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Holyoke City Council Meeting Provokes Heated Debate on ARPA Funds

The Council also discussed dispensary buffer zones, dirt bikes, and more.

By Bella Levavi

Holyoke City Council held a hybrid remote/in-person meeting on Tuesday, September 7th, discussing the allocation of money through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) and leaving some councilors outraged at where the money went. 

The federal government gave Holyoke $29 million through a COVID stimulus package, which the Council was then charged with disbursing to local nonprofits. Discussion regarding the funding allocations at the meeting quickly became heated. Councilor David Bartley (Ward 3) raised his voice and became visibly angry when discussing the large amount of funding for the Holyoke Housing Authority (HHA) coming at the expense of other organizations that provide programs for Holyoke children. Bartley continued to voice his frustration for receiving the allocation document at 5 p.m. that day, two hours before the meeting, and having little time to look it over. Terence Murphy, acting Mayor since the resignation of Alex Morse, responded, saying “no one has done as much for kids in this city as I have.” He went on to say he received $80 million in requests from entities in Holyoke and only had $14 million dollars in the budget in the first round of allocation. Councilor Juan Anderson-Burgos (Ward 6) told the council that they are still in a pandemic, and they must treat each other with patience and respect.

The Council also unanimously approved a grant from the Massachusetts Prohibition Services for $50,000 for programs for “at-risk-youth.” Some Council members noted during discussion that $8,000 of this money would be given to the Holyoke Police Department to oversee the grant program and utilize its Mobile Community Policing Program, and not be given to the Boys and Girls Club. The council also accepted a grant from the state totaling $246,443 for the 911 department for training and support.

Other business

    The meeting began by honoring the Hampden County Sheriff Nick Cocchi, for “providing countless hours of community service for the city of Holyoke.” Cocchi’s speech was mostly disrupted from the live stream by City Council members unmuting themselves while talking to others in their respective homes. Despite receiving accolades for serving the community, it should be noted that, as The Shoestring reported in 2019, the Hampden County Jail (under Cocchi’s leadership) used force disproportionately against people with psychiatric disabilities for, at times, minor rule infractions. 

    Four people spoke in the public comment section of the meeting. A group outside of Holyoke called the Sons and Daughters of Italy sent a letter to the City Council deploring the change of Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day. All four speakers, John Revera, Elizabeth Caretti Ramirez, Erin Callahan, and Andres Arthen, spoke about the letter defending the change of holidays. Revera said, “In a city where 52% of residents are descendants of the Tucano people, voting to keep the holiday of a mass murder is a great disservice to the people of Holyoke.” Later in the meeting, the Council voted unanimously to keep Indigenous People’s Day as a paid day off for people employed by the city.  

    The Council also discussed an item correcting buffer zones for cannabis dispensaries, mandating dispensaries be distant from other businesses. The council is conflicted about whether dispensaries should not be allowed to be near any business, or if they should only not be allowed next to schools and other areas with children. Councilor Anderson-Burgos gave an impassioned speech, saying that many people in the cannabis industry attacked Holyoke for having a “bad rep with flats.” He went on to say, “I am not going to praise you when you are degrading my people. If you want to praise something, praise and uplift the Latinos of this community.” Councilor Rebecca Lisi (At-Large) said many groups, including asthma coalitions, would like there to be a large buffer zone away from sidewalks and other public spaces to ensure better air quality. It was not mentioned that it is illegal to smoke cannabis in or near a dispensary in Massachusetts. Councilor Lisi stated there will be many more public hearings to give a platform for public concerns for cannabis businesses in Holyoke. 

    Also at the end of the meeting the council unanimously referred three items to the ordinance committee prohibiting dirt bikes. One item they discussed “allow[ed] the Holyoke Police Department the authority to confiscate and destroy illegal dirt-bikes.” They also discussed prohibiting gas stations from selling gas to illegal dirt bikes. It is unclear how the gas stations will know if the dirt bikes are illegal—seemingly, this ordinance places the onus of policing the dirt bikers on business owners. The council discussed how neighboring cities including Springfield made similar laws. During the summer the mayors of Holyoke, Springfield, and Chicopee have attacked the dirt bikers calling them uncivil and disrespectful. The three cities made a task force of all their police departments to go after dirt bikers in the area. In other parts of the state, the movement to crack down on dirt bike riders came earlier, prompting allegations that the call for more policing was simply a new iteration of old forces of racism and gentrification.

Bella Levavi is a journalist and student at Smith College. She lives in Hadley.

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