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An Interview with Gina-Louise Sciarra

The Northampton City Council President is running for Mayor

By The Shoestring

Gina-Louise Sciarra has been on the Northampton City Council for the last seven years, first representing Ward 4, then becoming an At-Large Councilor. She was voted council President in 2020 and announced her run for Mayor earlier this year. We asked her about her proposed agenda, her record as a city councilor, and included questions from our readers as well. 

In your campaign materials, you prioritize addressing climate change. What does that look like in practice?

The climate crisis is one of the most pressing intersectional issues of our time. As a City Councilor, I have supported the Sustainable Northampton Comprehensive Plan and its component plans that have come before the Council. Most recently, the Climate Resilience and Regeneration Plan was endorsed in February and aims for all city government buildings and operations to be carbon neutral by 2030 and for the city as a whole to be carbon neutral by 2050. It also calls for incorporating equity and the climate resilience and regeneration goals into all city decisions and plans. The plan is good, but it is not enough. 

One of my top priorities as Mayor would be to work to achieve these goals ahead of schedule. As Mayor, I will work to accelerate the adoption of community programs to increase the availability of clean energy, not only for governmental use, but for community use, too. For example, in addition to encouraging residents to adopt clean energy practices on their own, in collaboration with other municipalities and members of our community, we can invest in green power generation to increase the availability of green energy to private and commercial landlords, electrical vehicles, and public charging stations, to name a few. Exploring these and other mitigation opportunities with urgency should put us on a realistic path to make Northampton carbon neutral before 2050. 

Of course, the City of Northampton cannot stop climate change on our own.  We need strategies for coping with the effects, prioritizing support for those in our community who are most impacted by climate change. The Community Resilience Hub will be a critical resource for the houseless community and those most vulnerable to the climate extremes and storms that come with climate change. The Hub can also serve as a daily resource center and climate-controlled space, as well as an emergency shelter for anticipated climate crisis events. 

An important part of our resilience to our changing climate is working to upgrade our old infrastructure to handle greater stormwater volume and flood risk. It is essential that we keep our stormwater and flood control capital improvements on schedule and that all road rebuilding incorporates underground upgrades.  

These are of course just snapshots of what I plan to prioritize for Northampton to do our part at addressing climate change. 

You’ve expressed interest in an equitable recovery. What does that mean? And how would you implement it? 

Like with most crises, the most vulnerable in our community are the individuals who have been hit hardest by this pandemic. 

As a starting place, for the recovery to be equitable, we need to make sure that our most vulnerable residents have access to the relief that the federal government and Massachusetts have made available. For example, the houseless community, and those who do not file taxes, should be assisted in trying to obtain the pandemic relief payments that were approved in the American Rescue Plan. 

Once operating, the Community Resilience Hub will play a role in coordinating services to ensure that existing resources are available to those in need. There are governmental public benefits programs for which marginalized populations may be eligible (Supplemental Security Income, State Veterans Benefits, SNAP, MassHealth, WIC, Fuel Assistance, TAFDC, EAEDC), but accessing and navigating those programs is difficult. In addition to assistance with government programs, the Resilience Hub will be a central point for connecting with local services around housing, mental health services, or substance addiction recovery programs, as well as other needs.

From my current position on the Council and as a member of the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) Public Services Review Group, I have advocated for and supported prioritizing getting the Hub up and running. While finishing my term on the Council, I will continue to support and push for what is needed to get the Hub operating. If elected mayor, I will immediately begin working with the Hub partners to complete any needed plans and get it operational as soon as possible.

Beyond what has already been pledged by the federal government and the state, we must also identify the gaps. For example, not all families have had access to the same educational or social and emotional opportunities during the pandemic. For students who have fallen behind, we must provide opportunities for them to catch up and make sure that the students most in need get extra help in a way that works for them. That means we have to keep investing in our public schools and make sure every enrolled Northampton student is given the personalized attention they need for an equitable education.

The same is true for renters who are struggling to pay their rent. In addition to the state emergency rental assistance programs (RAFT, ERMA) and the city’s CDBG funds for rental assistance, there has been some relief from eviction for renters. If the national eviction moratorium is lifted, then there could be a crisis for at-risk renters. Connecting them with the emergency assistance aid in the American Rescue Plan should be a priority.

