Voters in Northampton, Massachusetts, will go to the polls Tuesday for the city's preliminary election for mayor. Four candidates are vying to replace incumbent David Narkewicz, who has held the office since 2012 and is not seeking another term.
During a recent debate broadcast by Northampton Open Media, one hot-button issue that came up was Northampton's Department of Community Care. The new department, which is slowly ramping up operations, was designed as an alternative to the police for responding to mental health calls and social service needs. It's also been the subject of much debate along with policing reform.
Gina-Louise Sciarra is the City Council president. Sciarra said she worked with the mayor on establishing a police review commission, which recommended the new department. Along with the rest of the candidates, Sciarra was asked who should respond to a domestic violence incident late at night.
"Community Care is also something that someone would be able to request, so if someone is not requesting that service, and it sounds like it could be a dangerous situation, I would not send a community care person, I would send a police officer to that response," Sciarra said.
Shanna Fishel, a social worker, said it's important to consider the residents involved. For example, Fishel said, if it’s a queer couple, people of color, or if children are involved.
"All those attributes are severely important to understand because most of those marginalized groups, if you send a cop to resolve the issue, the issue will escalate," Fishel said.
Some advocates have complained the community care department is not yet properly funded. Roy Martin – a retiree and frequent candidate for mayor – favors a wait-and-see approach to the new department’s budget.
"I'd say, 'Okay, we'll give it a shot,'" Martin said. "But, I mean, we're not going to give them millions of dollars...and have them hire a whole bunch of people and then two years later they're firing them people or laying them off because it didn't work out."
Marc Warner, a transportation analyst, also supports the new department, and pointed out other potential uses for it.
"There are services that will go beyond the emergency response zone," Warner said. "There's also an outreach service they will provide, dealing with mental health issues, substance abuse, outreach to the homeless."
A fifth candidate on the ballot, Rosechana Gordon, dropped out of the race in August, according to the Daily Hampshire Gazette.
The candidates were also asked about homelessness in Northampton, and a recent decision by Narkewicz to remove people living at Pulaski Park in the city's downtown. Sciarra, Warner and Martin all favored the move, citing a recent violent incident at the park.
Fishel said the city hasn't done enough to help homeless people, and clearing out the park just pushed the problem away.
At the end of the debate, the quartet had a chance to specifically tell voters why they'd be a good mayor. For Sciarra, it was her experience.
"I'm the only candidate with elected municipal experience, and I have a lot of it," Sciarra said. "I've been a ward councilor, an at-large councilor, vice president of the council, the council president right now. I've sat on many, many committees."
In his final pitch, Warner didn’t name Sciarra by name, but did criticize the City Council’s recent decision-making process.
"I think the council in recent years has yielded to loud voices and has left its role behind making sure the city represents the broader interests of the city as a whole," Warner said.
Meanwhile, Fishel claimed to be the most progressive candidate in the field.
"I see Black Lives Matter signs everywhere in the city, but I don't think we're really, truly holding ourself accountable for true progressive reform, and that's what I bring to this table," Fishel said.
As for Martin, he said he'll listen.
"I'm not boss of the people of the city, the people are my boss," Martin said. "The people come to me and say what they want and what they need and I will work towards getting them that."
The top two vote-getters Tuesday move on to November's general election. Sciarra holds the upper hand in fundraising – raising more than the other three candidates combined. According to state campaign finance data, she’d taken in nearly $22,000 as of the end of August.
That includes a $500 donation from the outgoing mayor, Narkewicz.