Mayor Daniel Bianchi represents the city for the Rest of the River and told the City Council about the agreement on Tuesday.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The City Council narrowly approved by a 6-5 margin joining five towns in negotiations with General Electric over compensation for effects created by a pending cleanup of the Housatonic River.
The city has been part of the Rest of the River group consisting of Sheffield, Great Barrington, Lenox, Lee and Stockbridge in sorting out an agreement to negotiate with the company responsible for polluting miles of the river that runs through the communities.
Earlier this month, an agreement bonding the towns together was finalized after months of attorney and municipal representatives' wordsmithing and debate. More information about the agreement can be found here.
On Tuesday, the City Council was the final governmental body to approve both the agreement between the communities and with PAWA Law Firm, which will be representing the group. Each town is contributing $10,000 for PAWA to begin the process and the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission is acting as facilitator.
The approval came after more than two hours of debate among the councilors, about half of whom wanted to table the discussion in hopes to further flesh out the contract and put in additional language.
Councilor Barry Clairmont led the charge with more than a half hour of questions about the contract's wording and posed a range of possible outcomes that were not specifically mentioned — such as how the representatives of the towns will resolve disagreements in disbursing the settlement. Clairmont says he wants every aspect accounted for before agreeing to the contract.
"I have a lot of unanswered questions. There are a lot of 'well, maybe this, well maybe that,' " Clairmont said.
The contract had already passed through the hands of about eight attorneys prior to the council's review including that of City Solicitor Kathleen Degnan, who said some of the types of questions that Clairmont was posing were intentionally left open to allow the committee to determine the best possible actions.
Mayor Daniel Bianchi added that there is a clause allowing the contract to be amended to allow for ways to resolve unforeseen issues. The mayor said the agreement only locks the city into paying $10,000 to start the process.
"If we are going to be subjected to a cleanup, we should be at the table negotiating," Bianchi said.
Bianchi said the councilor's shouldn't disrupt the process at this point just because of the potential for a disagreement on the committee that may, or may not, happen down the road.
The agreement requires the entire Rest of the River committee to agree with the release of a settlement and tactics —or else the money will not be released.
A timeline is unknown, nor is there a reliable range of what the towns could be awarded — though the estimates are in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is not expected to release the details of the cleanup until next year but Bianchi wants to give the attorneys time to sort through the documents, to research and to consult with the towns to develop a negotiation strategy. Further, he wants to bring the state and federal officials up to speed and in touch with the process. The course of action the EPA demands will determine the extent of the impacts the cleanup will have.
"It is a very complicated matter. There are tons of files and so forth. There is all sorts of case law," said Director of Community Development Douglas Clark. "By sticking together as six communities and speaking together with a common voice then you are improving your negotiating position."
Councilor Barry Clairmont said he found dozens of areas in which the process was not fully explained in the contract and wants those questions answered before agreeing.
Joining with other towns was also debated with City Councilors saying that since the majority of the pollution is in Pittsfield, the city shouldn't be allowing less affected towns like Sheffield to dig into the potential settlement.
That sentiment was already voiced earlier, during the open microphone period, by resident Jeffery Cook.
Cook says he coordinates a Ward 4 river watch group and knows his neighbors will be the most affected by the potential cleanup. With the agreement guaranteeing at least 5 percent of any settlement, Cook says the city should take the negotiations up on its own and fight for what it is owed.
"Residential areas are right in the thick of it," he said. "There is tremendous impact here in the city of Pittsfield."
Bianchi said the rest of the group is well aware that the city has more pollutants; Clark added that just because there are more impacts in Pittsfield, that doesn't mean the other towns aren't experiencing significant effects.
The towns are working very well together to create a unified voice, Bianchi said.
Ward 1 Councilor Christine Yon also voiced concern with joining with the other towns. She was part of the process for an earmark for extending the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail, which was first recommended by an advisory group to go to Adams until the Metropolitan Planning Organization rerouted it to Pittsfield. Finally, an appeal from Adams and North Adams repositioned the money north.
Yon said when the smaller towns get together, they end up with more pull and she doesn't want to see the city lose potential money to them.
"These small communities all voted against Pittsfield and took the money away from us," Yon said. "When you put all of these small communities together, they have a powerful voice."
Yon also said she doesn't see how the group can be a unified voice because the concerns and issues are different in each town. She sees the group reaching an agreement as a difficult task. She also agreed that some of the language should be tightened to account for any possibility.
"My biggest concern is that I feel every community's needs and interests are all different," Yon said. "It seems our needs might be more or different than Sheffield but only one position is presented."
At-Large Councilor Melissa Mazzeo, however, contended both Clairmont's concerns with language — saying enough attorneys have reviewed it and fleshed out all of the issues — and Yon and Connell's concerns with other towns.
"We're knit picking a document that has been thoroughly vetted," Mazzeo said.
Mazzeo says the city would be at a significant disadvantage if it does not enter negotiations with more voices.
"It is hard to go up against them alone. Going up against them with other communities gives you more force," she said. "Sometimes you have to give a little to gain a little."
The councilors also worried about the negotiations becoming a "money pit." Just short of half of the money allocated will be spent before the attorneys hold their first negotiation session. And Clark and Bianchi says there is no way to know what additional funds could be needed. Any additional funds would have to be allocated by the City Council, and there the ability to opt out.
"Unfortunately, there are a lot of unknowns here," Clark said.
Councilors Yon, John Krol, Clairmont, Jonathan Lothrop and Paul Capitanio all voted against signing the agreement while the other councilors passed it.