HCAC and the Race for Mayor
By Edward Shanahan
Despite mayoral challenger Rick Feldman’s attempt to draw her into the controversy swirling around the sudden collapse of the Hampshire Community Action Commission, Mayor Clare Higgins told downstreet.net: “I don’t want to beat up on him about HCAC.”
In an earlier interview, Feldman, director of the anti-poverty agency in the final stages of its shutdown last summer, claimed Higgins had allowed her seat on the HCAC board of directors to remain vacant for nearly two years, between 2003 and last spring. “She chose not to get involved,” Feldman said.
Higgins said she had no intention of making Feldman’s performance at HCAC a campaign issue, even though he had “a management capacity” at the agency for two years before its final collapse.
Once Feldman raised the issue of her role, Higgins said she would only say that the mayor’s seat on the HCAA board was vacant between 2004 and last spring, not going back to 2003, as Feldman alleges.
Higgins said she had tried to recruit an appointee for the seat, but once the it became clear “the agency was crumbling: and the “problems were out in the open,” it was impossible to find someone willing to serve on the board.
The mayor, who herself had been employed by HCAC in its early childhood programs before becoming mayor nearly six years ago, said she was so concerned about the turmoil and financial crisis at the agency that early this year she asked the state Department of Housing and Community Developed to request the entire HCAC board to resign. It was only after the department conducted an outside audit of the agency’s finances that the request was made for all board members to step down.
Meanwhile Higgins said she personally counseled Feldman, who was then HCAC’s interim director, not to take the full-time position because he might lose any leverage or bargaining power
he needed to confront the board and deal with the problems. He chose not to follow her advice, the mayor says.
“I’m not going to fault him,” she says, even though what ultimately happened to HCAC was “tough … it was terrible.” The big unanswered question is “how did it go so bad so fast?”
She agrees with Feldman that the board of directors of HCAC needed to take a more active role in the affairs of the agency. Even though “they were lied to by the managers,” Higgins said, the board also was too loyal and not rigorous enough in monitoring the running of the agency.
One lesson coming out of the HCAC experience, she said, is that more turnover of membership is needed on such boards so that greater independent oversight is exercised.
Turning to another subject – Feldman’s criticism of her style of governing – Higgins said “people know who I am.” She says that she has been extremely active in going into neighborhoods and talking to residents and making the decisions needed to move the community forward.
“People elect mayors and City Council members based on what they say when they run for office and candidates are expected to make good on those promises. “I’ve tried to follow through,” she says, but in making decisions you make both friends and critics.
“I know some people disagree with me, that’s okay, that’s democracy,” she said. And so an opponent emerges. “That’s why we have elections. Every two years people get to weigh in.”
“I think we got a lot done in the last five years,” she said, citing specifically reorganizing the city’s Finance Department, removing many city employees from the “antiquated” Civil Service system, successfully negotiating new contracts with unionized city workers, and moving forward with plans for Hospital Hill.
“We’ve made a lot of decisions and every decision implies a choice, and somebody’s not going to be happy.”
But, she insisted, “there’s been a lot forward movement.”
On a personal level, she also points out that she had been able to play a large and active role at the state level in seeking to define better “what the relationship between city and town and state” should be. She believes that she has made a “valuable contribution” in that discussion, and “I’m grateful that the citizens of Northampton gave me an opportunity to work on that.”
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