PITTSFIELD, Mass. — This past winter, Melissa Mazzeo was being asked about piles of salt being left on the sides of the roads.
The small trucks weren't working properly. She said she talked to the commissioner of public services about it but didn't really have any authority to do anything. And now, the city's budget is some $2.1 million over in the snow and ice line and will have to transfer money from other places to cover it.
While the issue with the trucks can't be attributed to all of that overage, Mazzeo said it could have been reduced a bit if those trucks were repaired right then and there.
"If I heard that, I would say let's have a meeting. Let's fix the truck if that's what's needed," she said envisioning herself in the city's corner office.
After a decade on the City Council, Mazzeo is now seeking the top administrative post. She will be challenging incumbent Linda Tyer for mayor. Mazzeo believes her detailed-oriented style as well as being proactive and hands-on will make her an effective mayor.
"You don't want to micromanage but you are like the CEO of a company and you have to take an active role, you have to be briefed all of the time," Mazzeo said.
She is seeing a lack of proactiveness out of the current administration and feels issues are constantly being rushed last-minute through the council.
She used wastewater treatment plant upgrades as an example. The issue had been ongoing for years and then seemingly all at once, the administration was asking the council to waive its rules to send it to subcommittee and approve the $74 million expenditure to avoid being fined.
"It was 'we have to get this done quickly because they're fining us.' Why now? It's been years," Mazzeo said. "We are building to a permit that was issued a long time ago and there is no guarantee they won't come back to us and say now we need you to do this."
As a councilor, she dug deeper into the issue and read the paperwork about the city's appeal and found out that the appeal was denied because of the way the paperwork was filed, not on the merits of the Pittsfield's case. That is something she feels the city could have fought harder to be readdressed and something the council should have been on board and informed about every step of the way.
"I'm not finding the transparency that I would want to do. By making the councilors aware, making the public aware, before something is tossed out there is important. As everybody knows, nobody is really paying attention until you start to get to the vote. But if you are making them really aware that on this date here this is going to happen and you start talking about it long before, I think you might get a better reaction, get more people understanding it," Mazzeo said.
Another example she used are recent issues with teenagers causing trouble in Springside Park. Mazzeo said the city was aware for a long time that there wasn't a school resource officer at the nearby Reid Middle School. And then issues were caused and now the school has one.
"If we were proactive, as soon as we didn't have a resource officer we'd be getting another one, we'd be working to get another one. It would be a priority rather than waiting two years and now you have a violent issue and we need one," Mazzeo said.
Her style is one that comes from business. Her husband, Tony, is a co-owner of Mazzeo's Restaurant and if something happens and the dishes need to get washed, he'll step in and do it. That's the type of mayor Mazzeo hopes to be.
"I have to know the inner workings. It drives my family crazy because I want to know what, when, where, and how. But that's sort of the style I've had with a lot of the things I've done in life and that seems to resonate with people, that's how they'd like to have things done for them," she said.
Mazzeo launches her campaign Friday night with the opening of her Elm Street office. But the words Mazzeo and mayor have been often said in the same sentence as there has been constant rumor or question as to whether or not she'd run in past elections.
She had thought about it four years ago but two things held her back -- Daniel Bianchi was seeking re-election and she was a supporter, and her daughters were entering freshmen years, one in college and one in high school, so she had an additional focus on the homefront.
"If he had decided he wasn't going to run again, I would have to love to. But at the same time, my family still wasn't in the right place. My kids, one was a freshman in college, one was a freshman in high school," Mazzeo said.
Those two holdups are gone now. Her two daughters are both seniors, one will be heading to college and one will be graduating college. It's the right time.
"From watching things be done through all of these administrations, there are things I feel I can help move forward, ideas with how I would come at it," Mazzeo said. "It's been in the back of my mind for the last four years that if the timing was right and everything was lining up."
Originally a dental hygienist with no political aspirations, Mazzeo heard about the formation of Women Helping Empower Neighborhoods (WHEN) that aimed to get more women into political positions in Pittsfield in the early 2000s. She started attending meetings and was part of campaigns during a big year for the organization in 2003 when it helped elect Tricia Farley-Bouvier, Tyer, and Patricia "Pam" Malumphy to the City Council.
"I just got really involved with it. I loved it from the aspect of the energy of everybody. You start learning the issues and realize you really can make a difference when you put your voices together," Mazzeo said.
When Tyer was appointed city clerk in 2009, Mazzeo decided to try to make a bigger difference by not just working on campaigns but being a candidate for the vacant Ward 3 seat.
But she lost to Paul Capitanio. The race received a lot of attention so even though she lost, Mazzeo had gotten her ideas and name out there. She was urged to run for an at-large seat and later that same year, she won a spot on the council. Now she is concluding her fifth term.
Because of a back injury, she left her work in dental hygiene around the same time. She's been active in politics, worked in the restaurant, raised a family, and involved with community organizations.
"There are days when I am super frustrated and asking why am I doing this. And then I'll be able to help somebody make a connection or fix a problem or be involved in something like that. Now I'm right back energized," Mazzeo said.
However, "as a city councilor, there are limitations. There is only so much you can do in that seat and things I would like to see changed going forward can only be done if I am in a different position."
A top priority in this race will be crime. Mazzeo said the city needs to find new strategies toward addressing crime. Particularly, she said, the opioid issue has driven much of the crime and she doesn't want to simply hire more officers but rather find social workers and doctors to help treat underlying causes.
"[Police] can't be all of those things. They can't be the social worker. They can't be the doctor on site. They have certain things they can do and I think the more help we can give them in those departments, I think that is the way to go," Mazzeo said.
