Pittsfield Council Drops Controversial No Confidence Vote

By Joe DurwinPittsfield Correspondent
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A petition targeting the performance of the city's solicitor was filed by unanimous vote of the City Council.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The City Council did not vote Tuesday on a petition of no confidence in City Solicitor Kathleen Degnan after hours of vicious debate.

The split in a large crowd of attendees determined by outbursts of applause to the two opposing arguments was akin to the voter divide in the city's most recent election. 

The outcry against the petition for a vote of no confidence in Degnan dominated those who addressed the council during an hourlong open-microphone period.

The petition, put forth by Ward 1 Councilor Christine Yon and Council President Kevin Sherman, challenged the "professional competence"  as the city's legal representation if a case that ended with a $100,000 settlement paid to Spectrum Health Systems and allowed the company to open a methadone clinic on Summer Street. Ultimately the petition would be filed and no vote was taken.

The methadone clinic, which opened on Tuesday, provoked debate across the city for nearly a year.
"She's not a player in some of your political worlds, and therefore a very easy target," said the city's Director of Administrative Services Donna Mattoon, who berated the councilors who've opposed Degnan for casting her in a harsh light in the media. "This is a heartless and a thoughtless vote."
Former Councilor Joseph Nichols condemned the non-binding petition challenging Degnan, "I consider it to be a complete waste of time, and an embarrassment to the city of Pittsfield," he said.
"Christine Yon is being unjustly sniped, for no good reason, other than sticking up for her constituents," said Robert Skowron, of Pittsfield, though he also defended Degnan, and urged the council to move past Spectrum-related issues.
"The mayor inherited a nightmare ... it's got to stop, folks," said Skowron, whose June 14 email to the mayor and council accusing Mayor Daniel Bianchi of not being transparent about an initial settlement plan to locate the clinic on Stoddard Avenue was instrumental in the backlash of protest that scrapped the plan, delaying a settlement agreement. "Let's move on. There's no need for any of this."
Councilor Yon defended the merits of her complaints against Degnan, as outlined in a six-page document provided (see timeline, pages 89-95) in which she says information taken out of context from what she believed to have been a private meeting with Bianchi and the city solicitor was referenced by Degnan during court proceedings and later became cited as supporting evidence in a new injunction filed by Spectrum promptly thereafter.
"I wasn't looking to get anyone," said Yon, who along with Sherman originally met with the mayor on Sept. 6 to ask that he consider removing Degnan from her position as solicitor. "I was looking for answers."
Councilors Barry Clairmont, Jonathan Lothrop and John Krol voiced strong support for the petition, while Councilors Christopher Connell, Melissa Mazzeo and Kevin Morandi criticized the move.
Lothrop revisited previous statements made by himself, Clairmont and Krol to local media outlets in late August, saying he felt mislead by Degnan during a series of June budget discussions about the nature of a sum set aside for litigation settlement.
"If department heads or other individuals or officials are not giving the City Council factual, truthful, honest information, I'm apt to make bad decisions on your behalf," said Lothrop. "And I'm very upset by the fact that I do feel that in this case I was mislead."
"There appears to be a pattern here that greatly concerns me," Krol concurred.
"How is this going to benefit the city?" asked Morandi. "What attorney Degnan did, what this administration did [with respect to the Spectrum suit] was the right move to settle this quickly and get out."
"I don't believe in the process that we're going about this," said Connell. "This step is just too extreme." 
After extensive discussion of the litigation, Yon ultimately made a motion to file her petition, taking the no-confidence vote off the table.
"I'm hoping in the future when we go to the mayor with their concerns, they're taken seriously," said Yon.  "I'm extremely frustrated with the dialogue that's been going on, and that's not been going on."  
"As much as I'm very glad that we're going to file this, at the same time, we have just dragged her [Degnan's] reputation through the mud," said Mazzeo.  "Going forward, this should never, ever happen again."
Bianchi vehemently criticized the way in which Yon had handled her grievances with the city solicitor.
"You said you made every effort to communicate with me. You showed up unannounced with the council president, and you requested that I ask for the resignation of our solicitor," said Bianchi. "I don't consider that to be a tremendous effort."
The council voted unanimously to file the petition.

Tags: city council,   city solicitor,   lawsuit,   petition,   Pittsfield,   Spectrum Health,   

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Letter: Problematic Proposed Lenox Short-Term Rental Bylaw

Letter to the Editor

To the Editor:

Under the proposed short-term rental Lenox bylaw, "up to two bedrooms in a dwelling unit may be rented year-round by right provided that the owner or tenant is occupying the dwelling unit at the time of the rental."

Presumably, bedrooms may not be rented at all if the owner or tenant is not occupying the dwelling unit.

In other words, literally, the very same use is allowed by one type of owner (an owner occupying the dwelling unit), but not another type of owner (one who does not occupy the dwelling unit where bedrooms are being rented). Because there is identical use and intensity and the only thing that differs is the type of owner or renter; it is hard to view this as mere regulation of use and not ownership.

The other provision suffers from the same problem. Suppose there is a duplex or land with two houses on it (perhaps an old robber-baron estate) but with separate owners for each dwelling unit. Under the rule regarding "dwelling units being rented in their entirety," "an entire dwelling unit maybe rented up to 75 days per calendar year by right," and "an entire dwelling unit may be rented for an additional 35 days (up to 110 days) per calendar year by Special Permit."

But then suppose there is unity of ownership and one person owns the entire duplex or both houses. In that case, "the above totals apply to the entire parcel" and "the day limits defined above shall be apportioned among those dwelling units."

A town can regulate the number of days a short-term rental may be utilized under the newly passed statute: but this additional restriction based on who owns the premises is a regulation of ownership and not use.

The same is instinct through other parts as well. Of course, Lenox residents or their guest can park in the street. But if you are renting a short-term rental, "All overnight parking must be within the property's driveway or garage." If you own or rent property, so long as you get the right permits, you may entertain on your property. But if you are a short-term renter, "events that include tents or amplified music or which would customarily require a license or permit are not allowed."

Since 1905, when Home Rules was put into the [Massachusetts] Constitution, towns could pass their own bylaws, so long as there was no regulation of a civil relationship unless it was an incident to a legitimate municipal power. This meant, among other things, zoning laws had to regulate use and not ownership. It is now a fundamental principle of Massachusetts zoning that it deals basically with the use, without regard to the ownership of the property involved, or who may be the operator of the use. This bylaw appears to violate this fundamental tenet.

By way of example of the you-may-regulate-use-but-not-ownership rule, it has been held that a city did not have authority under the Massachusetts Constitution to pass an ordinance that affected the civil relationship between tenants and their landlord, who wished to convert their rental units to condominiums. In another case, a municipal ordinance which restricted a landlord's ability to terminate a lease and remove his property from the rental market in order to sell it was invalid.

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