NEWBURYPORT — Three mayoral candidates aired their views in a wide-ranging forum last night and residents filled every seat of the Firehouse Center for the Arts to hear contrasting opinions prior to the preliminary election on Tuesday.
City Councilor Greg Earls took gentle swipes at the current administration. Councilor Dick Sullivan Jr. promised fiscal rectitude, while stressing that his family has spent at least three generations in local government.
And Mayor Donna Holaday defended her two terms in office, declaring that costly infrastructure projects undertaken had to be done — and state and federal money has paid much of the bill for water quality, wastewater treatment, a new jetty on the Atlantic and the commencement of two school projects.
One of the six areas of inquiry was the central waterfront, and stark disagreement surfaced here.
Earls and Sullivan said they were against private development on the 4.2 acres owned by the Newburyport Redevelopment Authority.
Holaday said she supports limited commercial development in order to pay for an expanded park and to put an end to what she called dirt parking lots “where cars have the best views of the waterfront.”
Earls, a 12-year councilor from Ward 2, said, “I like the NRA members as human beings, but we really disagree on this issue.”
Earls, a builder and educator, said that the city could afford to craft a park through parking fees and a revenue bond without signing over land to private developers.
“We can start on a park in April — with the NRA plan it will take three to five years in permitting alone,” he said.
Sullivan also disagreed with the NRA vision of 70,000 square feet of shops, a restaurant and 30-35 condominium units.
The first-time councilor said that the future holds much development on the waterfront by New England Development, which owns numerous riverside parcels, and that someday residents will be happy they held on to the land.
Sullivan said city officials should work with New England Development to create a parking garage (on Merrimac Street), but city officials should not permit private development.
Holaday is seen to be vulnerable on this issue, since four years ago she campaigned for an “open waterfront” against opponent James Shanley.
The mayor last night said, “People say I flip-flop or change my position, but once you are in the mayor’s office, you have to set aside your personal opinion and work for a balance among business, open space, residential opinion and more.
“There is support for some development there, and we can permit a limited amount to create a connection with the business sector of the downtown.”
Holaday did not mention the development of private condominiums, which the NRA’s tentative mission is proposing.
In a recent newspaper piece for The Daily News, she stated she was against the inclusion of condominium units, but the mayor, a former city councilor herself, did not mention condos last night.
The event was a forum — not a debate — so candidates weren’t cross-examined by moderator Chip Wyser, nor were they called upon to answer questions from the audience, which overflowed the 192-seat venue.
Earls raised questions about several elements of the mayor’s performance.
He said that $440,000 that has gone into the recent rehab of the Green Street parking lot could have been better spent on streets and sidewalks.
And he said that the closing of the Crow Lane landfill must be a top priority, and that the administration has been unable to finish the job of closing and sealing the troublesome private site.
Earls also suggested that a $1.2 million expenditure on new offices and space for the Department of Public Services was excessive.
Sullivan said that as mayor he would reinstate educational programs that have been cut in recent years. He took issue with a feature of the new Bresnahan School that calls for a $625,000 colorful illustrated floor.
“When I went to school, we didn’t have great floors,” said Sullivan, a retired firefighter who served on the School Committee a decade ago. “The city didn’t have to spend all of the money” it had bonded for if the need wasn’t there.
Holaday concluded her remarks by saying the city will develop two school projects and a senior citizens center, “and you residents said yes with your votes.”
The mayor stated that she had been an ambassador to state and federal funding sources, and estimated that her team has produced close to $50 million in outside funding.
“We have about $100 million in projects under way or ahead of us, and I think that we need the consistency and leadership that I have provided to get the job done,” she said.