She said there are models in other communities and she'd like to pull a little from each to craft a plan that will work for Pittsfield. And if that doesn't work, Mazzeo said she won't hesitate to pull the plug and try something else. Another frustration of Mazzeo is often it seems that the city holds onto certain ways and things for too long.
She used the example of the parking meters. Those have been in place for a few years and Mazzeo said there are a number of problems with them and they aren't doing what they were intended to do. She said while there has been investment in the purchase of those meters, that shouldn't stop the city from trying something new.
"We have to stop continuing to do things because that's how we've always done it. I think we really have to start thinking outside the box," Mazzeo said.
She'd like to take a new look at the parking plan and come up with something that could solve some of the issues such as where the meters are located, where there is timed parking, and software issues that cause people to get unjust tickets.
A little bit of extra salt on the roads, or a bit of a delay in getting an item to the City Council, or a parking ticket that will be repealed at City Hall, may seem minor in themselves but Mazzeo said those minor things add up. She said her ability to spot those details and work to solving them will help in a number of ways.
The city faces issues with vacant commercial buildings. It often requires a significant amount of money to meet all of the codes at once. She said a new entrepreneur could be in $100,000 before even selling a single item because of each of those little things. She'd look to make that easier to renovate buildings by requiring only the imminent safety issues and then easing in the rest of the upgrades over time.
"Obviously, you have to have something very important done for safety but all of the minute little things, I think they can be staggered in," Mazzeo said.
The same goes for the local permitting process that she says becomes a deterrent for business growth.
"I feel like there is still a disconnect between local businesses and departments within City Hall and how things are done and the speed in which things are done. I feel like we wait for this out-of-town person to come in. We're really excited and we want to attract them when the person who is already here is the person we really should be catering to. They live here. They are invested here," Mazzeo said.
The city offers housing rehabilitation dollars through the federal Housing and Urban Development program. But, she said the old housing stock in Pittsfield has things like lead paint and once money goes toward doing one rehabilitation, it triggers lead paint removal and the cost escalates. The money ends up not being as effective as it could be because it eliminates some homeowners from doing anything.
"A mayor from Pittsfield can't change that but you have to have a good dialogue with the people who can make those decisions," Mazzeo said.
The same goes for unfunded mandates in schools. When it comes to issues beyond the city's control, Mazzeo said she'd be a strong advocate for getting those change on the state or federal levels.
"We've ruled ourselves to death on so many things that they don't even know what rule they put in place to start with. By the time they got to rule 99, they forgot rules one through 10," Mazzeo said.
That partnership with state and federal officials goes further than just identifying and advocating for various changes, she said. She said there needs to be a new strategy in developing the William Stanley Business Park and that has to include assistance with the state.
"They need to help us get things up and running so we are able to attract these businesses. People do their homework, they do their due diligence before moving their company here and they could be leery of going to that site when they are really not sure if the site is completely cleaned up or if we still have some issues," Mazzeo said.
The sites are problematic and Mazzeo said "we clearly made wrong decisions" in the past. But, she can't change the past. She said she'd be one to really push for the state to bring in a brownfields specialist and head a development such as MassDevelopment did in Fort Devens.
She opposed the development of a Walmart at the business park. She felt it was a win that the company ultimately did not take that location because big retailers have been closing and those stores are difficult to be reused. She advocated that if it was going to be built that it be done in a way that allows easier reuse but she doesn't think that would have happened.
"I'm really happy Walmart made that decision because I don't think they would have built it the way we wanted it. I think they would have built it toward their model and in 20 years, maybe 10 years, we'd be stuck with an empty Walmart right in the middle of that development," Mazzeo said.
"Could mixed use go in there? It could if it is the right mixed use."
Ideally, she wants that site to be developed into a place that provides good, stable jobs.
"We really don't have tons of industrial space. I don't want to see a solar field on it. I don't want to see anything that is not going to create jobs. You are going to get some revenue from a solar field but it isn't creating a job," Mazzeo said.
She sees the Berkshire Innovation Center as being a catalyst to make that happen. It would help small and medium-sized businesses here now as well as provide a workforce training component that she feels is direly needed in the city.
"We have a definite workforce gap. We have thousands of jobs out here. We don't have the skilled labor to go into it," Mazzeo said. "That's one of the reasons I wholeheartedly supported doing the new Taconic [High School] and really focusing on the 21st-century vocational aspect going into it."
In the last couple of years, Mazzeo had opposed a number of Tyer's proposals but those last two are examples she believes shows that she isn't opposing the items because Tyer put them forth but on their merits. She said she disagreed with former Mayor Ruberto on a number of issues as well but if the plan was right, she'd support it.
"It is based on its merit and not who put it forward. I can stand on my record for that," she said.
Most recently, she opposed Tyer's At Home in Pittsfield program but emphasized the disagreement was over the funding source and not the idea. She believes there is a different funding source and would like to see Tyer's plan move forward if that can be secured.
Mazzeo had seen the city reach its low point following the departure of General Electric but said, "once you hit bottom there is nowhere to go but up." She believes Pittsfield has been on an upward trajectory since then and that as mayor she can help it continue.
"I love our community. I love where we live. We have just as many problems as every other community but we also have so much more to offer with our lakes, mountains, and arts and culture," Mazzeo said.
"I want my kids to go away for school and get a career and I want them to be able to come back here and be able to work. I don't want to chase my kids all over the country. I don't want to have to fly across the country to see my grandchildren."