Pittsfield At-Large Candidates Talk Policing, Poverty and Inequity, Local Economy at NAACP Debate
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The Berkshire Chapter of the NAACP hosted a debate with Pittsfield's six at-large candidates on last week.
Incumbents Peter Marchetti, Earl Persip III, Pete White, Yuki Cohen, and newcomers Karen Kalinowsky and Craig Benoit answered questions generated from a survey by the Political Action Committee.
The virtual event was moderated by William Singleton.
Reoccurring topics included public safety and the role of the Pittsfield Police Department, addressing poverty, inequity, and homelessness, and the local economy.
White said police need to be in a role of respect and authority, but also they have to earn that role of respect and authority by being good members of the community and also following rules and regulations themselves.
"I support our Police Department, I don't support how things have happened across the country, and at times here, where many people of color feel targeted," he said.
"I think, traffic stops have to be really legitimate, which I think typically here we've had better interactions but we always need to be improving and we need to make sure that the rules of our Police Department are those of all people who can be respected in show respect."
White said the role of the police is to protect public safety while making sure that laws are enforced but that they also have members as school resource officers, a traffic division, and investigators for when crime happens.
"We also need to decide what roles we want them to do, and I said that because we've had more and more duties put on to the Police Department over the years," he said.
"They've had to step into more and more situations, and they've been asked to do more and more that sometimes they haven't been properly trained on, or they haven't had enough training."
He added that when police are asked to be in certain situations, that they need the support of mental health counselors so they are not the ones making the decisions.
As a former Pittsfield police officer and one of the city's first community policing officers, Kalinowsky said that it takes working with the community to get areas of higher crime under control.
"Areas that there's a problem, it's focusing officers in that area, talking to the people that live in that area, finding out what they want, finding out, what they see," she said. "And working to make life better in those areas for the people that live there."
In her time as a community policing officer focused on cleaning up North Street, she said there was open drug dealing, shoplifting at the stores on the corridor, and a lot of bikes on the sidewalk.
To address the drug dealing, Kalinowsky worked with the telephone company to get rid of payphones in the area that were being used for such operations.
She also took a trespass notice from Big Y and took the company logo off to make it universal to all businesses struggling with shoplifters and handed it out to them.
In another question, Kalinowsky said North Street is "a mess" and after talking to a large number of residents, only one expressed that they were satisfied with the corridor.
Benoit said he has a "very strong opinion" about the city's panhandlers when asked about measures he would advocate to improve public safety.
"I don't believe they should be there, I'm concerned about everybody, if one of them falls in the road, especially right down by the library, and if someone gets hurt, what if that's your daughter or your grandson or whatever who's in the car, they were driving? Now, what are the consequences for them?" he said.
"These are the kinds of public safety things I think we all need to work out, need to just make it better, easier for everybody in the city to get along and coexist."
He added that "maybe" the city needs a new police station in reference to a $55 million police station that the city has proposed because of the current station's age.
Benoit said Pittsfield's fire stations also need to be evaluated to see if they are up to code.
These, along with making sure that city vehicles are working and upgraded and that the roads are properly paved, he said will provide the best service to the residents of Pittsfield.
As the chair of the Affirmative Action Committee, White has asked if there are ways to advocate for equity and inclusion without creating a more distant situation between people of color and white members of the community.
"I think that we have to be clear that the affirmative action policy is to equal the playing field and make sure that everyone is given the opportunity to apply for jobs that are offered in the city of Pittsfield, that goes for ethnicity, that goes for people with disabilities that goes for veterans, all protected classes," he said.
"I don't think we should see it as a way of pitting one group against the other, it's just making sure that we take into account that there have been things in place that have stopped people in these protected classes from having the same opportunities to apply for these jobs, see that these jobs were offered and then to be hired in these jobs."
He added that the city needs to create more opportunities that allow the playing field to be equal for everyone and that the committee needs more members.
Persip believes that one of the city's biggest barriers supporting people who are struggling with poverty or near poverty is getting them helpful information, making them feel welcome, making them feel like they can go to organizations and the city for help, and informing them about the programs that can help.
"I think, really getting the city involved in outreach and making people understand what's out there for them because we have a lot of great services, and organizations in the city," he said when asked what he supports to enable people in poverty to access social and economic resources in the community.
"So I think getting people the information, making them feel comfortable about going to those organizations being people like that, at those organizations so that they can get the help or services they need.
Persip was also asked what action plan he advocates for to expand affordable rental and ownership opportunities for low and moderate-income families.
He said the state needs to put some investment in so the city can create initiatives for transitional housing, which he deemed as "super important."
Persip believes that low-income housing also needs to be updated, as a lot of the current housing stock is outdated.
