PITTSFIELD, Mass. — What type of approaches would you take to increase diversity in government and the schools?
That was the first question posed by former Berkshire County NAACP Chapter President Will Singleton Wednesday night during a lengthy candidate forum.
For close to three hours at Conte Community School, Singleton moderated a debate among 17 of the 19 candidates on the ballot. The candidates had only a brief time to answer but it was enough to draw out a few different viewpoints.
"The most effective way to create more diversity in the school system and our city hall public employees is to continue to make the city more attractive so we attract more applicants," Ward 3 incumbent Nicholas Caccamo responded.
"One of the strongest things we can do is continue to the work the school department has done to graduate a high rate of students of color from high school, get them on track to college, and get them on track to think about returning back to Pittsfield to receive employment."
His opponent, James Gleason, answered the question somewhat differently. He sees part of the issue is candidates are not feeling comfortable seeking a position. He wants to make it clear that the city will not disqualify a candidate because of their background.
"I believe the most qualified people should be hired for positions, especially in the schools. But nobody should be disqualified because of race, gender, religious affiliation," Gleason said.
Later adding, "everyone should be given a chance. That goes back to making it easier for people to feel comfortable putting their names in for positions, or taking a Civil Service test."
The point of hiring the most qualified person for the job was echoed by Ward 4 incumbent Christopher Connell. But the city needs to do a better job of casting a wide net to get the deep pool of candidates it often lacks now, he said.
"I feel municipal governments should hire the way the private sector does, you hire the most qualified person," Connell said. "You hire the best person for the position."
His opponent, William Wright, called enhanced diversity "an absolute must" and his way of doing so is a lot like Caccamo's — to show the city's youth that the leadership positions aren't only for a specific few.
"We need to have a leader up front, showing individuals and school children that these are important roles to play and it is for everybody," Wright said. "There is opportunity out there and it needs to be driven, it needs to be driven by the community. We have to push forward."
In Ward 1, Helen Moon said she believes the city needs to be strategic in trying to create a diverse leadership. Moon said studies have shown that cities do better when there is a diverse group of leaders. Pittsfield can't just expect that to happen, she said, and voiced support for cultural competency programs and intentionally seeking the involvement of minorities.
"That takes more than allowing it to happen based on who applies. I think we need to be more strategic than that," Moon said.
Her competitor, Michael Cirullo, however, wasn't present to respond. Cirullo and William Keane were the only two not in attendance, and Keane had previously announced he no longer wanted to run for the position.
At-Large candidate Earl Persip said he's heard from people of color in those leadership positions that there is a lack of support for them. That has created a problem with retention rates, particularly in the schools, he said.
"One of the reasons I'm running is for diversity. I work with children throughout the communities and in Pittsfield and children want to see people who look like them doing jobs of police officers, firefighters, and they really don't see that," Persip said. "We need to work on diversity in our city and the school department is working on that, but it needs to do better."
Incumbent Councilor At-Large Peter Marchetti said the city needs to make sure the city intentionally reaches out to a wider range of potential candidates when it comes to posting jobs.
"As a member of another protected class, we need to make sure all folks have the opportunity to grow and thrive," Marchetti, who is gay, said. "It is not about who we are hiring for the position, it is who is applying for the positions."
At-Large candidates Edward Carmel and Craig Gaetani both told similar stories to one another. When they served in the armed forces, their lives were enhanced by interacting with a diverse group of people. Carmel said he "flourished" because of the change in perspectives and new ideas he heard. While Gaetani said he's not a member of the "good old boy network," which caused the lack of diversity in the first place and he's the one who will "be doing absolutely everything I can to help the community" become more diverse.
Switching topics, Singleton said there is a lot of violence in the city stemming from the drug epidemic. He asked how the candidates would address that and the Ward 2 candidates particularly took different tones.
Challenger Dina Guiel said the drug issue isn't limited to one demographic or neighborhood, but all over. She's experienced it with friends and family members and she knows most people in the city have too. She's is calling for a more empathetic approach, one that increases the addiction treatment and services out there and targets vulnerable areas.
"We need to begin by looking at this from a human perspective, take all of the government aspects out of it," Guiel said.
The incumbent, Kevin Morandi, said there are "hot spots" of drug activity and is calling for more law enforcement in those areas. He highlighted the hiring of a crime analysis in 2014 as someone who has been able to identify where those areas of drugs and violence are located. Now he wants tougher enforcement, which includes help from the federal and state government.
