PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The City Council denied a petition aimed to remove Ward 4 Councilor Christopher Connell by claiming he no longer lived in Pittsfield.
Late into the six-hour meeting Tuesday, councilors came to the agreement that although Connell is spending much of his time quarantining out of state, his primary residence is still in Pittsfield.
"I just want to thank you all for your kind support and thought and I will continue to do the best that I can for this council and this city," Connell said at the meeting's close around 1 in the morning.
Ward 4 resident Elizabeth Herland had submitted the petition and included a Facebook post Connell made in July as evidence that he no longer lived within the city limits.
The post indicated that Connell had vacated his Pomeroy Avenue home in March after COVID-19 hit and has been residing in his vacation condo in upstate New York.
In the copied post, Connell does note how difficult the past five months have been for him and that he had been caring for his sick mother. He wrote that for her safety, he decided to limit contact with her and only visit her periodically.
The decision to not remove Connell from the council was unanimous but not until after hours of discussion. The other councilors questioned their colleague and tried to navigate the vague city charter and what it means to be removed from the city.
City Solicitor Stephen Pagnotta first said he thought it was OK for Connell to participate in the debate but did not think it was appropriate for him to vote on the matter.
Pagnotta said it was not really about where Connell resides but where his "domicile" is located. He said they must determine if his domicile has changed and whether he has removed himself from the city without the intention of returning.
Any registered voter in the city is able to run for council in their ward or at large and they remain eligible as long as they are a voter. Once elected and to remain eligible, Pagnotta said they cannot remove themselves to another community and still remain a city councilor.
"It is your determination as to whether or not he is removed. If you accept his explanation then he has relocated without the intention to remove himself then he is eligible to remain on the City Council," he said. "If you determine that his decision to relocate is a removal because it is his intention to relocate on a permanent or quasi-permanent status, then he is not eligible."
He said various documents indicate that Connell lives in Pittsfield but that the council must determine if Connell's action qualifies as removal.
Connell said he sold his Dawes Avenue home in January before the pandemic hit. He moved in with his mother on Pomeroy Avenue, a house which he owns, to look after her. He said he plans to move into the second apartment in the Pomeroy Avenue home once it is available.
(The sale of Connell's house had raised questions on social media as to whether he was still living in Ward 4. He clarified at the time he was planning to move into the same house as his mother.)
He said because he is in contact with so many people and is a property owner and a city councilor, he did not want to endanger his mother. Also, his girlfriend works in the medical field.
"I am trying to balance safety, care, and everything else so I have had to make some very tough decisions," Connells said.
Connell said because all of his properties were occupied he decided to shelter in his condo that he would typically visit on the weekends.
"If I had any idea COVID-19 was going to happen I would have never sold my house or moved into one of my other properties," Connell said.
Councilors struggled to compare the situation to anything else. Ward 6 Councilor Dina Guiel Lampiasi tried to compare it to a college student who may live in a community but spends a majority of time in a dorm or apartment out of state.
Without any sort of metrics in the charter determining how long a councilor must be in the city, some councilors had a hard time differentiating Connell's situation from a vacation.
Ward 1 Councilor Helen Moon found a closer example and noted that former Ward 6 Councilor John Krol did not live full time in Pittsfield during his final months as a councilor but his family was still in the city. She said the council did not question this.
Moon chose to empathize with Connell and did not think it was right to question the decisions he has made to protect his family in such a strange time.
"I don't think we have the right to judge people on those decisions," she said. "... I am having a hard time with the timing of this right now. If he tells us it is his intention to move back I am going to trust him."
She did say if this went beyond the pandemic, she would be less understanding.
Connell said he has every desire to continue to care for his mother once the pandemic ends and that has always been his plan.
"I don't know what else you need to see. My dogs are there, my dogs' bowls are there, everything that I have is here," he said. "My doctor, my vet, my dentist, my plumber. I am working on the house so I can put up a fence so my dogs have a place to run."
Ward 3 Councilor Nicholas Caccamo also sympathized with Connell as did Ward 5 Councilor Patrick Kavey, who added that he thought with documentation clearly stating that Connell lives in Pittsfield it would be difficult to legally prove otherwise.
Ward 2 Councilor Kevin Morandi felt the petition was "petty." He added that he thought other councilors would make the same decision as Connell.
"This can happen to any of us. This can happen to our parents, it can happen you our spouses," he said. "... You have to make the best decision you can when it comes down to health and putting people at risk and I think you all would to do what councilor Connell did."
Some councilors said they had similar stories to Connell but decided to find a way to continue to safely stay in Pittsfield.
Councilor at Large Peter White said he had to be mindful of his own mother and has really only left his house to go to the store. He said he has been unable to meet with constituents or attend events or marches.
"I wish the charter was different and this is not something I would have put in it," White said. "But a ward resident asked us to make a decision tonight and I just have to think about how hard it has been in my situation."
Ward 7 Councilor Anthony Maffuccio said his family is at risk and he himself suffers from COPD but has managed to stay in Pittsfield.
"People may not know but I have COPD and I have to wear oxygen 24/7 even though I don't wear it on TV," he said. "I ... am the one person in the house who goes out and runs the errands and takes all the precautions that I have to ... unfortunately Councilor Connell admitted that he has been living in upstate New York for the last five months. That is over half of his new term. I am a straightforward person ... but there is nothing that says he cannot take precautionary measures and still live with his mother."
Questions continued and councilors asked how many nights Connell slept in Pittsfield or if he kept a journal and schedule. Lampiasi questioned the timeline and could not determine if something had been "uncovered" and Connell has been living in New York or if it was a genuinely difficult situation.
Councilor at Large Earl Persip was also looking for any kind of evidence and indicated that Connell was telling the truth. He said if he did not know Connell, he would think he lived near Lake George, N.Y., by looking at his Facebook.
He also called back to allegations from the election that Connell did not want to seek re-election and relayed a question from a constituent that he was only interested in hitting the 10-year mark as a city councilor to receive city insurance.
Persip did say he respected Connell as a councilor and rated him as one of the most responsive, however, he had to relay the questions that he was asked.
Connell said if he did not think he was able to totally commit to the council he would step away and that he did the job for his love of the city, not the insurance.
He reiterated his commitment to the city but said he almost did not run again because of his mother's failing health. He said she convinced him to run again and he affirmed he would continue to do this no matter where he is any given day during the pandemic.
"I continue to serve every single day and my phone is always on," he said. "... Pittsfield is my home."