The Ward 3 candidates fielded hardball questions from the group of 23 students who volunteered to help organize and put on the debate.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — A candidate for public office faces tough questions during the election season.
On Tuesday, Ward 3 candidates were peppered with tough questions from those who could end up being the most affected by their election — the fifth grade students at Egremont Elementary.
A group of 23 pupils went beyond studying civics in the classroom and volunteered to put on a debate between Nicholas Caccamo and Richard Latura. The two are seeking a seat on the City Council representing the ward.
"It is firsthand study of government. Most of them didn't know what a councilman did [prior to the debate]," said teacher Judy Callahan."Hopefully it is a memorable experience for them."
The idea originated about a month ago from the School Council, which was discussing the fifth grade civics lessons. The students started the lesson when Mayor Daniel Bianchi visited the class to explain how government works. From there, the School Council and the school worked together on the debate idea and Pittsfield Community Television agreed to film and televise it.
"We're always discussing what academic programs are happening in the school," said Dennis Guyer, a former state representative and member of the council. "It sort of organically came, 'why not have a debate?'"
He added, "there are 500 kids here, that's 500 families. This [election] is important for the whole school community."
The debate supplemented the lessons created by teacher Karen McHugh and Callahan, Christopher Blau and Christine Barry worked together to take the lessons into each of the fifth grade classrooms.
A core group of 23 students led the efforts to organize the debate and did everything from asking questions to running the PCTV cameras. Each of the fifth grade classes developed questions and the top 12 were chosen for the debate.
"The questions were all developed by the students," Guyer said.
The students had three rehearsals (one being a dress rehearsal in from of the entire fifth grade class) and on Tuesday, the live debate hit the airwaves.
Caccamo led off with an opening statements saying he is the best choice to get the voices of Ward 3 heard.
"We make decisions that affect the whole city. But the mark of a good Ward 3 councilor is one who responds to constituents' concerns," Caccamo said.
Meanwhile, Latura said he wants to lead a change in City Hall with a focus on public safety.
"We get the same cookie-cutter politicians years after year," he said. "You can't have change when you get the same thing."
The students' questions included ways to reduce class sizes and traffic dangers on street they live on, parking at Deming Park, healthy school lunches, streetlights and cleanliness of the waterways and of the city.
Latura said the traffic questions are a main focus of his campaign. He said he wants to make sure the side streets are safe and the way to do that is to reduce traffic on residential areas and get them onto the main roads.
"The biggest problem in our ward, that I see, is traffic on the side streets. We need to get the cars off of the side roads and onto the main roads," he said, adding that he would push to hire more police officers to patrol. "We need a high police presence."
The debate took short breaks for students to present facts about Berkshire County they discovered during their civics research.
Caccamo said he would be an advocate for additional speed bumps and signage that will slow traffic in troubled areas.
Meanwhile, Caccamo said the biggest issue facing the ward is vacant buildings and properties — particularly the former Hibbard School and the former Grossman's lot. He said he would push for reuse for those sites.
Also regarding roads the children live on, Caccamo said he supports retrofitting the street lights with modern technology that allows the city to control them remotely, thus reducing energy costs. Latura said he would like to see all of the streetlights switched to LED to both increase brightness and reduce energy usage.
In a question about the plowing of the roads, Latura said the city contracts that out and it hasn't worked. He advocates for having the city's Department of Public Works take over the plowing because it would make it a priority and would not have private contracts to attend to first.
Meanwhile, Caccamo says he "isn't opposed" to contracting for the service because the city would have to add staff in order to make sure the job is complete. He believes he can work with the city and the contractors to set priorities of roads that need to be plowed. And the same goes for repairs to road surfaces, he said.
"The key is how loud your voice can be promoting Ward 3," Caccamo said.
The pupils were also concerned with contamination of the waterways; both candidates agreed that the cleanup progress is being made — slowly. Latura said all of the waterways are contaminated in some way but the city is on the right track with it. Caccamo said the city is working with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to rebuild the ecosystems and that in 20 to 30 years, there will be a very much improved system.
However, Caccamo also said the Housatonic River needs to be dredged.
"We need to work on a long-term solution that will get the contaminated sediment away from city," he said.
In response to a question about graffiti and litter, Latura said there are programs that are not being utilized to help clean up. He advocated for working with the Berkshire County House of Correction to have inmates clean neighborhoods and advocated for organizing community cleanups.
Caccamo said with proper oversight and times, he would also support using inmates for cleanups. He also said he would push for additional police patrols to go to schools at night as a deterrent to graffiti and vandalism.
For education, Latura said he would try to seek out additional funds from the state. He said the gaming legislation "promised" additional money for schools but that has yet to be seen. He says he will work on finding out how to get more funds from the state.
"Public education, we really have to stand behind it," Latura said. "We need to get as much money into it as we can."
Caccamo works for the school system so he won't be able to vote on the budget itself. He says he will push for additional funds for the school — particularly by adding math and literacy coaches. As for lunches, Caccamo says he believes the school should look into programs such as a "farm-to-school" program to bring in healthy options. He also said he would support building in additional professional development days for the cafeteria workers to learn about healthy alternatives.
Latura also said he would like to hire additional teachers as needed to keep class sizes small. Caccamo said he would work with the teachers' union to negotiate maximum class sizes.
Dennis Guyer served as moderator.
When the student questions ran out, Guyer, who was serving as moderator, asked some of his own. In response to the proposed retail construction at the William Stanley Business Park, both candidates strongly opposed the retail option.
"These are minimum-wage jobs. They will only shift jobs in the long run and other retail businesses will close," Caccamo said. "Retail is probably the worst thing the city could put there."
Latura called for "real jobs" with benefits and good pay — particularly companies organically grown from within the city rather than from out of town developers.
As for crime, Latura reiterated his push for additional police officers while Caccamo said the budget doesn't allow for that much of an increase in the force. Caccamo said he would look for "more progressive" methods such as the city's recent hiring of a crime analyst to fight crime more efficiently.
Latura and Caccamo both called for the Elm Street merchants to band together in efforts to promote business outside of the downtown areas.
"I want the businesses to get the attention they deserve," Latura said.
But, neither would answer the toughest question of them all — Teo's or Hot Dog Ranch?
While the students aren't quite old enough to vote yet, Principal Judy Rush told them that "the people who are in office now are making decisions that affect your life now and in the future."