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Garcia Argues Holyoke Needs a Manager, So He’s Running for Mayor…

Josh Garcia

Can I administer? Yeah, I can administer. Josh Garcia in August. (WMP&I)

HOLYOKE—The Town of Blandford needed a new administrator. After several years of tumult, they had part-time day-to-day operator of town government. That person was leaving. The town in the foothills of the Berkshires, had turned to the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, a quasi-governmental agency that provides support for lower Valley towns. First Blandford sought assistance and then it hired away one of its employees: Joshua Garcia.

Eventually, Garcia would get the job permanently. His experience in municipal services has become foundational in his campaign for mayor of Holyoke. Garcia says candidates can argue about vision and ambitions. But what Holyoke needs now, he argues, is someone who can bring order to a chaotic and discordant City Hall.

“Each one, we all have big hearts and have convictions,” Garcia said in a recent interview. “But we’re talking about experience and management $160 million organization and the decisions we make and how we manage that impacts people’s lives in a lot of ways.”

Garcia is one of seven in Tuesday’s mayoral preliminary that spans the city’s spectrum of politics and experiences. He is no stranger to city politics, having sought and briefly held office here before. Were he to win, he would be the city’s first Hispanic chief executive.

During candidate events and interviews, Garcia, 35, has been plain about his emphasis on his resume. After five years at the PVPC, three years in Blandford and time at the Holyoke Housing Authority before that, Garcia is underscoring his work history above all else.

But does it scale up? (via wikipedia)

The move carries risk. Opponents note Holyoke government is a radically different beast from Blandford, being a fraction of the Paper City’s size. Others have pushed back on Garcia’s claim the city is on the brink of receivership. Speaking to WMP&I, he did soften that assertion somewhat.

Still, the thrust of his campaign is experience running municipalities. People he worked for expressed confidence he could conquer the twin-headed demon of the practical and the political in municipal affairs.

Jim Mazik, Garcia’s superior at PVPC and a former Deputy Director there, said Garcia was adept at navigating the different communities’ rules.

“One of the key things in that position,” Garcia held, Mazik said, was “ensuring everybody at the table is listened to equally and has their thoughts brought to table.”

Put more bluntly, Mazik continued, “He knows the politics.”

Garcia credits the late Tim Brennan with “saving his life.” Brennan, the legendary former executive director of PVPC, hired Garcia as a municipal services manager at time when the Garcia’s housing authority work had begun to take an emotional toll.

In an interview at Barnes & Noble’s café here, Garcia admitted a persistent interest in civic affairs. However, he had not intended to run for mayor.

An earlier incarnation of Garcia (submitted photo via Masslive)

From his start in predominantly Puerto Rican South Holyoke, Garcia had taken on leadership roles prompting people to suggest he would be mayor one day. He was a youth commissioner and in the Keystone Club at the Holyoke Boys & Girls Club. In 2011, a geometrically groomed Garcia won Ward 1’s School Committee seat. After he and his wife had twins, they decamped for a larger house in Ward 6. He ran for School Committee there unsuccessfully. A bid for Treasurer in 2015 also did not pan out.

When then-mayor Alex Morse announced he would not seek another term last December, the mayoralty had faded as a job prospect for Garcia. Two of Holyoke’s last three elected mayors became administrator, a more lucrative position than mayor.

As the field grew, however, people began messaging Garcia asking him if he would run. He brushed it off and told a gathering of folks he liked coming home at reasonable hours and spending time with his family. It was his wife who offered a rebuttal.

“She says, ‘Yeah, but you know, this is bigger than us.’ And I was like, What?” Garcia recalled. “‘There’s a lot of people in need right now in Holyoke that can really use a Josh,’” his wife Stefany continued.

Cara Letendre, the chair of the Select Board of Blandford, said Blandford had been through a lot before Garcia arrived. The town had weathered an embezzlement scandal involving a prior treasurer. The Board members found themselves increasingly performing duties that an administrator would perform.

“Since Josh coming aboard, he’s put together a budget process that has been really detailed,” she said in an interview. “The timeline is outlined. He gets the boards together. We’ve just have this smooth budget process where we actually have extra funds at the end of the year.”

