Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Richie's Wrath

During the spring and summer of 1984, Mitch Ogulewicz found himself preoccupied with two major issues, both of which would have a long ranging impact on Springfield’s future, political and otherwise.

The first was an issue that has risen repeatedly in Springfield - the return of minor league baseball to the City of Homes. Like thousands of other Springfield residents, Ogulewicz has fond memories of the old Pynchon Park on the Connecticut River and the Eastern League team that played there called the Springfield Giants. He remembered his favorite players, like Juan Marichal, the Alou brothers, Jimmy Ray Hart, Jose Pagan and Tom Haller. Unfortunately, the stadium was less than a financial success and burned down under suspicious circumstances in 1966, never to be rebuilt. Since then politicians from time to time had raised the possibility of bringing back baseball to Springfield, including Mitch Ogulewicz in his campaign of 1983.

Once elected Ogulewicz was determined that a serious effort be undertaken to discover whether the construction of a new baseball stadium would be feasible. Fortunately he had an ally in his cause in the new Mayor Richie Neal, who himself had been an enthusiastic fan of the Springfield Giants in his youth.

One day Neal called Ogulewicz and asked him if he would serve as co-chairman of a study committee to look into the feasibility of constructing a new stadium. Mitch was happy to accept and Neal informed him that his co-chairman would be Garry Brown, a sports editor for the Springfield Newspapers. Others who served on the committee were John Lyons of the Department of Public Works, mayoral aide Alan Howard, Atty. Thomas Murphy, Paul Stelzer of Monarch Capital Corporation and others. The study committee held frequent meetings over nearly a year, interviewing experts on architecture, sports economics, visiting existing stadiums and gathering citizen input.

It is interesting to note that, in sharp contrast to later efforts in 1999-2000 to build a stadium, Mayor Neal and the committee agreed that the stadium should be built completely with private money (aside from minimal public monies for incidental infrastructure work) and they never considered taking land by eminent domain.

When their final report was released the following spring, the committee had identified six potential sites for a new stadium (none of which was the Northgate Plaza site that would be considered in the 1990's). Two sites in particular, the Cottage Street landfill and the former location of the Springfield Airport off of Roosevelt Avenue were regarded as especially promising.

Unfortunately, the sharp downturn of the local economy in the late 1980’s put an end to the stadium discussions until a decade later, at which time it resurfaced in a radically different form that was heavily dependent upon taxpayer funds and required the forced confiscation of private businesses at Northgate Plaza by eminent domain. By then, the far less controversial and much less divisive proposals of the Ogulewicz/Brown committee had been forgotten.

At the same time that Ogulewicz was heading the Mayor’s committee inquiring into the feasibility of a baseball stadium, Mitch found himself drawn into yet another area of controversy. Prominent 16 Acres activist Susan Montigney had contacted Ogulewicz over what she considered to be appalling conditions at 16 Acres Elementary School (now called the Mary Walsh School). At first Mitch was skeptical, but he was soon in total agreement when Montigney took him on a guided tour. The primary problem appeared to be the deplorable condition of the school’s roof, which in one classroom actually had roots crawling across a wall from a sapling that had sprouted on the roof and penetrated the ceiling!

As Ogulewicz investigated further, he discovered that the same sorts of problems were present in other schools, with most of the roofs of the city’s schools in a terrible state of deterioration. When it rained, some schools had to put out buckets, waste paper baskets and barrels to catch the rain from leaky roofs and ceilings. The roofing problems were the result of years of neglect, with the city's maintenance funding woefully inadequate to maintain the public's property. Mitch took his concerns to Council President Brian Santaniello, who suggested that the issue be put before the Council’s Public Health and Safety Committee headed by Councilor Francis Keough. The three of them requested that Building Commissioner Charles G. Cook go out and inspect the roofs of the city’s school buildings and then submit a report to the Committee.

The report turned out to be a devastating condemnation of the city’s maintenance of its public schools. Of Springfield’s then 39 schools, the roofs of 30 were found to be in need of replacement or major repair. Two schools, Duggan Jr. High and Liberty Elementary, were found to be so bad that they posed a potential safety hazard. The publicity resulting from the report caused a public outcry demanding that immediate action be taken.

