BY DYKE HENDRICKSON
---- — NEWBURYPORT — The mayoral campaign’s primary meeting between Mayor Donna Holaday and City Councilor Dick Sullivan Jr. was expected to bring out sharp disagreement on the central waterfront, and it did.
But few would have predicted it would be so brief.
The pair last night shared the stage in the high school auditorium and it ended in little more than an hour, well under the allotted time. A key reason was that Sullivan passed up several opportunities to rebut Holaday or challenge her assertions.
Indeed, when the format gave him the opportunity to query the mayor on any issue that he chose, he opted not to ask a question.
Holaday, who appeared surprised, initially countered by saying she would withhold questions if Sullivan was refraining.
But many at the well-attended event raised their voices in opposition — as if to say they wanted to hear more — and Holaday proceeded with a query and spoke a bit longer.
Sparks that were expected from the two competitive public figures never ignited.
If brevity was an unexpected characteristic of the forum, discussion of the central waterfront got a full airing.
Sullivan repeated his position that he is against any commercial development on the 4.2 acres owned by the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority.
He added that if elected, he would attempt to convince the five volunteer NRA members to resign. If they don’t, he said, “This is a four-year term and the new mayor will be able to change the makeup of the NRA board” because the terms of members will start to expire.
Sullivan, a retired firefighter and owner of a real estate agency, indicated that he would consider ending the NRA’s term himself.
When Holaday was asked about her position, she said the NRA, MassDevelopment and Union Studio had come up with a tentative plan that she does not fully support.
“I am not in favor of condominiums or underground parking, and I don’t want the property to be sold,” said Holaday, who ran on a plank of “open waterfront” when she won four years ago.
“I will work with the NRA to modify the plan and make the NRA aware that it does not have to come up with 100 percent of the financing. We can work with the NRA.”
The waterfront issue came up again when moderators asked the candidates what they might have done differently in recent public action.
Holaday said that she might have been more open about the evolving of her view of the waterfront, so people would know she was changing her assessment of an “open waterfront” after talking to many stakeholders.
She suggested better communication would have provided residents with information that wouldn’t be considered her “flip-flopping” on the issue.
Holaday volunteered a second faux pas: her handling of the removal of playground equipment from the Brown School.
The mayor, who lives several doors down from the South End school, said that her primary motivation was to remove aging, wooden equipment when city officials learned of its unsafe condition.
She said she should have given residents warning of the sudden municipal action.
Sullivan, consistent in his brevity, said he couldn’t think of any mistakes he had made, “though maybe others can,” he joked.
The at-large city councilor said he looks ahead, not behind, and has learned many lessons while serving in local government.
The candidates also addressed the following issues:
Sullivan said he has been around city government since before his father, Dick Sullivan, was mayor (1978-86). “My style is one of collaboration,” he said. “I will find top people, and work with them to solve the city’s problems.”
Holaday said that she has generated close to $50 million “not on taxpayers’ backs” to launch two new school projects, a senior recreation center and other improvements. The mayor added that she has revamped the administration at City Hall, and now her team is in the midst of implementing infrastructure projects worth close to $100 million.
Sullivan said he would work to bring new jobs to the industrial-business park, and said he would cooperate with local business executives to implement their ideas on what is needed. He said roads, sidewalks and lighting should be improved at the park.
Holaday stated that several business committees are working to revitalize the park. She said that companies including Rochester Electronics have expanded, and her team is working with potential clients to enter the park in the future.
The candidates agreed that highest priority must be given to the school system. Both said that programs like foreign languages should be re-introduced to youngsters at an early age.
Though Sullivan criticized the mayor for what he said were shortcomings, including the timing of renovation of the Green Street parking lot and her circumspection about water and sewer problems on Plum Island, the tone of their meeting was more benign than many expected. Sullivan at various times cracked jokes and was conversational with the audience. Holaday was poised, and appeared to be determined to stick with the facts and present examples of her record during her four years as mayor.
The event, sponsored by the The Daily News and the Greater Newburyport Chamber of Commerce and Industry and broadcast over WNPB radio and Port-TV, was scheduled to last another half-hour when it came to a close. The sponsors had set 90 minutes to allow for 12 questions, plus an opportunity for the candidates to ask one another a question, and three-minute opening and closing statements.
While Sullivan did not use his full time allotted on many answers, Holaday commented that not enough time had been allotted for answers — candidates were given 90 seconds to answer questions.
Sullivan’s closing message was that he would be an accessible mayor who would offer communication, cooperation and collaboration. He requested the vote of all watching or listening.
The mayor ended by citing a list of accomplishments, and a request to voters to permit her to serve a four-year term, the first in the city’s history.