PITTSFIELD, Mass. — At a ward meeting, Helen Moon was elated to see a young woman in her 20s take a seat in the audience.
At ward meetings and at the polls, it is often the same group of people making their voices heard. But this woman wasn't someone Moon had heard much from in the past so it makes her happy to see more and more people involved.
"The way that city government works is we are making decisions for people who vote all the time instead of people who don't vote. I still think that the people who don't vote still need representation," Moon said.
The woman heard about the Ward 1 meeting through a bi-annual newsletter Moon sends out. She said she sends it to every address in Ward 1 — and a few even end up in neighboring wards because of mailing routes — and hands delivers it to many homes. She wants the government to make decisions for everybody and not just voters.
"If we want to see people engage in politics, we have to make it accessible to them. That is a bridge I can help build," Moon said.
Moon was first elected two years ago to represent Ward 1 after Lisa Tully opted not to seek re-election. She is looking to retain her seat because she feels there is still more to do.
Moon first moved to the city in 2009 to study nursing at Berkshire Community College. She had been raised in West Springfield and then Longmeadow before spending time in the Boston area. She started working on social and economic justice issues while living in an "intentional" house in Dorchester, an area with a high crime rate. Her group worked with local youth and helped build a new community center. She also ran after-school programs for at-risk youth with the Little House, an alternative middle school and community group site.
After a few years there, she wanted to go to nursing school and her brother was living in the Berkshires. She was told the BCC program was good so she moved here and worked at Dottie's Coffee Lounge. In would walk city councilors, the state senator, and others to have meetings. Politicians hadn't been that accessible in the other areas she had lived.
"Until Pittsfield, I never thought of how reachable politicians really are," Moon said.
She followed national politics so she could talk about those issues but that became talking about state politics with former state Sen. Benjamin Downing, who lived across the street at the time. She'd talk city politics with councilors who would come in.
"I realized that there are different ways to get things accomplished. You have to take it from all different angles," Moon said. "I always came at it from a grassroots and volunteering background and I think working on Dottie's and being exposed to people who are in it for legislative purposes opened my eyes. You have to do the grunt work stuff but you also need the laws to compliment that. That's when I started thinking of [getting involved politically]."
She earned her nursing degree from Elms College and took a night job at Fairview Hospital in Great Barrington. After being elected, the overnight shifts were too much so she took a day job with home health-care agency Porchlight, and is now the director of special projects with the district attorney's office.
She watched the 2016 election results come in and the very next day decided she wanted to get involved legislatively.
"I think a lot of legislation happens without asking the community," Moon said.
The approach Moon says she takes is to take into account the voices of all when handling an issue while always keeping an eye on the future. For example, there was a backlash against the toter system for trash disposal. Moon said she understands that the system wouldn't work for many while she also recognizes a need to make significant changes in the system.
The council rejected it and any changes have been stalled. She feels like the conversation didn't fully take in every aspect — just the reactionary one. She'd like to find a system that is easy for many to incorporate into their lives while still achieving the goals of increased recycling and less trash.
"We need to find a way that has both sides of the conversation," Moon said.
She also wants a heightened focus on the root causes of issues. She has heard a lot about panhandling but believes the conversation should be expanded to the increasing numbers of homeless rather than simply finding ways to move a panhandler out of view.
"I think we have more homeless people than we had before. I know nationally the increase in homelessness has gone up in the last 10 years. I don't think we are sheltered from that and that is happening here, especially in conjunction with substance-abuse disorders," Moon said.
Moon would also like to find help residents with the water and sewer bills that are increasing. Moon was one of the councilors voting in favor of the multimillion upgrades to the wastewater treatment plant and doesn't regret that. But she wants to follow that up with an effort to help people struggling to keep their homes.
"I don't regret my vote. I think we needed to upgrade our wastewater treatment plant. With what is happening nationally, I don't think it is appropriate to say the [Environmental Protection Agency] is going to not require those same conditions. It is beyond what the EPA is mandating and it is what we as a city is representing and how we are voting for the future. I think we made the right decision to upgrade," Moon said. "But I also recognize that it is an incredibly expensive vote."
What she hears people say is that a water meter will help curb those costs. But if a resident is struggling to pay the bill on time, where are they going to get the money to install a meter, she questions. She hopes in another term she can work out a way to provide those residents with assistance.
"I think that is a very privileged response because people who can't afford their water and sewer bill can't afford the $1,000 to install a water meter. It felt like we are taxing the poor and we are giving a pass to the people who can afford to install a water meter," Moon said. "I want to find a solution to help people who need assistance in installing a water meter."
She agrees that the water and sewer bills, and taxes, are contributing toward squeezing people out of their homes. But, at the same time, she believes there are priority areas the city needs to invest in.
As the city moves toward improvements on Tyler Street, she wants to have a voice at the table to make sure the residents can still afford to live there after it is done. She said work needs to be done to help businesses grow and to reduce blight, but also has to be done with every resident in mind.
She feels there are things like education and infrastructure the city has to invest in to attract people to live here. She said there are places like General Dynamics that have jobs available but it is often difficult for them to keep people here.
"A lot of people my age are not having conversations about moving to a location or a community saying 'I'm not going to move there because they have to pay for trash.' That is not the conversation they are having. They are having a conversation about moving to the best school system they can afford. That is the conversation young, working people have," Moon said.
"We pay high taxes because we have a declining population and there are less people paying into the tax base. How do you grow your tax base? Yes, you have to have jobs but you also have an environment where people want to move here."
She also looks to keep investing in infrastructure so the roads don't continue to crumble and become more costly in the future and she wants to continue advocating for Springside Park.
On the ward front, Moon boasts of being 11 for 11 in citizen petitions from something as small as a new sign to eliminating chip sealing altogether. She believes she has made a strong effort to be accessible, remembers people's concerns, and is able to "get things done."
"What I do well as councilor is accessible and responsive. I think the people of Pittsfield and the people in Ward 1 deserve to have someone who is responsive and a strong advocate to amplify what their concerns are for Pittsfield," Moon said.
Overall, Moon believes she brings a different perspective to the City Council and one that will represent everyone in the ward.
"I honestly believe the vast majority of people on City Council really want to do the best for their constituents, for the city of Pittsfield. As much as I might disagree with some of the votes that are taken, I do believe the people are on City Council by and large to improve, under their understanding, the city of Pittsfield," Moon said.
"But, that understanding needs to include other groups of people. What I am bringing is a younger voice to the City Council. What I am bringing is a passion for social justice. I believe in racial and economic equity, that is something I can bring to the City Council."
Moon is being challenged by Kenneth Warren for the seat in the November election.