Commissioner William Blackmer tells the council that its intentions in writing the ordinance for the arts commission was clear.
NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Advocates of the Public Arts Commission pushed back Tuesday night against proposed changes that would put more authority into the hands of the mayor.
Mayor Thomas Bernard submitted an amended ordinance to the City Council that removes the commission's control on approving public art installations, turning it into a recommending body on par with certain other city boards, and also addressing a host of grammatical and word changes and clarifications.
The City Council voted to refer the amended ordinance to a joint meeting of the General Government Committee and the Public Arts Commission.
"This places all decisions regarding public art in the hands of a single elected official," said Julia Dixon, the commission's current chairman who said she was not speaking as the body's representative. "Ask yourself, is it better to enable the agenda of one or balance the agendas of several. What if the next mayor ... doesn't want to be the decision maker of public art in the city or, worse, is opposed to public art?"
The mayor said his reasoning was that there was confusion about the role of the Public Arts Commission, in particular about art installations prior to the commission's creation because the city never established ownership of those works, and there were now contracts that had to be signed off on. The current ordinance also gave the arts commission greater authority than other boards, he said.
"I really believe that the advisory role of the commission is broadly representative and almost always definitive. So this is not about a veto power for the commission, it is about adding an appropriate step to the process," Bernard told the City Council. "And it's being consistent with other boards and commission."
He referenced the Parks and Recreation, Human Services and Windsor Lake commissions that act as recommending bodies to the mayor's office. "This is really about bringing this board in line with other boards and commissions."
The artist contract developed by the arts commission is a "good document," he said, but place obligations on city departments, such as public works, which fall under the direction of the mayor's office. "I think it's important to make the advisory role of this commission clear going forward."
The two largest changes the mayor proposes in the ordinance would direct the commission's recommendations on arts programs and policies to the mayor rather than the City Council and gives the mayor — not the commission — approval over acquisitions, installations, displays and removals of art. A third sets the term of installation at five years but gives the city the right to remove it "at any time when deemed necessary."
"In his edits, the commission's role changes from a decision making body to an advisory body," said Dixon. "This is neither insignificant nor clarifying. Before reviewing or ratifying these changes, it is important to understand from the public arts commissioner's perspective, the political impact of this change in authority."
The proposal has sparked opposition within the community and fears that the administration is trying to undermine an ordinance specifically made to be "mayor proof."
"This isn't old. We don't have to look to 1776 if we're wondering what the intent was," said William Blackmer, a founding commissioner. "What the council crafted is only a couple years old, you can actually ask the founding councilors and members what they were trying to achieve. ... There wasn't an error in writing that. The council wrote that, it went through the solicitor and the solicitor approved it."
The council didn't make a mistake in giving the authority to the commission, he said, "they didn't want to go through the two-year cycle and leave it up to any Tom, Dick or Harriet, whoever was in the office to say yes, no, thumbs up, thumbs down."
In response to the mayor's reference to Parks and Rec and Windsor Lake, Blackmer pointed to the Airport Commission and the Historical Commission, both of which have specific authority outside the mayor's purview.
The Public Arts Commission was established in 2016 by Mayor Richard Alcombright to take the decision making over public arts projects off his plate. The ordinance was drafted over months of meetings and the ability of its members to hold off against a disapproving mayor was foremost in the minds of the council and the commission's founders and exemplified by the five-year staggered terms of its members.
Speakers in the audience — and several city councilors — expressed concern that now the decision on what is art would be determined by one person.
"I went to art school and I still can't tell you what art is," Erica Manville, a Drury High art teacher and a founding and former member of the commission. "Art isn't for one person to decide what it is art, it is for the public."
She said the commission's role was to work on behalf of the public. The goal of the ordinance from the first had been "to make it mayor proof," she noted. "It's more than a symbolic change."
The elephant in the room — as several people called out — is the painting over of community art on the pillars underneath the Veterans Memorial Bridge by the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. President Keith Bona said he didn't want to make it about the pillars but rather saw the situation as a "good learning lesson" when it comes to public arts issues.
But Vincent Melito and Joseph Smith spoke specifically to the mayor's refusal to consider testing to see if the art could be restored as an indication of the problems with singular authority. (The Public Arts Commission, which has initially seemed in favor of the idea, voted in the end against it.)
Councilors Jason LaForest, Rebbecca Cohen (who both brought up the pillars) and Marie T. Harpin, who stated she was against the amendment, all expressed reservations on the changes, saying they had heard from residents and former councilors.
Councilor Wayne Wilkinson, however, cautioned that the councilors shouldn't be making up their minds before the ordinance was even reviewed by the General Government Committee.
At the end of the meeting, the mayor thanked the public and officials for airing their concerns and said he was "philosophically aligned" those speaking for an inclusive, participatory process. However, he saw it more as a procedural matter related to contractual matters.
Bona thought the arts too far ingrained in the city at this point for any official to be able to limit or eliminate its influence.
"I think there's a fear that the mayor will stop art from happening here," Bona said. "If that happens, I think the mayor won't happen here."
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The national political picture in these challenging times are characterized by embattled partisans filled with vitriol and empty rhetoric losing their voices in the echo chamber of social media and 24-hour news cycles. It is in this climate that gives me pause to reflect on the notion that late speaker of the House, Massachusetts' own Tip O'Neil, stated: "all politics is local." I appreciate the fact that North Adams has a mayor who epitomizes civility, level-headedness, and competency.
Mayor Tom Bernard is a leader who demonstrates his competencies through hard work, intelligence, open-mindedness and commitment to guiding our city through this period of growth and investment.
Mayor Bernard has built a strong foundation during his first term in which to navigate the course that North Adams is taking toward a more inclusive and prosperous future.
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