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Cheshire 2019 Year in Review: Emergence of New Leadership

By Jack GuerinoiBerkshires Staff
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Michelle Francesconi and Ron DeAngelis won the special election to fill two newly created seats on the Board of Selectmen.
 
CHESHIRE, Mass. — The town's government saw some big changes in 2019 stemming from the Board of Selectmen increasing from three to five members and bringing on some first-time selectmen.
 
It looks much different now with the newer, larger board and new Town Administrator Edmund St. John IV at the wheel. 
 
Increasing the size of the board goes back to a citizen's petition from 2015 that asked the town start the process. However, town officials learned that they needed to solicit the state to make this change and it could not be simply done locally. 
 
After a series of town meeting articles and ballot votes, the state officially gave the town the go-ahead last January. Residents were asked to vote on the change one last time in May.
 
But before the vote to bring on the two new members, the board had to fill its current ranks. Longtime selectwoman of 30 years Carol Francesconi stepped down in 2019 and St. John had vacated his seat in 2018 to apply for the town administrator position. He was appointed as interim in the tail end of 2018 before being offered the permanent post this past March. 
 
Political newcomers Mark Biagini and Jason Levesque were elected and joined Selectman Robert Ciskowski on the still three-member board. In August, the town held a special election that brought Michele Francesconi and Ronald Deangelis on as the newest members. 
 
The result has been a new and somewhat younger government after many years of veteran members running the town. It's also led to some lengthy Selectmen's meetings as the new board learns its role and deals with issues.
 
Cheshire also welcomed a new highway superintendent in Robert Navin, a former Richmond and Stockbridge public works employee who was hired in September. Navin replaced Blair Craine, who resigned after two years on the job. 
 
And the year brought a new superintendent to the newly renamed Hoosac Valley Regional School District, part of the revamping of the 50-year-old regional agreement. Aaron Dean wasn't a stranger to the district, having taught in the school district for a decade before becoming principal of Pittsfield's Crosby Elementary School. Dean replaced John Vosburgh, who resigned after only a year on the job; during the interim, the post was filled by Al Skrocki, who'd lead the school district for 14 years before retiring in 2012. 
 

Aaron Dean returned to the regional school district as superintendent. 
A big part of Dean's job will be to bring stability to a district that's had five superintendents in seven years and has been forced to close two schools in the last decade. The name change approved by town meetings this year from Adams-Cheshire was in large part to reduce the animosity between the two towns over the closure of Cheshire Elementary School a few years ago. 
 
Town have grappled with how to deal with the vacant school, hoping to keep it functional through leasing to tenants. The main tenant continues to be Hoosac Valley Regional's Central Office and it added another tenant in April with Youth Center Inc., an organization that serves children in the Northern Berkshires and mainly from Adams and Cheshire. There's also a fitness group that opened in the school in the spring. But the Board of Health and building inspector ended the year with questions about how the Youth Center was operating within the building, questions that are expected to be address as the new year begins -- along with how town officials can come up with the right equation to keep the space alive. 
 
In good news, Cheshire, in a joint application with New Marlborough, received $998,000 for housing rehabilitation through a Community Development Block Grant. The funds will help eligible homeowners rehabilitate their properties and especially to address any code violations. 
 
Marijuana has been less a boon than some had hoped. Although a few entities have expressed interest in developing a pot cultivation or retail outlets, the only concern that's tried to move ahead has run into obstacles. A proposal for an outdoor growing operation has on Stafford Hill had been strongly opposed by neighbors and the entity withdrew its application after several public hearing continuations. 
 
Pot and hemp growing and the use of the Cheshire Elementary School are expected to continue to be issues for the town in 2020.

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Cheshire Receives Funds to Address Route 116

By Jack GuerinoiBerkshires Staff
CHESHIRE, Mass. — The town has received partial funding through a MassWorks grant to pave a portion of Route 116.
 
Highway Superintendent Robert Navin told the Selectmen on Tuesday that the town received $200,000 from the state to pave about half of the state road.
 
"That is the big news and at least we can pave the worst half of it, the upper section," he said. "That will be as soon as the weather breaks."
 
Navin said the town first applied for the project in full through MassWorks, but they were unsuccessful.
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