NEWBURYPORT — Mayoral candidates Donna Holaday and James Shanley sought to show citizens last night why they should gain their vote at the polls Nov. 3, in a forum that covered a range of topics from building new wind turbines to making people pay for parking downtown.
Telling the crowd at the high school that the community is "at a crossroads" while weathering "very uncertain times," Shanley, who is president of the City Council, said the city has a choice to make — to keep debating the same issues or to break the cycle and move ahead.
"I intend to break the cycle of all talk and no action," he said. The city needs a leader and not just an administrator, Shanley said.
Holaday, an at-large city councilor, said she is the "superior candidate" in several areas. As chairwoman of the city's Budget and Finance Committee, she has the proper insight and knowledge to make the best decisions on the city's fiscal health, she said.
The debate was sponsored by The Daily News and the Greater Newburyport Chamber of Commerce. Candidates were asked a series of questions relating to leadership, education, economic development, budget and waterfront/downtown parking. They also had the chance to ask each other questions.
The campaign thus far as been mostly cordial between the two City Council colleagues, who agree with one another on numerous issues. That was partly the tone last night, but they also sought to define clear splits in how they would run the city.
Holaday questioned Shanley's experience in handling budgets the size of the city's $50 million budget. Shanley is a self-described small business owner, who operates a small printing shop in Amesbury.
"That's why we have an auditor," Shanley said, adding a key leadership quality for a mayor is setting goals and delegating specific tasks to experts.
"But the mayor does the budget," Holaday replied. "The mayor is the one who designs the budget."
While the candidates agreed on certain areas — such as embracing regionalization, widening the city's historic district area and keeping a single tax rate for homeowners and business owners — the two did have some disagreements.
One is downtown parking.
Shanley said the city needs to manage parking space turnover and raise money with paid on-street and lot parking, and assign an "appropriate value" for spaces in highly desirable locales like State Street. A parking garage should be the end conversation rather than the start, he said.
While Holaday advocated for keeping parking spaces on the street for free, Shanley said that would cause people to "cruise" and look for that free spot, noting that the Waterfront Trust lot, which now charges for parking, sits empty, while next to it the NRA lots are full and free.
Both talked tough about city spending, saying that city employees will have to accept minimal pay hikes.
"We have to hold the line on spending," Holaday said. "We cannot afford to be giving significant raises."
"Holding the line on raises and spending is going to be absolutely critical," Shanley agreed.
And both agreed that the city had made mistakes in its enthusiasm to embrace wind turbines. Neighborhood complaints about the 292-foot-tall turbine at Mark Richey Woodworking made it clear that the turbine is too close to homes. Both advocated for mandating much greater distances than the 300-foot setback from homes that the turbine rule calls for now.
Holaday asked how the city could "lure" Shanley to have his business in Newburyport.
"Lower the rents," he said.
He and his wife couldn't find the "basic, no frills, functional" space they were looking for at a reasonable rent in the city, he said. Working and living in Newburyport is "the Holy Grail," that many strive for but few can achieve.
He said he liked one of Holaday's ideas — having an "incubator" area in the city where small businesses would be encouraged to open, presumably with lower rents.
Near the end of the debate, Holaday asked Shanley to give examples of his "proven leadership" as a City Council president, referring to his campaign slogan.
Shanley replied that he was elected unanimously twice as council president by councilors with differing opinions and views on topics. "I think them choosing me as their leader speaks volumes," he said.
Holaday disagreed, saying the council presidency takes time while councilors have full-time jobs and commitments, and no one else stepped up to seek the position. "There was no challenger," she said. "A unanimous vote is sort of by default, no offense, James," she said.
Her response drew audible gasps and grumbling from the audience, and Holaday apologized to Shanley immediately after the debate ended, saying her words didn't come out as she intended.
Another issue the candidates differ on is the senior center. Holaday said she voted to designate Cushing Park as a site for the senior center in order for the Friends of the Council on Aging to begin fundraising, as they couldn't do so unless they had a site. By giving them a chance to raise "significant funds" toward the $7 million estimated cost, the city can then look at additional funds, such as earmarks or grants, Holaday said.
Shanley, who voted against designating Cushing Park, said he had questions about the impact on the neighborhood that were never answered. The best way to proceed is to propose a debt exclusion for the project — a property tax increase committed solely to paying for the senior center — and see how voters react, he said.
Striving to show her differences from her opponent, Holaday said she would keep an open waterfront on the undeveloped Newburyport Redevelopment Authority lands — something she said that residents have made clear that they want.
After 50 years of arguments, "consensus is at hand," she said. "A consensus that I will honor."
Shanley has said he supports putting some buildings up to encourage economic growth and to help pay for the park.
The debate will be aired on cable channel 9; check portmedia.org for listings.