Mayor John Barrett III responds to a question. Listen to the entire debate below.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — The city's two mayoral candidates traded jabs but no knockout blows on Tuesday night, as they debated the city's ability to attract business, the Mohawk Theater and the lingering controversy over GIC.
A push by the city's unionized employees to join the state's Group Insurance Commission last year had set the incumbent, John Barrett III, and challenger Richard Alcombright, a city councilor, at odds.
Barrett, running for a record 14th term, had rejected the unions' efforts to negotiate entry in the state system, saying it wouldn't result in savings. The unions have since claimed the city's been underpaying its portion of the self-insurance premiums and overcharging workers.
"These city employees have come to you ... they put together a plan and you're ignoring them," said Alcombright, who was troubled by Barrett's "vehemently" objecting to the City Council's Finance Committee looking at the numbers in the self-insurance trust and his statement at a meeting that "I don't have to prove it. I don't have to prove anything."
Barrett countered that he was beholden to the taxpayers and had made his decisions based on the experts, noting GIC had increased its premiums twice this year. Yet the unions are angry, he said, that their premiums have gone up 1.5 percent.
"They have come out with an outlandish figure that $2 million is missing [from the trust], it's in Aruba someplace but it's absurd," he said, adding that he had kept the city's finances in shape over the years and its services going. Sticking to self-insurance over GIC had saved jobs, Barrett said. "I'm not going to apologize for that."
The candidates' supporters filled the Massachusetts College of Liberal Art's Church Street Center with enthusiastic applause — and some laughter — during the 90-minute debate. The 18 questions were submitted by debate sponsor Berkshire Chamber of Commerce and the MCLA public policy students, most relating to taxes and commercial growth, with some forays into education. Moderator Tim Farkus, executive editor of The Berkshire Eagle, was the moderator.
The two men agreed on few items; they split on sewer fees and the use of the local options tax, relations with the charter school, and how active the city should be in aiding small business and marketing itself. Alcombright accused Barrett of holding tight control over everything; Barrett that Alcombright had failed to ask questions.
City Councilor Richard Alcombright waits to respond.
"We didn't set our standards lower when we were at our lowest points, we raised our standards," said Barrett, pointing to progress made over his 26 years in office. "The unemployment rate in this city is half of what it was the first day I took office. ... When I look around the city I think about all the small businesses that we have worked with on almost a daily basis."
Barrett said the city's positive image is attracting commercial growth and touted the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and its annual attendance of upwards of 150,000 as a catalyst for growth.
"It isn't economic development that brings a company to the community, it's the community that brings the business," he said.
Alcombright, however, said the city isn't helpful enough to small businesses and the museum, while attracting crowds, wasn't enough. "They come and they go, they come and they go," he said of Mass MoCA's thousands. "We need to market North Adams as a destination.
"What gets in the way, particularly with small businesses, is our planning process. The planning process becomes complex, it becomes very complicated for those people who are trying to involve themselves in opening a new business," he said. "I think it's a detriment. We really need to find ways to close some of those holes and make things more expedient."
Barrett strongly opposed instituting a sewer user fee, an item that the City Council will take up, and defended the adopting the 2 percent local rooms tax option.
Alcombright said the community and especially the city's innkeepers should have had a chance to speak on how the tax might hurt their business.
"I thought we should get $53,000 in tax relief for residential taxpayers," said Barrett.
His opponent responded that a "public process" should be followed, such as for the sewer user fee. "It's irresponsible not to look at other sources of revenue."
Barrett vowed to veto any sewer fee and claimed Alcombright would move the tax burden from business onto the homeowners. Alcombright said "that will never happen" but added that the city's commercial rate was among the highest in the state and something had to be done about it.
Alcombright pledged to create a housing commission to develop a plan for the city's aging housing stock and promote home ownership. Barrett replied the city was already doing that with a number of programs and that it had demolished 125 blighted houses in the past decade. Alcombright responded, that "the more we take down the fewer people we have here."