"The police know where all of the hot spots are in the city. We need to use sweeps and raids to get into those targeted areas and send a message," Morandi said. "The message will be, we are not going to tolerate this anymore."
Edward Carmel is one of six candidates on the ballot for an at-large seat on the City Council.
Ward 6 Councilor John Krol is running unopposed, but agreed with both Guiel and Morandi, saying there needs to be both. He said the city is increasing resources for the Police Department and is "an advocate for more community policing" in the neighborhoods known to have more of those problems. Krol also called for "strong code enforcement" to be more proactive in combating the problem.
Marchetti said neighborhood initiative meetings have been "poorly attended" and he called for more resources to help strengthen them. He also cited the city's recent efforts to bolster the Police Department's staffing numbers, saying it still hasn't reached what the department is authorized to employ. He wants to continue adding officers.
Incumbent Councilor At-Large Peter White said he too would like to see more community involvement in neighborhood watch programs, for citizens to be active in their communities to help the Police Department.
"We really need people to see something, say something. A lot of the crimes can be solved quicker if we get people to say something," White said.
Wright agrees, hoping for an increased education on what community members can do to combat crime. He said a lot of people are nervous about going to the police with information.
"They don't want to say something. They don't want to be the one to put it out there," Wright said.
"The statistics say that 2 out of every 5 traffic stops result in something other than a motor vehicle violation, guns, drugs, and everything else. I think we have taken a good step here and need to fund it every year," Connell said.
Ward 7 candidate Rhonda Serre agrees with Guiel in that the drug problem is all over the city. She called on more citizen involvement to help solve the issues of drugs and violence because "law enforcement officials can't do this alone."
The Ward 7 incumbent Anthony Simonelli agrees that law enforcement can't do it alone. He called on focusing on education for the youth and wants more out of judges. He said judges have been too lenient on criminals.
"There is something wrong at that level of the judicial system," Simonelli said.
Meanwhile Ward 5 Councilor Donna Todd Rivers is taking more of an all of the above approach. She called on citizens to come together, for the justice system to be improved, enhanced recovery services, and more youth mentoring.
"I think crime talks to a lack of opportunity. I think our community needs more opportunities so crime isn't one of them," Rivers said.
Incumbent Councilor At-Large Melissa Mazzeo took a similar approach, emphasizing that most of the crime tends to be stem from addiction. She wants more support for addiction services and mentoring programs to guide the youth.
"We need to get to our youth at a younger age. We need to get to these kids at an early age and give them guidance," Mazzeo said.
Gaetani, meanwhile, wants police to have body cameras and "boots on the ground" in the West Side and Morningside neighborhoods.
"If you want to solve the problems in the West Side and the Morningside neighborhoods, you put officers on foot in those neighborhoods," Gaetani said.
Carmel said more needs to be done in monitoring rental housing. Specifically, he called on landlords to make sure the people living in the apartments are actually the ones who signed the lease.
"We have to get a system in place. It will take a long time and there will be red tape, but it can work," Carmel said.
Caccamo, who was answering after most had already spoken, took a different angle on it. He praised community policing efforts but added that the legalization of marijuana will actually be helpful in the fight against the opioids. He said by making a legal market for marijuana, that keeps more people from interacting with drug dealers who peddle harder drugs too.
"States that have legalized cannabis for adults are seeing a 65 percent decrease in Rx and opioid usage," Caccamo said.
His opponent Gleason said he'd like new leadership in the Police Department, someone who "actually lived this, not read it in a book." He told the story of his time working with a woman struggling with addiction and his efforts to assist her in many ways.
"A lot of people talk about this stuff but I've actually tried to help out. Until they live it, people have no idea what this is like," Gleason said.
In a question about business development, Carmel said he'd like to "bring large businesses back to Pittsfield." He called on stakeholders to "sit down and figure this out."
"I want to see taxes go down and that means bringing big businesses back to Pittsfield," Carmel said.
For Mazzeo, economic development starts with changing the perception of the city to help entice business. She said with a high tax rate the city needs to be business friendly in other areas, such as ease of permitting.
"We need to change the perception of us not being a business-friendly community," Mazzeo said. "There are many times we are not a business-friendly community. We make it difficult to get permits and inspections."
Persip said he understands the permitting process well and it requires signatures from various officials and from various offices.
"The process just to get a building permit or inspection is impossible," he said.
But, he didn't agree with Carmel's opinion of chasing down large businesses. He said, "no big business is probably coming back here so we need to focus on small businesses and mid-sized businesses."
