The use of Covid relief funds to buy thousands of canvas tote bags that were never used has quickly become a political issue in Westfield, where Mayor Shelly Brindle is up for re-election this year.
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Her Republican opponent, JoAnne Neylan, said Brindle needs to take some responsibility for how money from a federal CARES Act grant obtained by the non-profit Downtown Westfield Corporation was spent.
“Mayor Brindle has spent four years picking around the fringes of the real issues plaguing the health of our wonderful downtown, and it shows,” said Neylan, a former councilwoman. “While business owners in Summit were receiving direct relief to pay their rent, leadership in Westfield missed a major opportunity to support our local economy.”
Part of the federal funding was used to purchase 2,000 tote bags promoting downtown shopping, but those bags were never distributed and have been sitting in storage.
“The people of Westfield deserve to know what is ‘wildly successful’ about thousands of bags sitting in a locker?” Neylan asked.
But Patricia Hanigan, a local businesswoman who chairs the Downtown Westfield Corporation, pushed back on Brindle’s responsibility for tote bags.
“The mayor is not a voting member of the Downtown Westfield Corporation,” Hanigan said. “All the decisions were made through a unanimous decision by the volunteer board.”
Hanigan said that the group was looking for “creative, innovative ways to bring foot traffic to downtown.”
As the owner of a store that sells artisanal olive oils, Hanigan explained that she grew concerned last summer – when orders with suppliers needed to be placed — that holiday season retail sales would be down as a result of the pandemic.
“If I didn’t have the sales, I would have been out of business,” she said.
Hanigan praised the program initiated by her organization that she called “extremely successful.”
Some of the CARES Act dollars helped pay for a local delivery service for businesses.
“I didn’t have to hire another employee to do deliveries,” said Hanigan.
As for the tote bags, Hanigan said they arrived too late to use.
“They’re not going to go to waste,” Hannigan stated.
And Hanigan scolded Neylan for claiming that the late-arriving tote bags were Brindle’s fault.
“She knows better than to say the mayor had anything to do with decisions,” she said.
Still, Neylan maintains that Brindle needs to be replaced.
“As a Councilwoman, I worked incredibly hard to make Westfield one of the best communities in America,” the GOP candidate said. “I am running because I truly believe Mayor Brindle has taken us on a path that is undoing that.”