Home Rule Petition Could Help Senecal Get Pension

By Jen ThomasPrint Story | Email Story
North Adams - At a special meeting Monday night, the City Council voted unanimously to do what Mayor John Barrett III called "the right thing." A Home Rule petition will be filed in response to a push by the local retirement board to strip city Highway Superintendent Leo Senecal of his pension. The move means that state Rep. Daniel E. Bosley D-North Adams can present Senecal's situation the legislators with the hope that legislators will agree that Senecal should be exempt from a state law that bars him from the retirement revenues. Senecal was convicted in 1998 of illegal disposal of hazardous wastes, following an incident in 1996 when Senecal was found to have been burying oil at the city’s salt shed. Senecal pleaded guilty to the charge and has no other blemishes on his 40-year city employment record. According to Barrett, Joseph C. Connerton, executive director of the Public Employee Retirement Adminisitration Commission, threatened local retirement board members with incarceration if they permitted Senecal to have his pension. Under Massachusetts General Law, Senecal’s actions warrant the forfeiture of his pension plan, a loss of about $700,000, according to the mayor. Barrett requested the Council’s authorization to petition Massachusetts General Court to exempt Senecal from the law. "The only way this can be corrected, the only way this can be fair, is to file this legislation and take it out of [the retirement board’s] hands," said Barrett. "Politics are rough and tough, but once you’re hurting people’s lives, it’s wrong." "This man has paid in personal stress," said Barrett. The mayor said he suspected Senecal had lost approximately $50,000 in legal fees, lost pay, and hazardous waste clean-up costs. "We need to force the legislature to look at intent here and not the letter of the law," said Councilor Richard J. Alcombright. "I hope this sends the message." "It’s unequivocally the right thing to do for the city and for the Council," said Councilor Ronald A. Boucher. Budget 2008 Councilors unanimously approved a motion to refer the mayor’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2008 to the finance committee. Barrett called the $34,746,887 budget “very tight” and said the budget represents a 1.68 percent increase. "We’ve got to be even more stringent with our cost controls and our spending," Barrett said. "I’ve been around long enough to know that the future is not that pretty unless you want to tax the people of the city to death and you just can’t do that." Fiscal Year 2008 runs from July 1,2007 to June 30, 2008. The FY 2008 budget reflects a 10 percent increase in debt for the city and Barrett said declining revenues further complicated assembling the budget. Barrett voiced concern over the continued use of city reserve funds, but pointed out that no services would be lost, no school programs would be cut, and there would be no substantial property tax increases because of budget cuts. Barrett said he hopes that Governor Deval Patrick‘s administration would institute changes that will benefit the city in the future. "Hopefully, the governor’s new relief package will allow us some ways to raise additional revenues, but that is still 12 months down the road," said Barrett. "The state continues to balance the budget on the backs of cities and towns, and hopefully some of the things that [Patrick] wants to get passed will come to fruition." Other Business The Council unanimously approved refinancing the bond for the water filtration plant at a lower interest rate. Barrett said the refinancing would save the city approximately $140,00 in interest payments in fiscal 2008 and up to $198,000 over the life of the bond. The majority of the savings would occur in the next three years for “immediate relief to the budget,” according to Barrett. The Council unanimously approved the transfer of $66,800 from various accounts ( $14,500 from general government accounts, $30,300 from the department of public safety, and $22,000 from the reserve account). All but $1,500 of that was transferred to support various salaries for city employees. The largest transfer was $40,000 to the police salaries account to offset a $69,000 deficit caused by additional overtimes used by police officers. According to Barrett, Public Safety Commissioner E. John Morocco said there were too few reserve officers to fill shifts when three city police officers were required to attend police academy. Barrett said the transfers were “not a direct result of overspending.” Councilors appointed several individuals to the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art Commission. Councilors unanimously approved reappointing Peter Markou to a term to expire in 2010. New appointees include Richard Karnack (2009), Shirley Davis (2009), Mary K. Grant (2010) and Steven Iacuessa (2008). “The goal of the commission is to have control over the best interest of the community,” said Barrett. Councilors Clark H. Billings and Christopher J. Tremblay did not attend the meeting. Jen Thomas may be reached via e-mail at jtjomas@iberkshires.com or at 413-663-3384 ext. 29.
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Guest Column: Statement on Sentencing in Steele-Knudslien Murder

Guest Column
As the region's longest-serving LGBTQ organization, Berkshire Stonewall Community Coalition has closely followed the case of the murder of Christa Steele-Knudslien, the North Adams resident and founder of the Miss Trans New England Pageant. 
Today [Thursday], her murderer has been sentenced to life in prison with eligibility for parole after serving 25 years. In the two years since we lost Christa, the community has rallied around her memory and inspiration. In North Adams, a grassroots task force was founded in reaction to her death and those of other residents killed by their partners. This led to the Berkshire County Domestic and Sexual Violence Task Force, a coalition of community agencies such as Elizabeth Freeman Center, law enforcement, and the court system, currently working to end domestic violence in Berkshire County for good. 
On the brighter side, over the past two years the Berkshire Pride Festival has grown to be a major event, celebrating and uplifting the trans community that Christa cared about so much. An annual award for local LGBTQ leaders has been established in her name and with her spirit. Clothing swaps have happened where Berkshire residents shared the joy and beauty of being trans, the same goal Christa had in mind when founding her pageant. Rainbow Seniors and the Berkshire Trans Group expanded their meetings, providing support and connection from Williamstown to Great Barrington.
Politically, a local contingent spent hours organizing and fighting to pass the state ballot measure last year that made Massachusetts the first state to successfully defend an attack on a trans rights bill, setting a strong precedent for human rights across the nation. And we mourned, as a community, at each Trans Day of Remembrance, a national event that struck home when we read Christa's name amongst those murdered.
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