Blandford, MA

A view of Blandford in 2004. (via wikipedia)

The improvements, she continued, have allowed the town to purchase new equipment and expand services such road repairs without new costs to residents.

Speaking to WMP&I, Garcia geeked out on numbers and finances and deficits. While trying to avoid casting blame on individuals, he cited sewer deficits, a reliance on free cash, and an antiquated government setup as the source of Holyoke’s issues.

Asked about criticism of his claim that the city was near fiscal calamity, Garcia eased back a bit.

“Is receivership going to come tomorrow or next year? No. But there are metrics and indicators in place, currently, that puts Holyoke in a path to receivership if we continue operating the same way,” he said. “Receivership really doesn’t happen until you start borrowing to keep up with basic services.”

That last point sorta lands Garcia closer to his rivals, who have cited the same state reports that say the city’s finances are sound for now. Springfield ran into trouble about 18 years ago because it had begun to look to borrowing for non-capital expenses.

Holyoke has not reached that point yet, but as Garcia noted, it has relied on free cash—unspent funds from prior fiscal years—to plug its annual structural deficits. Free cash has gotten smaller in recent years, complicating this process of balancing the books.

Advocates of centralizing financial functions under the mayor—as state laws on local financing imagine—and retiring the sewer deficit would balance things out. Garcia and most mayoral candidates support this.

Garcia brushed aside concerns that the Council and residents have resisted this change before. It could be an early test for Garcia, but Mazik said the candidate had sailed through rough politics before.

But how will Garcia deal with the hyperlocal politics in this room? (WMP&I)

“Some of the small communities can be more complicated than the larger communities,” Mazik said.

For Garcia, better financial management leads to better services and outcomes. The failure to deliver sufficient public safety to infrastructure undermines economic development. Even return of local control to the schools is connected, Garcia asserted. He doubted the state would return control if overall municipal health were subpar.

“If you were the state, would you give back control, knowing that of student lives knowing that this is happening in our local government?” he said.

Garcia wants clear signals from the state on how school receivership end. Yet, he added, “We have to be very open and clear on what our objectives are as far as us as a local community, and what the state expects from us.”

In short, Garcia wants better planning and goal-setting out of City Hall. Not that his opponents have promised less. Still, he says, the new mayor has to hit the ground running. He notes that the next mayor will take office in November not in January.

Morse’s resignation triggered a series of events that ended with Councilor Terence Murphy as acting mayor. But the charter would normally have set a special election. November’s winner will take office immediately before beginning a full four-year term in January.

The campaign has not been without its bumps. Garcia faced criticism for filming a campaign video in Blandford Town Hall, a no-no under state law. He promptly apologized.

Although Puerto Rican himself, Garcia acknowledged that maintaining the higher engagement with Latinos in the city is not a given. He said it was especially important because many of the city’s poorest areas overlap with its most diverse. Like others, he credited Morse for improving engagement with this community and pledged to do the same, noting the stakes.

“I grew up in South Holyoke and I lived in the flats for some time,” he said. “And a lot of decisions that are made are off for those neighborhoods are often coming from people that don’t live in those neighborhoods, if any decisions are being made for those neighborhoods.”

A Puerto Rican flag-raising event in 2018. An anti-Latino written screed on Garcia’s signs briefly rocked the campaign this year. (still via WWLP)

Earlier this summer, signs belonging to Garcia and Council candidate Israel Rivera were defaced with racist messaging. The incident drew an outpouring of condemnation from across the city’s political spectrum. It is a sad reminder of smallness in parts of society, but it likely did not presage anything about the preliminary.

Letendre, Blandford’s Select Board chair, wished him the best, though lament the prospect of losing him.

“It would be so difficult for Blandford to lose him, but I really do wish the best in his campaign,” she said.  “He is one of the most driven, dedicated and honest hard working. I can’t say enough good things about Josh.”

Garcia has been hammering away at his message. Yet, he does seems aware that politics requires narrative and big pictures, too. Paper City chin-scratchers see an appeal to conservatives in Garcia’s pitch, but he maintains his message is what enables a progressive agenda.

In an apparent reference to Morse, Garcia said he has supported and voted for progressive reinvention and policy in Holyoke. Right now, that is not enough.

“That vision, if we’re not managing appropriately…there is no vision is the way I look at it,” Garcia said.