By Joe Durwin On: 10:58PM / Wednesday October 30, 2013
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — Three incumbents and four challengers outlined accomplishments, experience and positions as they compete for four at-large seats on the City Council, to be chosen by voters of all seven of Pittsfield's wards next Tuesday.
Incumbents Barry Clairmont, Churchill Cotton and Melissa Mazzeo laid out their records and positions against those of hopefuls Kathleen Amuso, James Conant, Mark Miller and Donna Rivers in a debate held at Berkshire Community College on Monday, ranging over issues such as school budget, new business development, and the future of some city buildings.
In statements, each sought to distinguish themselves from the rest of the field of candidates, all of whom are well-known figures in local politics.
"I think I've had life experiences that give me a different perspective from most of the other panel members," said Cotton, who said he was seeking re-election "So that everyone has an opportunity to be represented at City Hall."
"I hope you all take the time to think about what is important to you, your family, and your community," said Mazzeo, who highlighted herself as being without ulterior agendas, in contrast to others on the City Council. "And ask if we really have been doing our job, or if it's time for a change."
"I have proven results," said Amuso, who pointed to a 12 percent increase in graduation rates during her tenure as chairman of the PIttsfield School Committee as an example. "Being a member of the City Council will give me an opportunity to use my expertise and knowledge to work collaboratively to move Pittsfield forward."
"I have the experience and working knowledge of city government, as I have served on board and committees in Pittsfield for the past then years," offered Conant, a former parks commissioner who currently serves on the School Committee and as chairman of the Conservation Commission.
"I'm the outsider in this race," said Miller, a longtime newsman and 2011 state representative candidate, who highlighted his knowledge and extensive education in political science, journalism and management against the others' governmental experience.
"I'm running because I believe it is time for us to embrace a new way of looking at old problems," said Rivers, a local business owner and radio personality. "I'm running because a lifetime of experiences has lead me to this very moment."
Candidates offered varying takes on a currently controversial proposal to develop big box retail at the quasi-public-owned Williams Stanley Business Park.
Cotton suggested it was premature to say categorically there should be no retail at the former General Electric site, while Mazzeo and Amuso spoke strongly against the current proposal, and Conant said retail should only be considered after all other possibilities have been exhausted. Miller proposed that regular tours to showcase the mostly vacant, fenced-off industrial park be held by the Pittsfield Economic Development Authority that oversees it.
Opinions also differed on another hot-button issue over the past term, that of the City Council's handling of school budget issues. Cotton said the council's responsibility was the same as within any budget: "To review, ask questions and then accept or reject it. But to try and pick and choose which things should be taken out I don't think is our responsibility."
"The School Committee and the superintendent should be allowed to do their job," answered Rivers.
"Expecting accountability is not opposition," said Clairmont, "It is unreasonable to expect an unquestioned budget."
Opinions were also polled on what should be done with regard to two dormant city-owned buildings, the former Hibbard School and Springside House, which just began a process of assessment through a recent grant from the state.
Several candidates favored rehab of the Newell Street school to return it to an educational purpose. Conant strongly emphasized the need to return it to use as an alternative high school for students who would not succeed in the mainstream high schools, with which Miller voiced agreement. Rivers suggested that it could be looked at as a home for the Adult Learning Center, whose relocation last year was a matter of considerable municipal debate.
Clairmont, Cotton, Rivers and Amuso all spoke fervently in favor of restoration of the Springside House for its value as a potential historic and educational asset to the city. Conant expressed skepticism about its condition and said the study of the house needs to be completed before any further funds are invested. Miller believed restoration of the house should not be a priority for any major funds, suggesting instead that a new more modern building could be constructed there to enhance use of Springside Park.
The seven contenders will appear on ballots in all seven wards in Pittsfield's citywide election on Tuesday, Nov. 5. The four top vote recipients will become the at-large members of the 11-member City Council for the upcoming two-year term beginning in January.
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The cities of Pittsfield and North Adams will hold municipal elections for mayor, city council and school committee in 2015
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