It was at that point that Ogulewicz received a phone call from the Mayor’s secretary asking him to come by the Mayor’s office. Mitch had no idea what the Mayor wanted to talk to him about, but it was not uncommon for Neal to ask to meet with individual Councilors on one matter or another, although it was seldom arranged so formally. When Mitch arrived at City Hall, Mayor Neal invited him inside his office and asked Mitch to be seated. There was a cold formality to the manner in which the Mayor then walked over to the office door and quietly closed it to insure their privacy. Silently, the Mayor took his seat behind his desk. Then to Mitch’s complete shock the Mayor exploded into an obscenity laced tirade against Mitch for having raised the school roof issue.

“What the hell do you think you’re doing!” the Mayor shouted. “No one can see a f***ing roof! The public only cares about what they can see - fixed potholes, clean streets, terraces and flowers! No one cares about f***ing roofs! This is not an issue I want to deal with now and you are embarrassing my administration!”

Mitch could do nothing but stare at the screaming Mayor in amazement. Then Neal seemed to regain a measure of composure and his voice got low and mean. Leaning closer to Ogulewicz, he pointed his finger an inch from Mitch’s face.

“Alright,” he said, “I’ll fix your f***ing roofs. After all this publicity, I have no choice. But I’m warning you Ogulewicz, if I have to lay-off any employees to pay for those f***ing roofs, I’m gonna tell them that it was your fault and that the voters should put all the blame for the layoffs on you!”

By this time Mitch had recovered enough from his shock over the Mayor’s conduct to respond in kind. Rising angrily from his chair Ogulewicz pointed his finger in Neal’s face precisely as the Mayor had done to him. Neal appeared startled.

“Don’t you f***ing tell me you’re gonna lay ANYBODY off,” Ogulewicz shouted, “because the only people you’ve hired since the election are all YOUR F***ING FRIENDS and you’re not gonna fire a f***ing single one of ‘em!”

The Mayor had never expected this forceful response and looked extremely uncomfortable, but Ogulewicz wasn’t through yet.

“Don’t talk to me about MY roofs because they’re not my f***ing roofs! They’re the roofs that the children of this city sit under everyday and they’re rotting and they’re dangerous and you will not f***ing tell me that I am wrong to point that out or wrong to demand that they be fixed!”

This last statement seemed to have an impact on Neal, who for several long seconds simply sat looking down at his desk without speaking. In the silence the tension hung heavily in the air. Mitch didn’t know how to read the expression on the Mayor’s face. Finally Neal muttered something about having nothing else to say, so Ogulewicz quietly showed himself out the door.

Leaving City Hall Ogulewicz could hardly believe what had transpired. He was stunned that the Mayor, in response to the discovery of a potential physical threat to the well-being of the city’s schoolchildren, had become enraged because no one could see school roofs and therefore there was no political advantage to fixing them. Even more incredible, Mitch couldn't believe that he had been threatened with political ruin if any of Neal’s friends lost their jobs because of the expense of repairing the roofs. Mitch had to wonder whether it was possible for Richard Neal to consider any issue in anything but self-serving political terms.

Ultimately Mayor Neal did direct the members of his Administration to work with the Council and the School Committee to develop a funding schedule for repairing the roofs. However, a comprehensive plan for school maintenance and construction would not be developed until many years later.

In the wake of his confrontation with Neal, however, Mitch was quite discouraged. As far as Ogulewicz was concerned, all he had done was try to address a safety issue brought to his attention by the parents of Springfield school children, a danger which was then later confirmed by the city’s Building Commissioner. If he wasn’t supposed to serve the citizens of Springfield when they came to him with their legitiment concerns, then who or what was he supposed to be serving?

Those who expected his servitude would soon make their presence known.

Another issue involving city buildings was the search for a homeless shelter. This attempt to place one in Winchester (Mason) Square was unsuccessful.

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