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Editorial: For Sheriff Ashe, Opposition and an Opportunity…

Hampden Sheriff Michael Ashe in 2012. (WMassP&I)

Hampden Sheriff Michael Ashe in 2012. (WMassP&I)

By default, almost any NIMBYism should be approached with suspicion. There will always be facilities, services and outlets that are not desirable neighbors. The best we can do is try to place them as equitably as possible to serve the intended population.

Nevertheless, the opposition of Springfield North End residents to the placement of the Western Massachusetts Correctional Alcohol Center, a division of the Hampden County Sheriff’s office, is understandable. Sheriff Michael Ashe was right to heed community opposition and pause the relocation to Wason Avenue in Springfield from the former Geriatric Authority in Holyoke. New bids to house the center will be considered.

Only months ago, fears of the program’s demise were rampant. Evicted from its home on Howard Street, a move up the hill fell apart. Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse helped arrange the temporary home in the Paper City to maintain the program, which treats jail inmates for substance abuse.

The former historic #YWCA building is in line for demolition to make way for MGM #Springfield. #nofilter #spfldgram

A photo posted by Matt Szafranski (@szafranskim) on

Finding a permanent home in the county’s heart, Springfield, proved far more difficult than Ashe expected. The normally fractious, warring North End community—which largely overlaps with the city’s Latino population—dissented, arguing their poor and high-crime neighborhood already bore too many of the city and region’s burden of social services.

Ward 1 Councilor Zaida Luna and some of her erstwhile political adversaries joined forces to oppose the center’s placement in the North End. (WMassP&I)

The scope of this alliance, from establishment Latinos to Ward 1 Councilor Zaida Luna to prominent labor and community activists, earned Rep Carlos Gonzalez and Senator James Welch‘s support.

Nor should Ashe be unqualifiedly faulted. After 40 years in office he has become one of the Pioneer Valley’s political giants, respected both here and in Boston. He has been widely—and in our view, rightly—viewed as a national leader in forward-thinking in corrections.

There is sincerity in his desire to bring the center somewhere less isolated. One of his concerns, according to Masslive, has been a decline in volunteers since moving to Holyoke. That sounds like the social worker who improbably won a Democratic primary for sheriff in 1974.

The downside of this austere reputation is some pols’ tendency toward sycophancy and placation vis-à-vis Ashe, thus opening the sheriff up to unfair criticism that pols must line up to kiss his ring.

Mayor Domenic Sarno (WMassP&I)

Mayor Domenic Sarno (WMassP&I)

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno’s comparison of the North End location to Howard Street, based on his experience running the South End Community Center, was inapt and unhelpful. Earlier this year, the mayor excoriated the Center for Human Development for placing homeless families on lower Belmont Avenue. While CHD and state housing officials were categorically wrong to utilize apartments that did not meet code, Sarno’s complaint was caked in NIMBYism.

Yet, his tone aside, as this blog noted then, Sarno was not wrong to call out the unfair concentration of social services in Springfield that feeds a cycle of poverty and complicates problems further.

While Springfield has had its share of NIMBYism, the city often lacks the resources and political power to stem the flow of services here. When facilities materialize in the suburbs, the resistance gets ugly.

Not to pick on Longmeadow, but a hullabaloo last year over a home for those with traumatic brain injuries—not criminals, drug addicts or sex offenders—was gross. That the controversial Dover amendment, which allows certain educational facilities to shirk local zoning laws, was in play exacerbated the situation.

Neither Ashe’s pause, nor our support of it, means the North End site is inherently wrong. For the center to function and continue its good work, it may need to go somewhere despite community opposition whether in the North End or somewhere else in Springfield. Before that, a full review is in order.

But this is also an opportunity. In the twilight of his career but still held in high esteem, Ashe could spark a broader conversation. Channeling his roots as a social worker, he could help Hampden County face the stark realities of saturating Springfield and to a lesser extent Holyoke with these services and facilities. Some must be in these cities, but we must confront the costs and untenable situation NIMBYism creates for all cities and town in this county.

Even if unfinished upon retirement in 2017, that conversation would be a tremendous legacy for the High Sheriff of Hampden County Michael Ashe.

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