"Some of the houses we took down, we don't want those people in our city," said Barrett, calling them crack houses.
"How did they get to be crack houses?" shot back Alcombright, adding that the city's poverty level was the cause and it had to grow jobs to produce homeowners.
They also went back and forth over the Mohawk Theater, which has had recent work done to the exterior and shoring up in its interior. Alcombright said he would work with MCLA for re-use of the theater, adding that making it a "glorified movie theater" wouldn't create a catalyst for the downtown.
A business model for the theater developed a dozen years ago — before openings of the Colonial, Mahaiwe, '62 Center, and Topia Arts Center — won't hold up now, he said. "We have one shot to do it right and one shot to do it wrong."
Barrett countered "that before you go selling the Mohawk to MCLA, we've been talking to them about for better than two years."
"I'm glad you have a plan for the Mohawk Theater," responded Alcombright, "because no one else knows about it but you."
Alcombright could have asked as chairman of the council's community development committee, said Barrett. "It's going to be a community spot ... [I] always connect every project we've done with the kids in the community."
In their closing statements:
If elected, said Alcombright, "as we move into this new decade, know this, that we are partners in this, my mind will never be closed, my door will always be open, this is our city and I will never forget that."
"We have met success as well as failure but we never have wavered in our pursuit to make North Adams the best city it can be," said Barrett. "Each day as mayor, I look forward to taking on new challenges and I'm motivated by the fact that with these challenges come new opportunities."
The debated was taped by Northern Berkshire Community Television for later broadcast on Thursday, Oct. 1, at 8 p.m.; Friday, Oct. 2, at 7 p.m. and Saturday, Oct. 3, at 6 p.m. on Channel 17.
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i thought Mr. Alcombrights message of "teamwork and open government" was more effective than his opponents "lets keep doing the same thing". It was a great Debate.
It sounds like the first debate was a good one. I wish the candidates didn't wait this long to finally go at it. I keep hearing both of them claiming they have done this, will do that, etc. I haven't seen either of them personally in my neighborhood. I haven't seen or heard a SOLID plan from either candidate how they are going to bring manufacturing back to the city. I would love to see it but I'm not convinced yet. They both make some good points but one issue I can't agree with is the housing in NA. I say keep on ripping down the dumps and clean out the slum owners who still ignore their blighted property. I'd rather have less people in the city than more people with free housing.
I would like to make a couple of comments in defense of both city hall and MassMoCA.
I opened a restaurant on Main Street in 2008. I went before the planning board in April and I opened on May 1st.
Yes there were hurdles and a lot of legwork to be done, but i'll say this. Everyone in city hall, from the Mayor on down, was both courteous and extremely helpful facilitating our opening.
Whenever I reached a hurdle on either, the local or state level, there was someone to help me jump over it.
To portray this administration as anti business is not fair.
As far as MassMoCA is concerned, we get a considerable amount of business from both the tourists who visit and the museum's employees.
We also opened a store downtown last year. We requested to meet with the Mayor (twice) and never received a response. The planning board tried to dictate everything down to paint colours of hour store.
This is part of the problem... some businesses are ushered through, some are given a hard time. What are the rules? What is the process? There isn't one... it's up to the mayor.
I enjoyed the debate.
As another business owner I have to agree with Dick's point that you can go story for story on whether the city is cooperative or not with local businesses.
Some local business owners have had good experiences which I wish were more often the case.
I know at least 5 fellow business owners that did not share that experience. Not because they were trying to cut corners, or bend the rules. They were held up due to disagreements of subjective matters of style and taste and "vision" that is not only, detrimental to a city downtown with such a high vacancy rate, but it leaves many business people with a bad first impression and does not foster a good relationship between the city and those businesses.
We want to have a good relationship with City Hall, more specifically the Mayor and the PB, but respect begets respect.
