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Alcombright, Moulton Spar in First Mayoral Debate
By Tammy Daniels On: 12:18AM / Thursday October 24, 2013
Robert M. Moulton Jr., in red tie, and Richard Alcombright shake hands after a debate at McCann Technical School. The moderator was retired Adams Town Clerk Paul Hutchison.

NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The mayoral candidates spent 90 minutes sparring in a debate Wednesday that was to focus on economics but turned on crime and the incumbent's record.

Richard Alcombright, running for a third term, said he had "made tough decisions that didn't always make me popular" over the last four years, but vowed to continue efforts to revitalize the city.

Challenger Robert M. Moulton Jr., a local businessman and former councilor, repeatedly attacked Alcombright's record and said he "will get the city moving in the right direction again and make sure the middle class of North Adams is a voice again."

The debate, the first of two prior to the election, was held at McCann Technical School with an audience of about a 200 and was sponsored by the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce.

Moderator was Paul Hutchinson, retired Adams town clerk. The candidates were allowed an opening and closing statement; questions were asked by a panel of media — Gabriel Kogel of the MCLA Beacon, Jennifer Huberdeau of the North Adams Transcript,  Megan Duley from WNAW radio and Tammy Daniels, editor of iBerkshires. The candidates were given 2 minutes to respond, 1 minute for rebuttal, and then 30 seconds for more.

The candidates agreed on little other than that the city should do more to partner with Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and that repeat violent offenders should be jailed, not let back on the streets.

They disagreed on virtually everything else,  including how to manage the wave of break-ins and violent behavior that's hit the city this summer.

"We need more police, we need more police, we need more police," said Moulton.

"Four years ago when you ran, it was your No. 1 priority, since then it's gotten drastically worse, drastically worse," he said to his opponent. He said the city's violent crime rate was 40 to 45 percent higher than the state's and that 1 in 218 residents had a chance of being a victim of violent crime, but did not say where he got the statistics.

Alcombright said he recognized the fact that crime has gone up. "The biggest thing we've done since April is engage with the district attorney's office and the state police," he said, which has resulted "in many more arrests."

Putting officers on the beat isn't the only answer, he said, because the city has addiction, social and mental health issues that must be addressed. "Crime has grown because of many social factors," said Alcombright. "The root cause of these problems is addiction, is poverty and is joblessness and we're working all of those issues."

Moulton said he'd "failed miserably." "I walked the streets and I thought taxes would be No. 1," he said. "Overwhelming, overwhelmingly,  2 to 1, it was crime."

Alcombright said pointed to the jobs he'd brought in or helped keep here, including the 120 jobs at Crane & Co. that were set to leave four years ago but which have now doubled, the nearly 100 new jobs at Walmart and the low vacancy rate in the downtown.

Moulton said more needed to be done to bring in jobs and increase the tax base. He did make clear that he would not stand in the way of the demolition of St. Francis' Church, which has been eyed as a site for a national drugstore chain.

Alcombright has opposed the church's destruction as a historic building and an iconic view integral to the city, backing an ordinance that would delay demolition for historical review.  But he pointed out that the proposed buyer could have applied for a permit in the past three years and, at this point, have taken the building by now.

They also sparred over Alcombright's most recent initiative, the privatization of Western Gateway Heritage State Park. 

The incumbent touted the recent agreement with developers to invest some $6 million into the park, including a MassWorks grant, and a flat lease payment of $750,000 for 20 years.

Moulton said the original proposal 20 years ago failed. "Economically it wasn't feasible and I think the economy is worse now," he said, and thought the another request for proposals should be issued since only two had been received.  "It's kind of a one-shot deal and we might want to this right the first time."

He also called into question how much the lease agreement would mean since the city used $150,000 to buy the Sons of Italy.

Alcombright said he had been working for 2 1/2 years to bring private development into the park.

"The public sector should not be operating a retail establishment," he said. The city had been able to get $1.6 million investment to leverage nearly $4 million — and a total of $10 million when the Berkshire Scenic Railway comes in — to get the park back on the tax roles, he continued, and the $150,000 had been from a Redevelopment Authority fund and had nothing to do with the project. (The money had initially been approved for repairs.)

"I don't live in the world of what happened 20 years ago, I live in the world of what will happen now," said Alcombright. "It's a different economic climate."

The inevitable albatross of mayoral elections — the fate of the Mohawk Theater — was again brought up.