An equitable recovery also requires significant attention be dedicated to the businesses in downtown Northampton and Florence Center to revitalize these areas and bring them back even stronger than ever. The retail economy has changed and our downtowns need to adapt. I will work closely with local businesses to hear their needs and help steer economic recovery aid to not only help our businesses get back on their feet but get creative about how to draw people downtown and make sure that it is a place that all want to shop, eat, and be together.  

Something you indicated in your interview with MassLive’s Jackson Cote is a desire to bring about changes to the downtown business district. Something our readers brought up are the many vacant properties and the lack of non-commercial, community oriented spaces to congregate downtown. What is your vision for downtown? 

I have a multi-faceted vision for boosting downtown Northampton. Even before the pandemic hit, downtown Northampton was struggling with a changing brick and mortar retail economy. This has been greatly exacerbated by our reliance on online retail during the last year. 

I know the heartache, stress, and loss that these incredibly hard times have brought for retail and our restaurants. And I also see opportunity for creativity and to reshape our downtowns as we move forward out of this time. I will engage with the business community to address concerns and see how the city can help, and I hope they can meet with open communication so we can work together to respond to changing times. 

We need to reimagine our downtowns as experiential spaces that draw people in and encourage them to spend time, work, walk, socialize, shop, and dine. I am hopeful that we can utilize Rescue Plan funds in the short-term for some innovative changes. In the longer-term, the state and federally-funded Picture Main Street project will make downtown more walkable and accessible to residents and visitors and will benefit our local businesses as well. The project is working with the community and businesses to meet its core goals of redesigning Main Street in a way that provides safety and equal access, promotes a vibrant and attractive space to be in, and creates a functional, enduring and sustainable streetscape for us and those that come after us. As a member of the advisory group for the project, I am participating in the public engagement meetings and listening to the feedback and ideas from the community.

I would like the property owners of vacant storefronts to be community-minded about their space and allow use for pop-ups or window gallery space while trying to find the right long-term tenant. I would happily work with them to come to an agreement on how that interim space could be used to the mutual benefit of all.

One of the less talked about goals of the Community Resilience Hub is to provide public community space. There will be a community “living room,” as well as a community center and meeting spaces. I hope that the Resilience Hub will be viewed as a community space where all are welcome and respected that further improves downtown Northampton.

Many of our readers asked us to ask you about housing. One reader mentioned rent control, which was banned statewide in the early 1990s but there is a renewed enthusiasm for it to be reinstated. Another issue that has come up in the city’s Housing Partnership meetings is broker’s fees, which have been banned in other cities such as New York. What is your plan to make housing more affordable and do you think the policies mentioned could help achieve that goal? 

Northampton should be a place where anyone can come to build a life for themselves and their families and comfortably retire. Housing in Northampton is not affordable for many people who work here or want to move here, and there is a good deal of financial pressure on people currently living in Northampton on fixed incomes. Solutions to this are not easy. 

One of the things that I am most proud of is that during my tenure on the City Council we have made long-needed zoning changes to move us away from zoning that only allows a single-family home on a lot to allow for more attainable two-family homes by right. We are also opening up more options to give property owners more flexibility on how to use their land, thereby increasing desperately needed housing stock and allowing people to age in place by creating rental income. We are also writing fossil-fuel free requirements into zoning changes to help achieve our carbon-neutrality goals.

The Council also recently voted to simplify the process for smaller affordable housing projects which will hopefully incentivize the creation of individual units. At the same time the Council approved an ordinance to encourage the construction of smaller, “half-scale” units with non-fossil fuel heating systems.

I am also currently working with the Housing Partnership on a home rule petition to submit to the state Legislature, which would allow the city to be involved in shifting broker fees away from renters and onto the landlords for whom the brokers are primarily working. Coming up with the broker’s fee, which is usually at least a half month’s rent, in addition to first and last month’s rent, is a significant hurdle that can keep someone from accessing housing.

In your recent MassLive interview, while suggesting that you want to see changes made downtown, you said, “I promise I will always be in communication with our downtown businesses and I will work with them to address their concerns and see how the city can assist them.” As mayor, will you be as committed to hearing from workers and renters as you are from business owners and landlords?

I will absolutely commit to hearing from workers and renters when I am Mayor, as I have done as a City Councilor.  I am a firm believer that we must govern from the grassroots up.  Workers and renters make up the heart of downtown Northampton and Florence, and of much of our great city.  If we are going to make Northampton a more affordable, accessible, and green city, we are going to need to do it together. 

