WESTFIELD, Mass. (The Westfield News) – How can you sum up a year when so much has happened?
Westfield has been such a hub for news and events over the past year that it would be difficult to try and summarize it in a sentence or thought. There has been good news, like the Babe Ruth World Series and the planning board’s relentless desire to protect their residents; and there has been bad news, like a water ban due to contamination and tragedy that has struck residents throughout the year.
However, in order to provide you, the reader, with a news capsule to help understand the goings on going forward in the city for 2017, we have decided to provide you with a brief recap on some of the stories that graced our pages this year.
Of course, this will be just some of the larger stories that occurred, so make sure to grab a copy of The Westfield News every day to find out even more of what happens in your backyard.
Water woes in Westfield cause worry
In Westfield this year, the top headline would have to be water. There was no shortage of stories on H20—even though there was a shortage of water in 2016.
Westfield saw a number of water issues last year, from contamination to shortage to distribution concerns. These events dominated headlines from summer onward, as new developments were occurring regularly. At one point, they literally had to call the US National Guard to help figure out just what happened.
Still, through it all city officials have repeatedly said that there is nothing to worry about. That hasn’t helped residents though, as they showed up to meetings about water and voiced concerns about the supply and about what chemicals are actually in the water.
The concerns began when it was found that Westfield water had high levels of polyfluorinated carbons (PVCs), which many came to know as PFOA and PFOS compounds. These compounds, which were found in firefighting foams that have been used on U.S. military bases across the country, were at unacceptable levels following a report from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that suggested that the level of these compounds should be drastically lower in public drinking water.
This drew the Guard to come in and order testing of the groundwater around Barnes Regional Airport, where they stored and used the firefighting foam for many years prior to finding that it could be harmful to water supplies. Additionally, the city saw two of its eight wells get taken offline due to the EPA recommendation, and a $5 million bond is currently up for vote by city council to help build filtration systems for the compounds.
If this wasn’t bad enough though, the lack of these wells, as well as the lack of precipitation through the spring and summer months, helped to put Massachusetts and Westfield into drought conditions. The city tried to combat the issue, putting in a water ban to prevent outdoor water use under most circumstances. Still, through the summer and fall months the conditions worsened, until eventually the Granville reservoir was taken offline due to low water levels, in addition to the two wells that were already offline.
Planning board flexes its muscle, giving voice to residents
In a time when some residents felt that city boards and commissions may not do enough to help them, the Westfield planning board showed that big changes can happen through those very positions.
The planning board did not just stop one business that residents felt was infringing upon their homes and privacies, but two. The planning board first voted against the outdoor lighting and field use at Roots Athletic Complex at 181 Root Road, then said no to the Dollar General Company who was trying to build a retail store at 600 Southampton Road.
The Roots Athletic Complex is still being discussed by the board since it had a previously OKed special permit, but it was a significant move because residents near the building were growing concerned and annoyed with the project. The discussion went on for several months, after complaints from residents started coming in over the summer to the board. After several public hearings and meetings, it seemed like there would be no end to the cycle.
However, on Dec. 6, the board voted to deny the special permit for Roots Athletic Complex.
“I am happy that the residents got up there and made their requests because they know what kind of issues this is creating for them,” Ward 1 councilor Mary Ann Babinski, said on Dec. 7. “And I’m happy that the planning board listened and made a vote on it last night instead of continuing this again.”
Another contentious permit, the Dollar General proposed location on Southampton Road, also drew complaints and residents to the planning board meetings. Residents were filling city council chambers when the item was on the agenda and the planning board listened to the complaints and worries.
And even after the Dollar General engineers acquiesced to the planning board’s requests, changed plans and style of the building, the planning board denied their special permit as well, on Dec. 20.
Health becomes focal point of city councilors
Though the ordinances are still to be enacted, Westfield officials have been working to make the city essentially smoke- and plastic bag-free.
The two may not seem to go together, but both have been proven to have impacts on public health and the environment. So, ward 1 city councilor Mary Ann Babinski and Westfield State University intern Sean Bacon drew up a plastic bag ban ordinance, while the city council unanimously voted to ban smoking on all city-owned, operated and leased properties. Also, the Westfield Housing Authority (WHA) also announced that they would be implementing a smoking ban inside all WHA properties beginning April 1, 2017.
All of these decisions came in an attempt to help provide a healthier environment for the many people in the city and beyond.
“We’re not trying to be lords over everybody, not trying to say no you can’t do this,” Bacon said about the plastic bag ordinance in December. “We’re doing this for a reason–we’re trying to keep people healthier and keep the earth healthy.”
Regarding the smoking ban, the road to passage was not always a smooth one. When the vote first came up in city council, The Westfield News’ Amy Porter wrote in a Dec. 2 article, “At-large Councilor Daniel Knapik called it a ‘slippery slope,’ warning that the next ban will be on chocolate chip cookies, ho-hos and twinkies. ‘Where does it stop?’ Knapik asked.”
Still, after discussions, debates and an addition of a smoking cessation program for those seeking to quit, Knapik joined the majority, along with the three other dissenters, and agreed to ban smoking from city-owned, operated and leased properties.
City positions saw much movement in 2016
In Westfield, there were several positions that were filled, changed or left in 2016.
The city found itself having a new superintendent of schools, trying to find a replacement for the airport manager position at Barnes Regional Airport, successfully finding a new city building inspector and losing its long-serving city auditor.
The new superintendent of schools, Stefan Czaporowski, or “Mr. Zap” as students call him, became Westfield’s school superintendent July 1, following Dr. Suzanne Scallion’s retirement from the post. He was chosen among several qualified applicants but his resume as Westfield Technical Academy (WTA) principal surely made him standout. He previously had success in the city’s education system, creating the aviation technology program at WTA, overseeing increased test scores in the school and drastically improved dropout rates, as well.
For the airport manager position at Barnes, then-manager Brian Barnes stepped down from the position in order to take one as executive director of Amelia Park in August. The Amelia Park board of Directors were looking for someone who could help create increased finances for the park, and they felt that Barnes was the one to help with that.
“We’ve gone through many directors since Amelia has started and we wanted to find the right person who knows about finance, who knows about fundraising, and it has been a tough time to find someone to fit into that role,” president of the board of directors James Adams said Aug. 11.
The city is still in negotiations with the potential replacement for Barnes, though an announcement may be coming this week.
Regarding the superintendent of buildings position, the city had been looking for someone to fill the role since August 2015, when Jonathan Flagg resigned. Then, on April 28 they found one.
Carissa Lissee was appointed to the position for a three-year term after the city council unanimously approved. She had previously served as the building commissioner and zoning officer for the town of Granby.
As for the city auditor position, Debbie Strycharz retired after 22 years in the position on Nov. 26. Her departure is reportedly giving way to changes in how the city operates its budget management going forward, and the position is yet to be filled.
“We are actually looking at a potential restructuring of the finance department’s auditor, collector, treasurer and assessors,” Mayor Brian Sullivan said regarding the possible change. He suggested a chief financial officer for the city but no official announcement has been made.
These are just some of the many news stories that graced our pages this year. For more news, check out thewestfieldnews.com and we will continue to bring you the best local coverage every day.