large City Councilor in Holyoke.

WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief Paul Tuthill spoke with both candidates. Here is his interview with Garcia.

Joshua Garcia

My mother migrated here with my grandmother from the island of Puerto Rico. It was a group of Shriners that brought them here. My mother was a Shriners kid, they went to the island looking for children with special bone conditions. And so we landed here, and of which, where I was born and raised and to, right out of Providence hospital, I grew up in South Holyoke, went to the Holyoke public school system, went on to Westfield State University, got my bachelor's and my master's degree, and had the privilege of taking on opportunities that has equipped me with the experience necessary to be a mayor. So when you ask the question, why do I want to be why I want to run for mayor, the straightforward answer to that is to take care of the community that's taken care of my family. When my mother and my family migrated here, we came with nothing. We were a poor family, we were active participants of the social service community in the city to you know, improve the quality of life for the family. And so it's taking care of my family. And I want to be able to take on a leadership role here in the city, so that we can be sure that these opportunities continue and take care of other families that are, you know, that that that are here looking for a better quality of life.

Paul Tuthill 

So what is it about your background, and your experiences that you believe best qualifies you to be mayor.

Joshua Garcia

So when I got my masters degree, which I have my Masters in Public Administration, I landed a career opportunity at the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission. And that's really where my career in local government kicked off. I was the municipal services manager. And I was working with local governments up and down the Pioneer Valley. Assessing the internal operations, recognizing where inefficiencies were, and putting together reports with recommendations on how they can improve municipal services, and improve quality of life for their residents. And doing that for five years, I land a career opportunity at the town of Blandford as town administrator where I took that experience, and was able to put it into more practice in the management role. And so I've been there for a little over three years. And I know I often hear on the campaign trail Blandford is not Holyoke, no matter how large a community is, and how small a community is, each of the 351 cities and towns in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, follow the same rules and regulations when managing a local government. And so it's my experiences and the knowledge that I've learned in these different capacities. That equipped me with the necessary experience needed to be an effective manager for the city. And although a small town with about a $5 million budget, it's still more experienced than a volunteer city councilor who hasn’t managed a municipal budget at all.

Paul Tuthill 

Holyoke is was one of just a few cities in Massachusetts that showed a population decline over the last decade according to the most recent census. What would you do as mayor to to reverse this trend of of a declining population in Holyoke?

Joshua Garcia

Well, I think, you know, first and foremost, Holyoke is its own brand. And what creates a vibrant community is when people feel prideful in the community they live. And so as mayor, I need to do what I can to manage our resources in a way that helps civically engage our community keeps our community engaged in our local government process among other community development initiatives to cultivate pride. So people feel good about living in our community. Now, I've been knocking on doors, and I've been meeting a lot of new people. Although there's a slight decline, I think, I strongly believe that Holyoke is currently on an uplift. There are people moving into the city already excited about what's already happening here. They like the urban infrastructure that our city offers. They're certainly opportunities with our geographical position where we are in a region where accessible. We have housing is affordable, although that's another discussion, but nevertheless, points always committed to as development comes in to affordable housing. And so we have cheap energy rates that that make us competitive as well. And so these are important elements that are contributing to the greater economic plan for the city of Holyoke. And as mayor, it's going to be important for me to manage the resources that we have to adequately support the departments that are doing the important work. So when we talk about public safety, education, our Office of Economic Development, for example, these departments are very dependent on how well we manage our resources to adequately provide them the support, they need to continue to cultivate this upswing, so that we’re continuing to grow Holyoke, expanding our tax base, and effectively keeping up with the municipal services people expect.

Paul Tuthill 

Let's talk about the public schools, which obviously is something that attracts people to a community, the Holyoke public schools have been in receivership for about six years now, assuming you would like to see that and what would you do as mayor to convince the State Department of Education that it's time to return the local schools to local control?

Joshua Garcia

So it's a transition back to local, there's no question, I don't think any either of the two candidates disagree that we want local controls. Right now, as we speak, thankfully, we do have a receiver and the receiver before him, particularly Dr. Zrrike, that has been very collaborative with our school board. Although currently serving in the on an advisory capacity, we do have an experience working with the receiver collaborating through the benchmarks of which were Leeds's on a path back to local control. So we're going to keep working on that transition plan. It might not feel like it and I think that just communication and transparency is important. And so what I want to do, as chair of the committee collaboratively with my colleagues on the school board, as well as the receiver is to understand what those benchmarks are between now and the next, let's say four years. What are those key benchmarks we need to hit so that we can measure our success and gauge of whether or not we are still on the path to local control? So yeah, no question. We want local control, we’re in receivership for reason, and we just need to do our part to close that gap. And so that we can prove and regain confidence from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, prove to them that we're indeed capable of managing our own school district.

Paul Tuthill 

Do you support building a new middle school, a replacement Middle School, and would it put a burden on on local taxpayers,

Joshua Garcia

I do support that. So the issue is, and this was something I actively advocated for what I was on the school board representing Ward, one, I'm 35. Now I think I was like 23, or 24, at the time, when the school district decided to consolidate, and go into this K to eight model, I think that it was a necessary move, temporary move at that, at the time. And what I often explain to people is, you know, picture, you're an adult, you're you're you have a career, you're you're you have your own house and you you fall you're down and out. So you move in with your parents. And holy Oh, that's what we did when we moved in with our parents, but we never came up with a plan to get back on our feet and get out. So you know, I think we're in a position now where we've cramped, middle school aged kids and buildings that weren't suited for the needs of middle school aged youth. And so I absolutely do agree without a doubt that we do need a middle school environment, what we need to come to an agreement, and it's like we're already moving in that direction, is how that model is going to look like within the book budget parameters available to the city of Holyoke. And from what from what I've been following to date, it looks like the one school school Middle School model is well within the budget parameters of what's available to us, without putting the additional necessary burden to extra burden to local taxpayers.