When I chaired the City Council Committee on Community Resources, I was tasked with leading a Committee Study Request on the downtowns’ economies. We held stakeholder community forums, and while I was interested in hearing from everyone, I worked extremely hard to engage the workers in our downtowns and structured forums around their shifts. Out of that process came the licensing requirements holding businesses accountable for wage and hour laws to protect against wage theft. 

In addition to being an advocate for affordable housing, and the creation of more accessible units, I have always championed the rights of renters in the city. All too often in public conversations I hear renters dismissed as less important stakeholders. I think that attitude is offensive and wrong and not reflective of the kind of community I want to live in or represent.

One piece of legislation that stands out in your very progressive record as a City Councilor is your co-sponsoring of the “conduct clause” amendment with Councilors Nash and Bidwell that some feared could chill dissent. It was submitted after four months of fully attended council meetings during the vote to prohibit surveillance cameras downtown. Why did you feel it was necessary to limit public expression in the council chambers after such an outpouring of public engagement? 

As City Council President, I have made a point of making our city government hearings open and accessible to the public. Anybody who has watched the Council meetings I have run as President of the Council knows I have done everything I could to ensure open, robust discussion and debate. I have made time to ensure that every voice has been heard, and every viewpoint has been aired. Often we haven’t reached substantive parts of the Council’s agenda until well past midnight because we valued the public’s right to speak directly to us until all have been heard. In addition to extensive public comment at our regularly scheduled meetings, I have scheduled additional meetings to ensure that people felt they had enough time to express their views. I have no interest whatsoever in limiting free expression and I haven’t. 

You have shown support for replacing policing with social services. As you probably know and as our recent reporting on ServiceNet makes clear, the people who currently provide these services are severely underpaid. Likewise, many police officers in Northampton are the highest paid employees in the city. Assuming that there is a shift away from policing and toward social services, will you commit to paying these responders a salary that matches a police officer’s salary? 

I am so thankful for the work that the Policing Review Commission has done to begin the process of restructuring how we handle emergency calls that require immediate attention that would be well-served by a clinical or peer response. Those responding to these calls should be well-trained, qualified, and paid a fair wage.

You have voiced support for policing reform, voted to cut the police department budget by 10%, and had a heavy hand in creating a policing commission. Something we’ve made a point of reporting on is local police overreach and misconduct. As mayor, will you be willing to stand up to local police unions, our police chief, and police captains if they look the other way when it comes to police abuse of power? 

Again, I am so grateful for the work that the Policing Review Commission has done to begin the process of re-imagining how we might ensure that the Police Department is effective and accountable. As mayor, I will absolutely hold our Police Department accountable for misconduct when appropriate and necessary. The Policing Review Commission examined the complaint process and made some recommendations for areas for change that I look forward to probing in greater detail. But should misconduct come to light, I will take whatever steps are necessary to address that misconduct and hold offending individuals accountable. 

In 2013, a University of Michigan study found that the Pioneer Valley was one of the most racially segregated regions in the country. In your view, what policies created this reality? 

Many, many policies have contributed to racial segregation throughout Massachusetts and the United States. In particular, zoning has traditionally been used as one of the major tools to limit access and create barriers in communities. As I mentioned above, I am especially proud of the work we are currently doing to change our zoning to hopefully increase housing stock, affordability, and access to housing.

The review of our city’s ordinances that we conduct every five years according to the Charter was recently completed. At the request of the Council, as stated in the resolution I sponsored last year “In Support of Actions to Combat the Public Health Crisis of Systemic Racism,” this review was done with a specific request to “update ordinances that have been shown to have a disproportionate impact on communities of color and adversely affect marginalized populations.” Some of the recommendations made by the Special Committee for Review of Ordinances are already in process, or in the case of some of the aforementioned zoning, have been enacted. I look forward to working on the other ordinances and areas that the Committee recommended for adoption or further study. And as was noted by the Committee and the Council, there is a great deal more work to be done to carefully examine all of our ordinances, as well as policies, for bias and inequity.

I am hopeful that we can make Northampton a city where people from all backgrounds and income levels feel welcome and are able to build a comfortable life for themselves and their families. But it will take work to reduce barriers to living in Northampton. I am committed to continue working for expanded affordable housing, great public schools, accessible public transportation, and public safety services that protect and respect all.  

The municipal election is scheduled for Tuesday, Nov. 2. If needed, a preliminary election would be held on Sept. 28. Shanna Fishel is also running for mayor. Jared Greenberg has registered with OCPF (Office of Campaign and Political Finance) as a mayoral candidate but has yet to announce an official campaign.

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