William Wright is challenging Christopher Connell in Ward 4.
That perception of not being business friendly isn't the only negative one the city has, said Simonelli. Businesses are also turned away from the appearance that the city is unsafe and he said crime needs to be kept under control.
"Get the crime and the perception of the crime under control," Simonelli said. "The perception out there is that it is not safe in some of our neighborhoods."
His opponent, Serre, praised the efforts the city has made in the "red carpet" approach toward helping attract and grow businesses. She wants that concept to be extended to the ward councilors as well and said she'd know the needs of every business in the ward and be responsive to any concerns.
"I believe in what is called an economic garden. I believe in taking care of our own," Serre said.
Guiel echoed the same praise while her opponent, Morandi, said the city needs to utilize the Pittsfield Economic Development Fund even more.
Connell said there is some $3.5 million left the Pittsfield Economic Development Fund. He said the use of those funds have clawback provisions so the city doesn't lose the money if the company doesn't hit the employment numbers. He said between that and the TIF programs, the city has tools at its disposal to incentivize companies.
Wright said the city's plans are in place and the LTI package is an example of how it works. But, he said improving the quality of life will also serve as an attraction.
"There are others that simply want to find a better place to live," Wright said of reasons companies move and stay in certain areas.
Rivers called those "soft incentives," She said businesses want not only financial incentives but a "safe, progressive, open city where people want to live, work and play."
"Businesses are about money but a really good business knows that it is about people," Rivers said.
Moon, meanwhile, praised the work efforts of tax increment finance packages. But beyond that, she said the city's tax rate and utility costs are still high. She said focusing on high-speed internet, lowering electricity costs, and better transportation will all act as additional incentives for businesses to relocate or expand.
White added that the city should lobby the state government for even more financial incentives to offer in order to compete with the generous packages offered by New York State. He also emphasized efforts to improve the quality of life in the area to help attract companies.
Gaetani said the city has done a poor job of reaching out to "Fortune 500" companies in efforts to recruit them to Pittsfield, specifically recruiting them to the William Stanley Business Park.
Almost all of the candidates had the same thing to say about the implementation of paid parking: the rollout hasn't been good, machines are difficult, but it was necessary.
The city implemented paid parking at the beginning of this year. But, it stemmed from the state's investment in repair the McKay Street garage. Then, the city was told to create a revenue stream for ongoing maintenance or else it won't get any more money for capital repairs in the future. The Columbus Avenue Garage has been the next in line and nearly all of the candidates said the parking plan had to be implemented in order to get funds for that.
"I'm angry that our lack of maintenance of the garage put us in this position," Rivers said.
Serre called the rollout "a hot mess." But, she said it did serve its ultimate purpose. She can now drive to North Street, finding a parking spot quickly, and get in and out. Before she had to park far away because the downtown employees were taking the on-street spots.
Her opponent, Simonelli, agreed with both sentiments: the rollout was bad but it is good that customers can find parking.
Persip said he's worked downtown for 22 years and agrees that the spots were taken up by employees. But, he said the city didn't listen to all of the consultant's recommendations and would like to see some free parking spaces made available for the workers.
Meanwhile, Mazzeo questions whether or not the kiosk system was right for Pittsfield. She said they are difficult to use and people have been struggling to figure them out. And Gaetani suggested the city pull the kiosks out and instead put in the traditional, coin-operated meters.
James Gleason is challenging Nicholas Caccamo in Ward 3.
Moon suggested having police walking North Street and being available to answer questions from those struggling to figure the system out.
Caccamo and Gleason both showed differences with the meters as well. Gleason said the meters are turning people away from going downtown. While Caccamo said the price is reasonable and is deterring employees, not customers. He suggested most customers go downtown during the evening when parking is free.
Guiel believes that the meters are hurting businesses and is looking for a better way, particularly for people who may be challenged with mobility or don't own smartphones.
"I've seen firsthand and heard that it is actually creating a barrier for going downtown. Some businesses are complaining that they've seen a decrease in customers," Guiel said.
While her opponent Morandi said he is keeping a close eye on the revenues and expenses to make sure the city isn't losing money on them.
The candidates all agreed that the key to being an effective city councilor is to be accessible to the constituents. The forum was just the second in the election season. There is no primary, so the election season has gotten a late start. But, with less than a month to go, the events, debates, and media coverage is expected to increase. The election is on Nov. 7.
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