"We have wonderful plans, we don't have money," said Alcombright. Standalone theaters, he said, "are not a sustainable model."

He has been in talks with the college to take over operation of the Mohawk as part of its fine and performing arts department, which will also further connect the downtown to the school.

Moulton said the city should find an investor for the theater and take advantage of credits and grants.

In fact, he saw grants as a possible solutions for many of the city's issues, including the looming capital projects such as the police and fire station and the water and sewer infrastructure, saying that "millions of dollars" could be available.

"Economically where we are right now, I think we're bumped up the ladder because of our economic situation," he said.

Alcombright said if there was a grant for building a police station they would have found them by now. "Take a ride folks, look around, there is so much to be done here," he said. "The only way we're going to get capital projects is to borrow."

The city's borrowing debt will fall significantly in 2019, said Alcombright.

The two also differed over the master planning process, with Moulton touting the nearly 20-year-old Hyatt Palma downtown report as perfectly suitable while Alcombright pointed to the ongoing North Adams 2030 master plan as being more inclusive and modern.

As for taxes, Moulton accused Alcombright of reneging on a promise not to raise taxes or shift the commercial rate lower; Alcombright denied he had ever made such a promise.

Alcombright said Moulton as a councilor had voted in the past to raise taxes, which had averaged a 6 percent increase a year as state  "Taxes have increased because basically we needed to fund things," he said. While the city's budget has increased about 1.5 percent the last four years, state aid had dropped

Moulton said Alcombright had been left with a $2 million reserve: "the money you were left with is not there anymore."

Alcombright said it was because he'd also been left with a $2 million deficit, which has been whittle down to about $300,000. He defended again his attempt for a Proposition 2 1/2 override two years ago, saying the city would have been better off in balancing the budget for the long term rather than "mercilessly" cutting school programs.

"This is still the cheapest place and least expensive place to live" in the Berkshires and compared to similar communities, he said. "The average tax bill is a little over $2,600."

Moulton said the middle class was hurting because of the fees but at one point in the debate described the tax rate as "pretty affordable" in terms of buying housing here.

The two agreed of the importance of the MCLA to the city, with Moulton suggesting a liaison to City Council and Alcombright describing his frequent communication with its leaders. In answering how can the city attract college students downtown, Alcombright said it had been a topic for years and Moulton asked Kogel, the questioner, "What are you looking for?"

Moulton said there was nothing downtown except for dinner and a movie; Alcombright that there were clothing and sports stores but the they needed to stay open later.

Both were cautious about medical marijuana dispensaries, agreeing they need to be very regulated. Moulton said needed to do more research; Alcombright was going to ask the City Council for a six-month moratorium to review the issues.

The debate was taped by Northern Berkshire Community Television Corp. for replay on daily on Thursday through Wednesday, Oct. 24-30. The candidates will also debate on Wednesday, Oct. 30, from 9 to 10 live on WNAW radio.

 

 



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Pittsfield School Committee Candidates Weigh In On Issues
By Joe Durwin On: 06:56PM / Tuesday October 22, 2013
Six of seven candidates vying for 6 seats on the School Committee participated in a debate at BCC on Monday night.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Six of seven candidates running for six available seats on the city's School Committee made their case for election during a debate on Monday night.
 
Daniel Elias, an eight-term incumbent and current vice chairman, and Katherine Yon, current secretary, along with newcomers Joshua Cutler, Pamela Farron, Anthony Riello and Cindy Taylor, outlined their perspectives on a few of the district's challenges and the past and future performance of its governing committee during the sole debate for this race.
 
An atmosphere of cordiality, full of compliments and points of enthusiastic agreements, between candidates prevailed throughout the one-hour forum, sponsored by the Pittsfield Gazette and Pittsfield Community Television as part of a series of election debates at Berkshire Community College.
 
Candidates expressed unanimity on the importance of maintaining two high schools, with the hope that state funding will allow either renovation or replacement of the current Taconic High building with a more advanced technical vocational school. Elias said he had made a "list of 50 reasons" not to reduce to one high school, and Yon said efforts by comparable communities to consolidate to one larger school had proved "disastrous." 
 
Farron agreed that "now is definitely the time to move forward" with the project, though she expressed concerns about whether all 15 of the vocational programs proposed by the school department will be approved by state school building authorities. Riello also favors a new "state of the art" Taconic, lauding the work done by the School Building Needs Commission; Cutler echoed the sentiments for two separate high schools, placing emphasis, however, on the committee's "fiduciary responsibility" to residents that will be still have to shoulder the approximately one fifth of the cost not reimbursed by the state.
 
