AGAWAM – The candidates for mayor covered a lot of ground at their first debate Wednesday morning at Chez Josef, the scene of a well-attended business breakfast hosted by the West of the River Chamber of Commerce.
The candidates — James P. Cichetti, Vakny Chonmany and William P. Sapelli — cited their commitment to the City of Agawam and fleshed out political platforms with similar themes: taxes, housing, education, economic development and public safety. But they mostly focused on what sort of experience and skills they would bring to the $85,000-a-year job.
The master of ceremonies for the two-hour session was West Springfield Mayor William C. Reichelt, who provided business updates to the big crowd in attendance before passing the mic to debate moderator Robert MacDonald, executive director of the Work Opportunity Center in Agawam.
All debate questions were emailed in advance to the West of the River Chamber, said Robin Wozniak, WRC’s executive director. The first half of the debate featured questions submitted by the public and chamber members, with candidates posing them to each other, while the second half featured a Lincoln-Douglas-style format, with candidates responding to queries read by MacDonald.
The exchanges between the candidates, not all of whom were asked the same questions, were mannerly with no interruptions or off-the-cuff remarks.
Outgoing Mayor Richard A. Cohen, a candidate for Agawam City Council, was not mentioned by name, but there were multiple references to the “mayor” and his “administration.”
Cichetti, president of the City Council, said he would bring positive change to the mayor’s office by improving communication between the city’s top official and councilors and department heads.
Cichetti, who has publicly criticized Cohen’s leadership style, said he would work to “bring all parties together” to ensure officials are on the same page.
Sapelli, a 40-year educator who retired in July as superintendent of Agawam Public Schools, said he had hoped Cichetti would have played a bigger unification role as council president.
Asked what he thinks the biggest issue facing Agawam is, Cichetti was quick to respond. “The lack of leadership,” he said, citing the “very combative” atmosphere in city government.
“We need a strong leader in the mayor’s office,” said Cichetti, who was born and raised in Agawam and owns a real estate business.
When asked the same question, Chonmany, a small business owner and boxing coach who was born in Laos, said he thinks Agawam is a good community that is doing well.
“Right now, we really don’t have a lot of big issues,” he said.
Sapelli identified political “sniping” as the city’s biggest obstacle, saying it must stop.
“If we don’t get our acts together, as a group, to govern properly … we’re not going to be here long,” he said, referring to voters’ ability to sack ineffective leaders.
On the issue of potential fallout from MGM Springfield, which is slated to open across the river from Agawam in fall 2018, the candidates expressed concerns about public safety, the casino’s ability to serve alcohol until 4 a.m., and other problems that may arise.
“We’re not immune from people coming over the bridge into Agawam,” said Sapelli, citing the potential for certain types of businesses to proliferate.
“Pawnshops will be popping up all over the place if we don’t get on top of that,” he said. “We’re constantly being reactive rather than proactive.”
Cichetti echoed similar concerns, saying the safety and protection of Agawam “taxpayers and businesses” should be of paramount concern to the city’s next mayor.
“I think the major concern of this issue is the safety aspect of it,” he said.
Sapelli questioned the efficacy of various plans and initiatives of the City Council and its subcommittees over the years, saying many of these plans have never been implemented.
“We have all these plans, but what actually has happened or has been put into place?” Sapelli asked.
Cichetti then asked the former school superintendent to identify what he thinks is the city’s “most pressing capital need.”
Before responding to the question, Sapelli said the problem stems from one person making decisions about capital projects, rather than a group of people making decisions. He pledged to involve all stakeholders in the process.
Sapelli identified roads, sidewalks and other infrastructure improvements as much-needed capital projects in Agawam.
“We have buildings that need to be done,” he said, hearkening back to his earlier comments about too many plans and not enough action.
“We have to not just develop these plans, but actually utilize the plan, put it into action,” Sapelli said.
Cichetti has a capital plan, he said, and improving Agawam’s infrastructure is at the “forefront of that capital improvement plan.”
Cichetti asked Chonmany if he supported the idea of building large-scale solar facilities in Agawam’s agricultural zones.
“Leave it up to the people,” Chonmany said. “Put it on the ballot.”
Cichetti said he supports the idea, while Sapelli raised concerns about “spot zoning,” or granting a use classification that differs from the classification of surrounding land within the same zoning category.
Looking ahead to January 2018, when the next mayor of Agawam is scheduled to be sworn in for a two-year term, Sapelli was asked what the first 100 days of his administration might look like.
Lots of meetings with department heads to “set goals and objectives,” he answered. “Get people to know who you are. Get people to know you care.”
Chonmany said he is “uniquely qualified” to be mayor because of his background, describing an early life that resembled a veritable Horatio Alger story: He was born in Laos, where he experienced the tail end of the Vietnam War, spent time in a refugee camp in Thailand, then immigrated to the U.S. as a young boy.
In Agawam, Chonmany attended city schools, earned a bachelor’s in computer science from Westfield State University, and worked in the software and information technology fields before opening his own boxing and muay thai facility.
“I came from a world of nothing,” said Chonmany, who arrived in America wearing only a T-shirt and a pair of pants.
As a lifelong boxer, Chonmany said he wants to fight for Agawam. That includes fighting to keep taxes low, he said. “I want to see this town in great shape,” he said.
Cichetti worked his way “from the bottom up” and now owns a “thriving” real estate business, he said. His experience in the private and public sectors makes him uniquely qualified to be mayor, he said, citing his years of public service as a coach and elected official in Agawam.
Cichetti said he can help “bring people together,” which is what Agawam needs. “I want to be the leader of this community because I want to bring this community forward,” he said. “I have the experience to work with the small business community.”
Sapelli said his ties to Agawam run deep, the city he has lived and worked in his entire life — except for his college years at St. Anselm’s in New Hampshire, where he earned a degree in economics.
After graduation, he went on to earn a master’s in education from American International College and a certificate of advanced graduate studies in administration from Westfield State University.
“I’ve been running the school district for the past six years,” said Sapelli, who retired in July.
As superintendent, Sapelli oversaw 700 employees and was responsible for the “safety and education” of 4,000 students, he said.
“It’s been proven,” he said, referring to his ability to lead, manage and budget. “I think with me, what you see is what you get.”
Whenever people ask him why he is running for mayor after recently retiring from the school district, Sapelli, who is in his sixties, always gives the same answer: “I still have a lot of energy,” he said.
He also has a skill set “that lends itself to this job,” he said. “I see Agawam in dire need of big changes.”
Asked about the roughly $85,000 salary he would earn as mayor — on top of his retirement from the school district, where he earned over $165,000 annually as superintendent – Sapelli said he decided a long time ago to forgo a more lucrative career in the private sector, where some of his college buddies were earning two or three times more than he was earning as a public school teacher.
“I decided I wanted to look at the bigger issue,” Sapelli said, pursuing a public-sector job with a pension at the end of his career. “Your retirement is your retirement,” he said.
And, he added, it is not unusual for public-sector employees — including police officers and teachers — to retire from one career and start a new one.
The election is Nov. 7.