Paul Tuthill 

What are your priorities for spending the second round of American rescue plan act or ARPA money that a Holyoke will beginning which I believe is in the neighborhood of $17 million?

Joshua Garcia

$14 million or so yeah, before I talk about that second round, I do want to give credit to current acting Mayor Murphy, for doing what he can within the circumstances that he's in to commit the first round. I think there was a lot of need at the moment that just couldn't wait until the next mayor to come in what I have committed funds in this first round differently. Sure, I do think that we should have committed Some sort of merit pay for our first responders. But nevertheless, we do have to give credit to acting Mayor Murphy, for the process he had put forward to commit the first round, I think we have an opportunity in the second round to make up for that, because it is our first responders who still had to come into work and keep up with the public safety needs of our city during the pandemic. And I think that investment is an investment in morale. I think our personnel in our city employees or public safety personnel need to know that their city has their backs. I also want to commit funds to rapid recovery efforts for businesses, you know, businesses are the particularly small ones are the back board, the backbone of our economy. And so there's no question that they were without a doubt, impacted greatly like every other business through this pandemic period. So it's going to be important for me to be sure that these businesses that they know that their local government supports their investment here in the city, so that they can continue to stick around and continue to grow here, in what we're calling the rapid recovery, transition post pandemic period. And lastly, is there's a lot of talk about infrastructure, I do not disagree at all. We have a crumbling infrastructure, more or less, of which in areas that are not adequately supporting our city's growth, I am very thrilled to know that we do have infrastructure money coming down the pipeline from the federal government. So although you know, we can commit some funds, it is $14 million. Although it sounds like a lot of money, it really only takes you so far, but just enough to take care of those immediate emergency needs. And then we can supplement the rest of the work we need to do using that that federal funding coming down the pipeline around infrastructure.

Paul Tuthill 

You've mentioned a couple of times that there currently is, is an acting mayor in Holyoke, because of this, this interim situation, it was decided that the winner of the election will take office on November 15. Is that enough time for a transition that typically takes a couple of months.

Joshua Garcia

There's never enough time for anything, when it comes to these kind of things. You know, it's the reality that we're dealing with, I mean, I think I'm very thrilled to know is the 15th. And not the very next day after Election Day. We're going to do what we can to have an effective and an efficient transition. But this is local government we're talking about, these are the kinds of challenges we're always dealing with So you know, whether or not it's enough time, obviously, we can always use more time. But quite frankly, we really need to hit the ground running right now. Any healthy community across the Commonwealth. This is the time when we start our budget process for fiscal year 23. And I want to be able to start that immediately. So that we're not running behind into what we have to do to put an adequate and effective and efficient budget so that we can keep up with those quality of life moves for fiscal year 23. starting July 1..

Paul Tuthill 

We're in the we're in the closing stretch of the campaign now. Early voting is beginning vote by mail has been available to people for a while, but Election Day is November 2. So focusing on that how what's your what's your message to people who are out to voters, who at this point may be undecided? What's your what's your closing argument?

Joshua Garcia

My closing argument for voters who are undecided, I think I want to share with voters that I understand their position. I grew up here, I bought a home here I'm raising a family here, my kids on the school system here and just like many voters, my wife and I often have the same discussions everybody else has, you know, is this a community where we want to continue to invest? Is this a community where we want to raise our family? Do we should we put our kids in Holyoke public schools or should we ought to district them or put them in private schools and I gotta say, I've been very fortunate enough to have that flexibility of which I can have that conversation with my wife. But I want voters to know that my wife and I we we chose to stay here . We chose to buy our home here and invest here and we chose to put our two nine year old twins in the public school system here because we chose that because ultimately we may you know we were able to make that decision is the best here and I know there are a lot of people who are thinking the very same thing. And so I can't sit here and and blame them for that. I understand May I get the many reasons why people make the decision that they do. But I just want them to know that I hear you. I'm with you. I recognize the quality of life issues that are impacting all of us, I really do think that those quality of life issues are a symptom of a larger problem. And that problem is just simply management. And that's the experience that I have that I can hit the ground running on day one, there's no learning curves when it comes to Joshua Garcia as mayor. And I'm going to work hard to chip away at those issues so that when families are making their decision, or having those conversations to make those decisions, that we get to a point that they can confidently say, we're going to stay here and we're going to keep our children here and our public school system. We're going to keep our business. in Holyoke, we're not thinking about moving or folks from outside of here wanting to move their business here. I want folks to be in a position where they would, they would make that decision without a doubt. So I'm with you, I hear you and I'm very much looking forward to work hard for you so that we can all be in a position where we could be prideful about where we are, who we are, and our presence here in the region.

Paul Tuthill is WAMC’s Pioneer Valley Bureau Chief. He’s been covering news, everything from politics and government corruption to natural disasters and the arts, in western Massachusetts since 2007. Before joining WAMC, Paul was a reporter and anchor at WRKO in Boston. He was news director for more than a decade at WTAG in Worcester. Paul has won more than two dozen Associated Press Broadcast Awards. He won an Edward R. Murrow award for reporting on veterans’ healthcare for WAMC in 2011. Born and raised in western New York, Paul did his first radio reporting while he was a student at the University of Rochester.