 A greater diversity of approaches was offered to the problem of students being lost to other school districts through the school-choice option.  
 
"We need to sell our own product," Elias said, suggesting renewed public relations efforts and noting that the only previous spike in student retention had been correlated with an increased publicity campaign pushing Pittsfield school offerings.
 
Yon chalked a majority of the problem up to "false perception," and suggested that implementing some type of survey paperwork for families leaving a district school might help Pittsfield schools address their issues. "If you could have that one conversation ... it makes a huge difference."
 
"We really need to have to focus on the core of what we do, and we need to cater to what people want," said Cutler, recommending strengthening core curriculum and expanding special offerings such as vocational offerings and advanced placement courses.
 
Farron stressed a need to emphasize new educational innovations and grant programs being implemented, "There's so much that Pittsfield schools are already doing."  
 
"People leave for the same reasons they come here. Quality instruction is a big reason why people leave and its also a big reason why people come in," said Taylor, who said they also need to be aware of larger patterns and population shifts that will affect school choice in the future.
 
A number of responses addressed the nature of the committee's working relationships, both internally and with other parts of city government.
 
"There are some problems for sure. It is dysfunctional," said Farron in regard to some recent operations of the current body, but praised the level of effort she had seen from all the members.
 
Riello and Taylor refrained from criticism of the current committee, but expressed optimism in the ability of the committee to work together on common goals going forward.
 
"I feel that over the last couple of years there's been too much focus on minutiae, and less focus on what actually needs to get done," said Cutler, who said his organizational background and leadership qualities would aid in this.
 
"I can get along with everyone," said Elias, "You can disagree, and have a heated discussion, and then afterward shake hands and go home."
 
"Nobody should be allowed to be disrespectful," Yon commented on recent differences of opinion. "I think one of my strengths is making sure everyone behaves in a civil manner."
 
A seventh candidate on the ballot, Brittany Douglas, did not attend the event. Pittsfield Community Television staff indicated they had received no communication about the absence from Douglas, who also has not accepted an invitation to record a free candidate statement for airing on the station.


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Caccamo, Latura Differ in Pittsfield Ward 3 Debate
By Andy McKeever On: 01:58AM / Tuesday October 22, 2013
Nicholas Caccamo, left, and Richard Latura, right, are both seeking the Ward 3 seat on the City Council.

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The Ward 3 City Council candidates presented themselves as one who will work the system for ward residents versus one who will upset the apple cart to get what those residents want.

Richard Latura and Nicholas Caccamo are vying for the ward seat that will be open because incumbent Paul Capitanio is not seeking re-election.

On Monday, Caccamo and Latura faced off in a debate at Berkshire Community College, each making their case on how they can best serve the ward.

"I will be the guy that stands up and says what we need to do and when we need to do it. I won't sit there and be voiceless," Latura said. "I will have the loudest voice in the room."

Latura said the ward has been "unrepresented" for year because previous councilors focused on citywide issues more than individual concerns within the ward. Latura has set his sights on ward-specific issues such as getting traffic off side roads, increasing police presence and cleaning up the parks.

"My top priority is to get more police and firemen on the street," Latura said. "We have a lot of criminal activity in the parks. Our kids are not safe."

Caccamo focused more on process, saying he will work in the subcommittees and on the council to get residents' voices heard through his collaborative efforts.

"I am committed to the process of city government," Caccamo said. "I'm dedicated to promoting a pragmatic approach to government and work in subcommittees."

Caccamo, an employee of Pittsfield Public Schools, says he believes that investing in education should be the city's priority because that will later lead to economic development. He also says he wants the city to be more energy efficient to lower those costs while at the same time, he wants to make sure the roads, sidewalks and parks in Ward 3 are prioritized for upkeep and repairs.

"If we can improve the parks in Ward 3, we can attract other residents to come visit," Caccamo said.

Caccamo says he will be focused on "long-term" solutions such as changing the streetlights to be on a management system so the city can adjust the brightness and control from one area. Energy efficiency could save taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars, he said.

He said he would advocate for bicycle lanes and the redevelopment of vacant sites — particularly the former Hibbard School and the Grossman's lot.

