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Four-term mayor Richard Cohen got booted out of office yesterday by the voters of Agawam, Mass. That’s the home of Six Flags New England. Cohen lost in an upset to Susan Dawson, a substitute teacher whose campaign centered on a parking ordinance pushed by Cohen and Six Flags that was straight out of the Dan Snyder playbook.
Just as parking rates at FedExField skyrocketed when Snyder took over control of the Redskins in 1999, parking rates at the nearby theme park have tripled since Snyder took over as chairman of the board at Six Flags in late 2005.
Up until this summer, visitors to Six Flags New England had been able to save some money by parking for $10 or less at private lots owned by small businessmen on Main Street in Agawam. But Cohen’s measure, passed in June, banned parking in those lots and forced parkgoers to use Six Flags lots and pay Snyder’s rates.
Cohen, shown here at the park with the Wiggles, initially told the city council that the measure was needed for traffic and pedestrian safety, and Six Flags CEO and Snyder partner Mark Shapiro traveled to the small burg to back up the mayor’s claim at hearings that the primary issue was safety, though the parking ordinance guaranteed Six Flags additional income of tens of thousands of dollars per day and created all sorts of havoc for city residents. The safety argument originally swayed the council even though there had been no injuries or accidents related to the private parking lots in the 20 years since these private lots offered the alternative parking option.
The council and townspeople turned on Cohen and against the parking ordinance, however, when they learned that Snyder had used the exact same safety argument in 2000 to get Prince George’s County to ban pedestrians from walking into FedExField on games days. The FedExField prohibition was overturned after a lawsuit on behalf of season ticket holders, and during that litigation the safety claim was shredded.
In September, the Agawam council voted unanimously to toss out the parking ordinance, and several councilmembers publicly apologized to residents and the local business community for having fallen for the safety pitch. After Dawson’s win, local media were quick to attribute her upset win, which came by a margin of just 44 votes out of about 1,100 cast, to the parking ordinance.
Turns out that Dawson’s campaign was managed by none other than Michael Palazzi, owner of a business that was prevented from parking cars by the Six Flags ordinance and the focus of the City Paper story. Palazzi says he got involved in the effort to defeat Cohen because of the control he felt the theme park was exerting over local politics and its cozy relationship with the mayor.
“The parking was it,” says Palazzi. “[Cohen] shot himself in both feet with that. He never thought anybody would beat him. He thought all he had to do was make Six Flags happy. Now, the SOB is out. I laid in bed last night, from 3 o’clock to 7 in the morning, just smiling. It’s totally amazing. We fought a multibillion dollar corporation and the corruption in this town, and we won. Good triumphed. The SOB is out.”
Palazzi says he’s now trying to find out if Six Flags paid for the ballroom Cohen rented for what was expected to be an election night victory party.