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Billings Honored for Decades of Service to North Adams

By Tammy Daniels
iBerkshires Staff
01:56AM / Wednesday, May 27, 2009
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Top, Clark H. Billings assumes the president's seat that he's held twice for a group photo. Above, current council President Alan Marden presents him with a plaque. Left, Mayor John Barrett III shares some thoughts about the veteran councilor.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Longtime City Councilor Clark H. Billings ended his many years of service by getting in the last word — almost.

His fellow councilors took time at Tuesday's meeting to honor him for the three decades he's spent on — and off — the board. The just-retired Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts history professor is moving to Rhode Island and, while the unpredictable Billings may well show up again, his friend and council President Alan Marden wanted to make sure he was properly recognized before the move.

"We wanted to say farewell, my friend," said Marden, who presented him with a plaque in honor of his service.

Billings arrived at the former North Adams State College in 1967, and five years later entered public service with an appointment to the Parks Commission. Leaving the council and the city won't be easy, he said.

"It's been almost two-thirds of my life," said Billings, adding it was time to retire. "It's been a good ride. I love the people. I love the town ... but it's time to move on."

The straight-talking Billings hasn't been afraid to take unpopular positions over the years on the council and on his cable public-access opinion show, most recently known as "Think About It." It earned him the sobriquet of "Prince of Darkness" from a former councilor that he's since worn with pride, and got him bounced from the council by the voters in the 1990s, a time he described as being exiled even as his current peers delicately referred to it as his time off.

Marden laughed it was just the voters' way of saying, "why don't you take a break, Clark?"

Billings continued his well-reasoned contrariness to the end, voting against the final adoption of an ordinance that would require mortgageholders to maintain vacant and foreclosed properties.

"I think it's a good idea but I don't think it's enforceable," he said, repeating arguments he'd made at the last meeting. It was a form of discrimination that he felt would target the local banks while larger national entities would ignore the demands of a small city like North Adams.

Billings was outvoted 7-1 (with Councilor Michael Bloom absent); but he joined his colleagues to adopt a second order detailing the fees for the ordinance and, in what could be his final vote, the adoption of fees for accepting a range of electronics and other waste at the transfer station.

"We need to have this available to the public, not just once a year," said Billings, who later on urged the council to consider sewer fees as well as it reviewed the budget.

Councilor Richard Alcombright, who met Billings on the basketball court many years ago, said he'd looked him up on ratemyprofessor.com and, taking off from four comments there, came up with a few to rate him highly as a councilor.

"He doesn't dance around any subject and tells it like it is. He rocks," said Alcombright, adding that you'd better get prepared, because "if you don't, you shall or will be the subject of his next public access show. ... Hellooo!"


Billings and Councilor Marie Harpin share a laugh.
Councilor Robert R. Moulton Jr. said the professor had been a "kind of an inspiration to me and my buddy [Councilor Ronald Boucher] here," prompting them to start their own call-in public access show ("Let's Talk About It"). "You've been an inspiration to a lot of people."

"You spoke how you felt, I respect you for that," said Boucher, who arrived on the council with Billings' return from exile and learned from him how to be prepared and know what you're talking about.

Councilor Marie Harpin called Billings and his wife, Janice O'Keefe, good friends whom she'll miss. Councilor Gailanne Cariddi said she hoped he'd find a public access station near his new home and "send us copies of your new program." Councilor Lisa Blackmer, quoting Billings on how she'd outhustled him in the last election, reminded him what to do if he ran for office in Rhode Island by playing "The Hustle."

While Alcombright noted that Billings had received no ratings for hotness on ratemyprofessor.com, and he wasn't giving him any points as councilor, Mayor John Barrett III assured the councilors that Billings did have a hotness quotient when he was part of the new guard at NASC.

"I remember when he came to North Adams State in the fall of '67," said Barrett. "He was this dashing young professor with the pipe and the whole bit ... he was pretty hot back in those days. ... He had the feathers of the older professors ruffled at times."

Billings has served as councilor under two mayors, with two city clerks and 45 other councilors. He ran for mayor, and for state representative, left briefly to be a town manager, and came back twice to the City Council.

"Clark has done some strange things over the years," said Barrett, recalling how he "insisted on sitting out in front of City Hall on his stool in the thinking position and looking like a fool" in one election.

The mayor went out and shooed him away, telling him "every minute you hang out there is going to cost you a vote."

"You paid your dues to the city but more importantly, you've left behind a city that I think is better than when you first came here and, hopefully, because of your effort will be better in the future because you'd come," said Barrett.

Marden said they shared a love for the council and what it can do to improve the city with its mayor.

"I love this institution, this body, this City Council," said Billings. "I can say I loved a lot of councilors, some not so much ... and my wife for putting up with this," with a nod to O'Keefe in the audience.


Billings, wearing a tie showing George Washington at the Constitutional Convention, sits next to Councilor Lisa Blackmer.
After years of going by O'Keefe to avoid "is that your husband?" questions, "she'll go back to using Janice Billings when we move Rhode Island," he said. "She's been very good in terms of her support and never failed to tell me when I've been a real jerk."

Barrett wished both of them a new home "filled up with life and happiness."

But Billings isn't quite ready to quit the city yet. He's not resigning his seat, which is up for election in November, and expects to make a few trips back to see to the sale of their North Adams home.

"I expect to be back," said Billings, referring to "Monty's Python and the Holy Grail's" bring-out-your-dead scene, asserted "I'm not dead yet."
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