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Sue Bush
More articles from Sue Bush

Clark H. Billings: City Council Candidate

By Susan Bush
12:00AM / Friday, September 30, 2005

City Council candidate and MCLA Professor Clark H. Billings
•SEE VIDEO INTERVIEW
•SEE VIDEO INTERVIEW

North Adams – Clark H. Billings, 64, of 206 Corinth St., said that he is seeking reelection to the City Council for the same reason he continues to teach.

“I just enjoy it,” Billings said during a Sept. 28 interview. “You can put your heart and soul into it. I think what I’ve always brought to the [city council] is a blend of experience and theory. Work to me is a four-letter word; something you enjoy doing isn’t work.”

Billings is among eight incumbent city councilors and seven challengers vying for nine city council seats during a Nov. 8 city election. City Councilor William Donovan announced earlier this month that he will be moving from the city and is no longer seeking reelection to the council.

Billings teaches public administration, political science and history at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts. He has spent just over 19 years as a city councilor, but did not serve consecutive terms. In 1982, after reelection to a second council term in 1981, Billings resigned from the council to accept a town administrator job in Wilbraham, Mass.. He returned to the area and was appointed to fill a mid-term council vacancy in 1985, and lost reelection bids in 1995 and 1997. Voters returned Billings to the council in 1999.

Billings said that he respects the will of the voters and believes that when he was ousted from the council, the voters made the right decision.

“I didn’t deserve to be put back on,” he said, and cited some remarks he made very close to the election that were publicized in the media.

Billings is married to Janice O’Keefe. Two sons live out of the area.

City Gains

The city has shed a less-than-stellar image and emerged as a destination point over the past two decades, Billings said.

“I think we’ve made great progress,” he said, and noted that Yankee magazine, which once published an article that referred to the city as a “dirty mill town,” has recently termed the city “a wonderful place to go.”

The city is appearing with some frequency on “top” lists, including a spot on a “top 100 art towns” list, Billings said. The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and the Porches Inn on River Street have been cited in national publications, he said.

And the city council has twice revised city regulations so that proposals for artist housing developed by artist and property developer Eric Rudd could move forward, Billings said.

A city-wide crackdown on property owners who failed to maintain city standards involving health, habitability, and other building regulations has improved the city’s appearance and appeal, he said.

A “balanced approach” to development is necessary to maintain diversity within the city, Billings said.

“We have to do things in development, housing, in particular, affordable housing, for different income groups,” he said.

A focus for Billings is continuing the effort to draw MASS MoCA visitors to the downtown, Billings said. He has offered ideas such as creating a sculpture walk along Main Street to Eagle Street, and said that he believes that strategy or something similar, would be effective.

But the City Council cannot order strategies into existence, he noted.

“So these are the ideas that are out there, but are not the jurisdiction of the council,” he said.

The council needs to be supportive of Mayor John Barrett III and his leadership, Billings said and noted that as mayor, Barrett's support for projects and initiatives is vital to any project.

Hybrid Taxis

Billings said that he has an idea that could benefit city taxicab companies and taxi patrons, and could involve the council. A purchase of hybrid vehicles that taxi companies could lease might help curb vehicle fuel use and expense, and might also keep cab fares at an affordable level, Billings said.

Billings said that he hasn’t researched all the details, but believes the idea is worth pursuing. Earlier this month, the city council approved a $1 fare hike at the request of cab company owners. The summer’s spike in fuel costs caused the request, but cab owners have since told Billings that the increase was a “double-edged sword,” Billings said. The company owners needed the fare hike to remain in business but some taxi customers are finding it difficult to pay the increased fare. Returning to a former “zone system” for taxi fares might be a solution, Billings said, but added that acquiring hybrid vehicles as a source of public transportation could prove to be a better answer.

“We have to keep the cabs in business, they provide a valuable service,” Billings said, and noted that many city residents rely on the taxis for transportation.

If the costs become prohibitive, many taxi users may be unable to pay the fares, and the “service” would be lost, he said. But the cab companies cannot escape the cost of vehicle fuel.

Billings said that there may be grant funds available for public transportation initiatives, and said that a non-profit entity such as the Northern Berkshire Community Coalition might be willing to research grants and apply for any available funds.

“It would work for the public and it would work for the cabbies,” he said. “Some ideas the City Council can’t work out, but this one, we probably could.”

Billings said that he’s not advocating “putting windmills up in North Adams” but alternative energy resources do have to be considered.

“I think it’s something the city could get involved with, it could work, but as always, the devil is in the details,” he said.

Downtown

Billings acknowledged that city zoning laws are “tough.”

“And they are there for a reason,” he said.

“When we see opportunities for businesses of different types to come into town, we should encourage them,” he said, but added that responsible development doesn’t allow for blanket approval of all proposals.

Billings said that a First Hartford Corp. plan to put a Peebles department store at the K-mart plaza meets his approval but “that’s the only part of the First Hartford plan that I like.”

Plans for a dollar-type store and a mattress store do not pass Billings’ muster, he said, and added that an alternative plan supported by Barrett and proposed by a different investor group appears a better fit for the downtown.

Billings also supports benches on Main Street but said that the move should come from business owners, who would own the benches as private property. The business owners would then have control over the benches and could ask people to “move along” if necessary.

Public benches are just that, and police do not have the authority to force people to move from public property except under specific circumstances, such as physical violence.

The Mayor and the Marketplace

As mayor, Barrett has sole control over municipal board and commission appointments, Billings said. He believes that Planning and Zoning board members are doing a good job, he said.

“In a strong mayor government, the mayor makes the appointments,” Billings said, and added that city councilors do not have confirmation authority. “You don’t appoint someone to boards who doesn't reflect your philosophy.”

The marketplace drives much of the city economy, Billing said. He recalled the burst of technology-based businesses that appeared in the city several years ago.

“Then there was a downturn in the high-tech industry altogether and everything went away,” he said. “And that was the marketplace, that was nothing the city could do anything about.”

Billings said that he believes that city voters are intelligent and “always have been.” He said he hopes that voters return him to the council and looks forward to serving another term.

“It’s still fun,” he said.

Susan Bush may be reached via e-mail at suebush@iberkshires.com or at 802-823-9367.

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