The proper role of the Planning Board is NOT to be the "aesthetics police". Their role is to oversee planning so that it complies with local laws regarding fire safety, traffic, lighting, parking, and so on. Aesthetics are definitely important, but are not usually within the purview of the Planning Board.
Good planning is one of the most important aspects of local government - keeping things safe and flowing smoothly. But paint colors? Menus and other minutiae? If they're really doing that, then NA needs a whole new set of public servants.
At the very least, planning guidelines should be consistent.
Those complaining about how the planning board operates are incorrect. Planning boards in communities throughout the state and country are empowered through site plan approval to condition special permit holders in many areas. It falls under the statutes on the character of the community. As an example, if the planning board were to allow a Resnick's Mattress Outlet to open on Main Street without any conditions, you would all be whining about used mattresses being lined up on the sidewalks, which they have done in every town they locate in. But if the board has the nerve to condition signage so that a business' sign fits into the character of Main Street, you say there should be no conditions at all. There have been numerous lawsuits across the country challenging the site plan approval process for planning boards - the majority have failed and those that have succeeded were limited in scope. Go to Williamstown and try and open a business. It takes months to get a permit. Go to Lenox, same thing. Lee, same thing. Stockbridge, same, West Stockbridge, same, Great Barrington, same. The reality is that over 90% of all applicants that go before the planning board in North Adams get approval in the first meeting. The people who sit on the board are volunteers. They are not paid. They spend their money in the community and at the very businesses they have approved. Stop acting as if these people are demons.
Joe, you're correct in that the Planning Board can set conditions for operation, such as placement and size of signage, hours of operation, whether or not merchandise may be set outside on the sidewalk or parking lot, number of patrons or residents of an apartment building, number and placement of parking spots, whether there may be neon lighting, lighted signs, etc. These are elements of the quality of life in any well-run town or city, and good planning SHOWS.
That being said, unless specifically stated in the municipal ordinances or by-laws, planners shouldn't be involving themselves in paint color. Or menu items. Or inside decor. These things are NOT the job of the planners, but of the business owners.
Williamstown has an elected Planning Board - if their planners were to ever try this kind of stuff there, they'd soon be booted.
Puzzled about planners... first off, the planning board in north adams has not, ever to my knowledge, determined a restaurant's menu, nor has it dictated indoor decor. If you are referring to Jae's Inn on the menu, what the board said was that the restaurant had to be a restaurant and not just another bar. Jae came before the board and originally wanted to only serve primarily alcohol and a few small refrigerated menu items. He was told, by both the License Commission and planning board that if he wanted to operate a restaurant, it had to be a restaurant. As to indoor decor, not sure what you're getting at. Sometimes the board sees a floor plan, sometimes not, and either way it doesn't rule on the interior decor. And yes, if you've ever been to a Williamstown Planning Board meeting, elected or not, you would see it takes much longer to get through their process, in most instances, than in North Adams.
Editor: NBCTC's portable hard drive didn't like our setup and we could only pull off up to question 13. We're working on the rest. Technology is great but it still takes manpower to do these things, and we don't have a lot of that at iBerkshires. We're still faster than the papers and they have at least 5x the staff.
What I have experience with City Hall and the planning board is that if John likes you and you suck up to him and let him "make suggestions" about how you should operate, you will have no problems with the planning board.
If you say - "No. I want to run my business my way" you will have cross every t and dot every i very carefully. The board will place arbitrary restrictions on your operations hours. They will go through you plans with a fine tooth comb.
Meanwhile, if you had let the mayor name your business, or have some input regarding merchandise/menus, pick he paint color, etc..., your problems would magically disappear.
It was very telling in the debate when the mayor said HE was the one stop shop for businesses. he wasn't kidding.
why would a potential tenant of a certain mill be told he would have to meet a set of standards only to decide not to become a tenant of that mill and instead move into another mill and not have to meet any standards? another example of the fact that the city does indeed have a double standard.