Illuminating the No’s on Holyoke’s Council Vacancy Sign…
HOLYOKE—Filling a vacant seat is nothing new to veteran city councilors here. Yet, even at-large Councilor Joseph McGivern, the body’s longest-serving member, finds the task of replacing his colleague, Jennifer Chauteauneuf, who resigned earlier this month, a departure from previous times the Council filled a vacancy in its own ranks.
“Every candidate brought something to the mic,” McGivern told WMassP&I. Compared to past vacancies, he felt the process had been different, but largely because the amount of interest from prospective councilors has been “fantastic.”
That large field of “applicants” only complicates the task before councilors and raises the stakes of the selection itself. No choice is likely to alone radically shift the balance of power between the city’s dominant political camps, often reduced, if facilely to New vs. Old Holyoke.
On April 4, Chateauneuf, resigned effective immediately after a long-running feud with one of her critics that escalated to include the police, claims of infringement of the First Amendment and press scrutiny.
Councilors heard from them Monday night, during a special meeting that had originally been scheduled to dispense with financial matters—including appointing an auditor. At their next regular meeting on May 3, the remaining 14 councilors will choose Chateauneuf’s replacement.
The 10 distinct potential replacements, a collage of 2015 candidates, former councilors and political notables, present the remaining members with a choice freighted with multiple dimensions and considerations and which could resonate beyond the appointment itself.
“I’m very impressed by the breadth of the candidates,” said Council President Kevin Jourdain, addressing the chamber at the meeting’s conclusion. “It is a real compliment to the institution that we have so many candidates that have sought to apply.”
James Brunault, Adrian Dahlin, Darlene Elias, Jordan Lemieux and Mimi Panitch sought an at-large seat last year while Anderson-Burgos ran for Ward 6 seat. Former councilors seeking the seat were Anthony Keane, Diosdado Lopez and John Whelihan. Jerome Hobert, a 2012 candidate for state rep, also expressed interest in the seat.
The last time the Council had to a vacancy came in 2009 when it appointed Whelihan to serve out his late father’s term. In his pitch, like other former councilors, Whelihan emphasized his experience with matters that cross councilors’ desks like city finances.
Diosdado Lopez, a former Ward 2 Councilor and the body’s first Latino member, offered similar sentiments about familiarity with the job, “I’m ready to go, I’ve been doing my homework.”
Despite or because of the controversy hovering her departure, Chateauneuf engenders a great deal sympathy among her councilors. Ward 5 Councilor Linda Vacon said, “I thought there would be much more concern expressed for our colleague.”
That was a nerve Keane, a former Ward 3 councilor, tickled, noting both he and Chateauneuf own businesses. “I will represent Jennifer’s interests,” he said.
He somewhat cryptically stated, “I’m here to ask for your vote tonight in front of you all” as opposed to on the phone or in secret. It was unclear to whom that admonition was directed. Keane also promised not to run for reelection in 2017, although interim selections do not always turn out that way.
The fault lines of Chateauneuf’s resignation do not easily fit the political factions here and no Council aspirant has well-defined advantage among either the old political guard or the coalition that propelled Mayor Alex Morse’s rise. Calls for a younger pick may clash with a desire to see a Latino at-large councilor in heavily Hispanic Holyoke. The winner of the most votes among the unsuccessful at-large candidates go up against experience—and relationships with former colleagues.
Mimi Panitch, the Planning Board chair and 9th place finisher in last year’s contest for the Council’s eight at-large seats, tried to thread the needle as much as possible.
Noting that voters directly imbue councilors with power, she made the democratic case for her selection underscoring the votes she had received last year. “There’s no magic number” for election she said. “We have X seats, we go down the list.”
Panitch, who ruefully acknowledged Chateanuef’s departure Monday night as she did earlier this month, dispensed with reciting her resume. Many of her would-be colleagues were familiar with her wonkiness. “There are endless memos,” attached to Planning reports, she said self-deprecatingly.
Others also moved eschewed autobiographical sketches. Elias, who as an at-large candidate and Latina, would satisfy a consideration or two, focused on her vision. “I think it is really important as a city council to be able to and willing to cross boundaries,” namely those of race and language.
Dahlin, the lone twenty-something seeking the seat argued, for bringing in the next generation Holyoke needs to grow and prosper.
“We are going to need to both retain and attract people in their 20’s and 30’s,” he said also noting his listening skills, which was part of his campaign last Fall.
Others like Brunault, a Geriatric Authority member, Hobert and Lemieux, a former firefighter, offered somewhat boilerplate biographical pitches of love for city. However, Brunault probably used his time best of any candidate, touching nearly all dimensions of his persona and connecting his work jobseekers to building the city’s economy.
Anderson-Burgos promised to apply his life experience as a victim of crime and being in recovery to the needs and challenges of everyday Holyokers. “I can relate to a lot of these needs to the people in the city,” he said.
Councilors clearly remain torn with some expressing outright indecision about whom to select. Some, like Vacon, were going back and forth on some components of the situation. “I can hear the argument, ‘who got the most votes?’” but, she observed, “None were elected.”
“We have to consider what the person who is being replaced represented,” she added.
Council sources guestimate Keane, Panitch and maybe Elias have something of an edge, but nothing is certain. Nobody interviewed for this article believed, as of Monday night, any candidate had eight votes. Multiple ballots are expected until somebody has a majority.
However difficult the decision is given the crowded candidate pool—echoing the massive field for Council last year—the interest and diversity of it bodes well for Holyoke’s body politic.
“Never seen so many candidates come forward,” McGivern, the Council’s dean said. “It is good to know this many people care about the city.”
Soon Holyokers will know who gets to apply that concern in Council chambers.