Latura agreed with energy efficiency and said he wants the city to use more renewable energy — solar, wind. He, too, wants vacant lots and blighted properties to be reused and cleaned up. But his first goal is to make sure the neighborhoods are safe.

"My main objective would be the reroute traffic our of our neighborhoods and onto the main roads where they belong," Latura said.

Latura believes the schools are underfunded and envisions the city being "leaders in technology," a reason why Latura does not support the most recent proposal from Waterstone Reality to bring retail to the former General Electric land.

"They're low-paying, no-benefit jobs that will just leave another building empty," Latura said. "We really need to fill that spot and manufacturing is the way to do it."

Caccamo, too, rejects the idea of a retail development, calling for "living wage" jobs instead.

"It is a net-zero game because certainly it will close other retail," Caccamo said.

While the two do agree there, they disagree on the proposed city charter modifications. Caccamo says he is in favor of the change to make the mayoral term four years because it allows the residents to see some of initiatives come to fruition.

Latura, however, says he is fearful the additional years gives the mayor even more power and takes that from the councilors. Currently, the power is in the hands of the council but with only two-year terms for councilors proposed, that will give the mayor an advantage over newly elected councilors, he said.

Both candidates also agree that the council should work closer with school officials. However, Caccamo will need to abstain from the vote on the school budget, which Latura said isn't fair to the residents.

"Everybody in our ward deserves a voice on each and every vote," Latura said.

Caccamo responded by saying that the vote on the budget is the only vote he would abstain from and can still advocate for the school.

Overall, Caccamo says he will be looking for "progressive and new ways" to set the city up for long-term success. He wants the city to look at modern ways to reduce crime and economic development.

"At the end of the day, I am responsible to the residents of ward three," Caccamo said.

Latura said he will put in the effort needed to make sure Ward 3 neighborhoods are safe and he said he will not be ignored when it comes to those issues.



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Tully, Yon Argue Issues in Pittsfield Ward 1 Debate
By Andy McKeever On: 08:27PM / Monday October 21, 2013
Christine Yon, left, and Lisa Tully are both seeking election as the Ward 1 City Councilor.

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The future development of the former General Electric land seemed to be the biggest difference between the Ward 1 candidates during a debate at Berkshire Community College on Monday.

Incumbent Christine Yon is being challenged for the City Council seat by Lisa Tully. While Yon says there is room for mixed usage at the William Stanley Business Park, Tully says the city should focus on industry before considering anything else.

"I think we would be selling out with retail," Tully said, adding that the site has only been "marketable" for the last year and supports the administration's push for manufacturing. "Retail is going to be knocking on our doors in two years."

The newest proposal from Waterstone Reality for a massive box store on one of the Pittsfield Economic Development Authority's parcels has become a dividing issue in the city. Yon said she cannot make an opinion on that particular proposal at this point but says she isn't against uses other than manufacturing.

"There are challenges with the site in question. I do believe there is room for mixed use on the site," Yon said. "How long do we wait? That's what I wonder."

Yon said manufacturing is "very, very competitive" and there are hurdles in the way of attracting those companies. She cited the lack of access to highways and old school buildings as difficulties toward attracting the companies.

Another issue separating the two is the newly crafted city charter. Yon says she will not support the charter revisions because of the difference in terms between the mayor and city councilors. A Charter Review Commission is proposing a four-year term for mayor while continuing the two-year terms for city councilors.

"I would hate to see 10 percent of our population choosing our legislative branch of the government," Yon said, citing a low voter turnout during municipal elections that would be even less without a mayoral election.

Tully, however, says the move to four years for mayor is enough time for to learn the job and begin implementing policies before hitting the campaign trail.

"I think four years would be a good idea for mayor and I think the City Council should be two," Tully said.

Tully said if elected another focus would be stabilizing tax bills. She said the city should look at consolidating city-owned buildings and getting a better handle on the school budget. Yon agreed that there maybe places in the school budget to create efficiencies and added that she would work with department heads to keep a close eye on those budgets.

"We need to evaluate our school system and see where we can be more affective and efficient there," Yon said.

As for ward-specific issues, Yon said speeding cars and mosquito control are particularly pressing. Tully, however, said crime is a major concern.

"I think one of the major issues going on in the city right now is safety," Tully said. "It is swarming the city."

For Tully, crime, bringing in industrial jobs and taxes are her three main focuses; she says her goals would be to make sure the residents are heard.

