A Fifth of Hampden: Bartley Argues Council Experience Will Translate…
A Fifth of Hampden is a series of profiles of candidates for Holyoke’s Next Rep
HOLYOKE—In the recent past, before State Rep Aaron Vega announced his retirement from the state House of Representatives, David Bartley, a city councilor here, had also expected to retire. After a decade on the municipal legislature from Ward 3, he was prepared to pack it in and ostensibly focus on his law practice. The opening of the seat his father once held was too tempting.
Should Bartley retire from the Council next year, he will have survived a decade in a changing city. Taking office the same year Alex Morse became mayor, Bartley has often clashed with him. Many reform-minded people who differ with the mayor have also tangled with Bartley. Yet, his family history in politics and hewing to a more old school line makes him a contender in a three-way race.
“I was just going to walk into the sunset, fade away. I’m proud of what we did on City Council,” he said in a recent interview. “But when this opportunity opened up, I couldn’t say no.”
Bartley is the third of the candidates seeking Vega’s 5th Hampden House seat. Also running are Pioneer Valley Planning Commission public affairs manager Patrick Beaudry and Vega’s aide Patricia Duffy. Unlike Beaudry and Duffy, Bartley’s entered the race after the dawn of COVID-19. There was no kickoff and, aside from virtual events, very few public events he could attend.
However, in Bartley’s corner are many avowed Morse critics and conservative voters generally—he frequently retweets pro-life material on Twitter. Plus, he has something familial. Bartley’s like-named father held this seat two generations ago and served as Speaker of the Massachusetts House. He was later president of Holyoke Community College and remains well-regarded among Democratic circles.
The younger Bartley worked for the old civic group Springfield Central and the Brightwood Development Corporation. He later went to law school and started his own practice. He ran for state senate in 1994 and in a 2013 special election losing in the primary and general election respectively.
In an interview at his storefront office on Route 5, Bartley concurred with his opponents about many of the city’s attributes, especially its diversity. All also agreed that transportation and school funding were the top issues for the city.
“I understand the funding is kind of in question due to the pandemic,” Bartley said of the Student Opportunity Act. It reallocated school funding to the benefit of communities like Holyoke. “But ultimately, it’s my opinion that’s going to come around, that is going to really bolster Holyoke.”
However, some suggestions that Bartley had may not be practical. He opposed last year’s debt exclusion ballot question to surcharged property tax bills and finance the construction of two new middle schools. It went down hard last year.
The two sides from that debate have been coalescing around a single school proposal. Bartley has proposed that rather than raise taxes in some way, the state should allow the city to cut its mandatory contribution to the school department. Those funds could then match state school construction dollars. Student Opportunity Act, he said, could make up the difference in the education budget.
“Then we can go back to the Mass School Building Authority and get our full 80% reimbursement and not have to have a 30 year mortgage, which is what was proposed in last year’s ballot question,” he said.
Bartley called this thinking outside the box, but Beacon Hill likes its boxes. The local contribution exists because the state funds the lion’s share of school spending for cities like Holyoke. With or without the Student Opportunity Act funding, the state would be reluctant disturb or upset its funding scheme like this.
An area where Bartley may get more support, if not necessarily enough, is curtailing tax-exempt status for nonprofits. The placement of a group home on Yale Street has become a flashpoint in the city. However, under the Dover Amendment, the operators can sidestep any local zoning process.
Bartley clarified that he did not want to end tax-exemption for any nonprofit. Only group homes that take residences off the tax rolls are in his crosshairs.
Of the three candidates running, Bartley is the only one to hold elective office—although Beaudry and Duffy have both worked in the State House. Yet Massachusetts city councilors are an entirely different beasts from the legislature.
The Holyoke City Council has 13 seats—six at-large and seven by ward—while the House has 160. Despite the chasm in size and procedure, Bartley assured that he could maneuver the Byzantine process that revolves around the Speaker. He likened it to the Council.
“We as city councilors, any city councilor has a right to file any order for any aspect of any part of the city, any ward,” he said. “That order goes to a committee, and that committee is chaired by fellow city councilor who may or may not bring it up.” A Council rule that mandates action on an item within 30 days is often ignored.
In Holyoke, there is a recent history of council presidents steering committees. Today the House Speaker effectively controls the body’s committees and the House’s share of Joint Committees. Yet, the House is way more micromanaged than the Holyoke City Council. In a 13-member council, seniority is mostly an honorific. Seniority in the House, especially the lack thereof, is often destiny.
“It’s not an easy one to answer, of course, because you’re asking me to look into the future to talk about people with whom I’ve not worked,” Bartley said.
Nonetheless, he cited his own chairmanship of the committees and the back and forth that is necessary to get bills to the floor.
The subject of his chairing the Development & Government Relations Committee came up when discussing transportation. Like Beaudry and Duffy, Bartley wants better public transit. When asked how it could broaden ridership, Bartley pointed to promotion. For example, his committee has invited the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority’s Executive Director to discuss service.
As a rep, he would want to be part of promotional efforts to help the public “understand how efficient, effective it is, and how helpful it is for everyone.”
Bartley also praised the late Tim Brennan, the former Executive Director of the PVPC—and Beaudry’s former boss—for work on passenger rail service through Holyoke. Rail also interests Bartley.
Throughout the interview Bartley jabbed Morse, generally and for running against US Representative Richard Neal. This is unsurprising. Bartley’s complaints about Morse are part of the Holyoke political din. Though Bartley did say Morse and he had found areas of compromise as well.
However, Bartley had little good to say about the outgoing incumbent.
“I just think there is a massive vacuum in terms of leadership in Holyoke,” he said. “and I think Aaron’s a part of that.”
Between the Student Opportunity Act and a host of nutritional programs—all of which Vega has spearheaded in the House—and the situation at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, the next rep will inherit a lot come January.
In the interview and in forums, however, Bartley has trashed Vega for being ineffective and out of leadership’s (mercurial) graces.
During the Holyoke Taxpayers Association/Chamber of Commerce forum, he smacked Vega for not obtaining more funds for the Soldiers’ Home. Vega has vehemently denied any such failure. He told WMP&I earlier this month that the Western Mass delegation always supported the superintendent’s budget requests even when it was above what the administration or legislative budget committees recommended.
“When the superintendent changed, the requests for support changed,” Vega said.
Despite these differences, Bartley assures that were he to win the seat, there could be an effective handoff from Vega.
“Because we’re both professional and, I do respect Aaron as a person. I do tremendously,” Bartley said.
The race for state rep could be something of an opening act for a major transition here. If Morse goes to Congress, there will be a special election to fill his seat—the Council President will be acting mayor. If he loses, an open mayoral race remains a distinct possibility. Bartley’s seat will be up, too, among others possibly.
Where Bartley figures into all of this will become clear Tuesday.
He is offering a representation that echoes his Council tenure. Though he cited some policy achievements he emphasized constituent services and keeping in contact with voters.
“And the point is just to demystify City Council,” he said. “And I think that goes a long way towards helping people understand where their government is, what their government can do.”