HOLYOKE — Energy, climate change and the environment were front and center this week when mayoral candidates took part in a forum hosted by local environmental organizations.
The “Powering a Clean Future” forum was hosted Tuesday by the Environmental League of Massachusetts, 350 Mass Action, Neighbor to Neighbor MA and Sierra Club Massachusetts. Candidates addressed topics such as urban sustainability, open space, emissions from buildings, trash and recycling and more.
Taking part in the event were five of the six candidates who have announced their intentions to run for mayor in Holyoke: academic and educator Gloria Caballero Roca, Blandford Town Administrator Joshua Garcia, writer William Glidden, At-large City Councilor Rebecca Lisi and School Committee member Devin Sheehan.
The candidates laid out their own plans for the city, from how the city can include all residents in planning for a more sustainable future to concrete actions they would take as mayor to address climate change and pollution.
At-large City Councilor Michael Sullivan was the only announced candidate who did not attend. He told a Gazette reporter that he “already had previous commitments booked.”
“It was just a forum,” Sullivan said. “And my focus right now — I’m on the Finance Committee, and we have a city budget that has to be ready for June 30.”
John Rivera, the forum moderator, began by asking how candidates planned to make Holyoke a more sustainable, equitable and healthy city.
Garcia said that a conversation about sustainability should include voices from across the city’s diverse neighborhoods. He said collecting those voices is done by planning properly. He also noted that the city has not updated its master plan since 1999.
“I think there’s a real opportunity there not just to develop any master plan, but one that includes a resiliency twist focused specifically around issues of climate change,” he said.
Glidden noted that Holyoke was built with a vision for where the economy was headed. He said leaders today need to understand the challenges before them — food insecurity and environmental injustice, for example — and come up with creative solutions informed by those directly impacted by those challenges.
“We owe it to those who are coming after us to address the existential threat of climate change, to develop more just ways to live together and treat each other,” he said.
Caballero Roca suggested creating a liaison position between the mayor’s office and the community so that those in the city could inform the mayor’s work. She said on a national level the country is far from a solution to climate change, though locally community engagement can help decide where to invest tax money.
“I guess we are not going to be inventing the wheel here but we should start taking baby steps here toward creating a more just and healthier city for all,” she said.
Lisi said that transportation and buildings represent municipalities’ largest carbon footprints. She noted her past work helping Holyoke adopt more energy-efficient building codes, developing better bike and pedestrian options and pushing for local agriculture, like backyard chickens, to be allowed in the city.
“Land use and transportation policy is the way that we can curb our emissions locally and move toward a just climate transition,” she said.
Sheehan said that Holyoke has some of the highest childhood asthma rates in the city, saying he has worked as a School Committee member to reduce carbon emissions and improve air quality in the schools. He suggested using state funds on green projects, such as addressing wastewater overflow in the Connecticut River.
“To improve upon Holyoke’s health, we need to take a look at our tree canopy and where our heat islands are in the city,” he said, noting that planting more trees can improve the lives of residents.
On the topic of increasing qualities, and cost, of trash and recycling in the city, Sheehan suggested piloting a phased-in composting program. Lisi noted her past efforts to ban single-use plastic bags in Holyoke, and her advocacy for extended producer responsibility to hold manufacturers accountable for the cost of cleaning up their products.
Caballero Roca suggested empowering the community to take the lead on trash and recycling, changing the culture around issues like composting. Glidden, too, supported extended producer liability, saying that current recycling practices aren’t sustainable and overburden municipalities. Garcia spoke about ensuring the current practice of no-fee curbside trash and recycling pickup, noting that he would effectively manage municipal resources to address the issue.
The forum featured questions about the city’s building infrastructure and how to reduce the carbon emissions from it. And viewers were able to ask candidates how they planned to tackle the issues at hand.
The entire forum can be viewed online on the Environmental League of Massachusetts Facebook page.
Dusty Christensen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.