"My goal in the upcoming election is to make sure all of my constituents are happy, that things are being done in a timely fashion," she said. "I want to bring those needs to City Hall."

Yon agreed and said the "most important issue being a ward councilor is the issue that is directly in front of you when that phone call [from a constituent] comes in."

Yon says for four years she has provided that type of service for Ward 1 residents and has produced "positive results."  But she still has the renovation of the Springside House, the extension of the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail and planning a future of the Tyler Street fire station to finish.

"I am passionate about these initiatives and I'd like to see them to completion," she said.

Tully took shots at Yon's record though and cited her votes on increasing the budget every year and being open to the retail option at the PEDA site as ways she is not representing the people. She added the City Council is "divided" and that needs to be fixed so the councilors can work together.

"I believe that a ward councilor is someone you can trust," Tully said. "I'm going to do what they want."

She said she has already begun finding out the residents concerns during the campaign and promised to be "a voice for them."

Tully is in her first bid to get involved in city politics while Yon has served multiple public roles — from churches to councilor to athletic clubs.

"I've always enjoyed being a leader and I work very well with people and developed great relationships that have led me to be affective in government," Yon said."I have four years of a record of accomplishments achieving positive results."

The debate was sponsored by the Pittsfield Gazette and Pittsfield Community Television. It was moderated by William Sturgeon.



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Coakley, Back in Berkshires, Says Economy Priority
By Andy McKeever On: 10:00PM / Wednesday October 16, 2013
Gubernatorial candidate Martha Coakley met with the Berkshire Brigades on Wednesday afternoon in her second trip to the Berkshires since announcing her candidacy.

PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Martha Coakley returned to the Berkshires on Wednesday and spoke to potential supporters about why she believes she is the best candidate for the governor's office.

The attorney general announced last month that she would be seeking election in 2014. This is her second visit to the Berkshires since announcing; she was to receive the Northern Berkshire Business and Professional Women's Woman of Achievement Award in the evening.

On Wednesday afternoon, the Berkshire native met with members of the Berkshire Brigades to ask for support and answer questions about her candidacy.

"I'm asking people to look at my record, what my vision is and what we've be able to do in terms of promoting a healthy economy in the attorney general's office, tackling problems, getting results and working for people in Massachusetts," Coakley said.

The campaign is still relatively green: Her staff is still recruiting volunteers and setting up office space. But, she has been meeting with active Democratic groups and "just walking into diners and meeting people."

"It's been a busy four weeks and I've gotten a great reaction from people who feel optimistic that the economy is getting a little better but they understand that we still need more work around it," Coakley said. "I think a lot of people feel it is time for a good woman in the office and I think people have been impressed with what we've been able to do in the attorney general's office."

Coakley says what she's heard from voters is that the economy is of most concern. She said people are working "twice as hard to be where they used to be" and the opportunities are not there.

"People want to move here and stay here so when we keep our health care costs down, our energy costs down, we will be successful in making this economy turn around and make sure it is for everybody," she said.

She says the economy can turn around and she has already worked with high levels of government on promoting economic activity. Coakley said the state level of government needs to work together for the people of Massachusetts.

Coakley says she's been meeting with people around the state to hear their concerns.

"Policies are great, implementation is great but there is a reason we have government — because we want it to be there for everybody," she said. "We work to solve problems and the next governor of this state needs to make sure we continue that economic turnaround for everybody."

Part of turning the economy around is having a good education system, she said.

Coakley says she supports longer school days and years and bringing together nonprofits and businesses to create job training programs for those who need new or different skills to return to the workforce.

"I know that we have wonderful system where we let the kids out just in time for the spring planting and we bring them back after the fall harvest. But, it is 2013 and our kids need to compete in the global marketplace," Coakley said. "I believe we need longer school days. We need better education for everyone and we need to look at how the school year is structured."

Coakley also lent her support to the Raise Up campaign of which the Berkshire Brigades are part. That campaign is gathering signatures to place questions on the ballot of raising the minimum wage and requiring all workers be given earned sick time.

"I support both of these. To me, those are no brainers," she said, adding that everybody can agree that a worker cannot live on the current minimum wage.

Coakley is the third Democratic candidate to meet with local voters in the past week: Dr. Donald Berwick and Steven Grossman, state treasurer, were here last week. Also, third-party candidate Evan Falchuk was at the Fall Foliage Parade.



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