"We really need to get those people in a livable situation where they feel proud to be there, they want to be there, they're part of the community there and I think some people feel ashamed about where they live because of the way some of these management companies run their rental properties," he said.
"We really need to hold those people accountable for making sure the property is livable and up to date, and safe, I also think the city can step in and create funds to help landlords or property owners or management groups, upgrade some of these properties, especially in our Westside neighborhoods."
Mixed-use housing greats a great community, Persip added.
Cohen said, in an opening statement, that the city needs to find a balance between market-rate, high-income property rentals, and affordable housing. In addition, she said the city needs to take a look at what "affordable" actually means.
Cohen is an immigrant who was born in Korea and owns Methuselah Bar and Lounge on North Street. She was asked how she would explain her previously stated philosophy of not having to see the whole staircase, just taking the first step to a young boy or girl who lives in poverty.
"I'm an immigrant and from a very humble background, my parents moved from Korea, we spent some time in Brazil and then we came to the United States and I feel very fortunate and very lucky to be an American citizen," Cohen said.
"So, in terms of how I built my business, if you think about the entire entirety of the business when I first started like looking at it in its entirety, it was so overwhelming that I had to break it into bite sizes, have a plan for where do we start and how do we move, get the first step out of the way and then move to the next level."
She added that Pittsfield has a lot of talent and resources for people to take a with a business.
The one thing that stops a lot of people, she said, is a fear of failure but that failure can often lead a person to their next steps.
Marchetti was asked to identify one aspect within the Morningside community, the West Side community, and the homeless population that he would push to fund with the city's $40 million allocation of American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds.
He said he would suggest better housing, safer communities for both of the neighborhoods. As a former lifelong resident of Morningside, he explained that the city needs to stop and recognize what the Morningside and Westside areas have, as they are unfairly labeled at times.
"I think, most importantly if we do anything with the ARPA fund, we need to find a solution for a homeless population," Marchetti said in regards to the homeless population. "and if it means trying to develop some form of housing in Pittsfield for that, then that's where we need to start."
Marchetti was also asked what kind of job training he advocates for hopefully enable people to have the opportunity to get well-paying jobs.
He advocated for providing students with career paths that are alternative to those that require a standard college education, recognizing that is not for every person.
He credited the new Taconic High School, which was overhauled to largely cater to trade students.
The city needs to make sure that it doesn't assume it knows what is best for the future in terms of jobs and technology and what businesses need, Marchetti said, and to take a deeper dive with local businesses and manufacturers to find out exactly what their needs are.
He also said the role that the Berkshire Innovation Center is playing in Pittsfield with new opportunities and businesses needs to be seen as it continues to flourish.
Benoit said attracting any kind of small business will benefit the city. As the owner of The Hot Dog Ranch, he has been a big proponent for supporting small businesses in the city.
"Yes, it would be nice to get a nice big business like we used to have with [General Electric] but we need small businesses," he added. "And we need to make it so that our zoning laws and our sign laws and everything else we can do to make it easier for a person to come in and start a small business."
On the topic of the local economy, White said residents need to be encouraged to shop local and support businesses within the city.
"I can't stress that enough if we have a local business that offers something support it, go there, regardless of a small hassle or, if its easier to pick up the phone or go online and order it from an online store," he said when asked how to support North Street to make it a thriving corridor.
"When I need something, I try to go to somewhere in Pittsfield to get it, we need more people doing that and we need to be listening to the businesses of what they need, and also just putting out, listening to the negativity, but not stopping us from going down there and still supporting them, and anything we can do to help new ones come in with any incentives we can well also hopefully offering those incentives to the ones that are existing."
He mentioned that tax incremental financing is important to allow buildings to be renovated and businesses to have some "breathing room."
Cohen was queried about her run-ins with the Licensing Board in relation to COVID-19 violations.
In January, Cohen's license for Methuselah was suspended for two days for COVID-19 violations after hearings for three complaints that included pictures and anonymous testimony.
In April, the board voted to suspend her liquor license for 28 days and entertainment license for another 25 days as a result of violations that were captured on video. In May, the board amended the entertainment license violation to allow her to play recorded music in the background.
Cohen said, at the debate, that after state investigations, it was determined that Methuselah was not at fault for a surge of cases that tore through restaurants after Halloween 2020, but was only affected by it.
When she was shut down for a month, she said she lost about $50,000 in sales and feels that she paid penance during that time.
"I am not saying that I did things perfectly there were definitely some mistakes made, I just want to say that we all make mistakes and I own up to all of them," Cohen added.
In this situation, she said she is humbled, took accountability and responsibility, and believes she will continue to do so moving forward.
All members were also asked about climate change and had a rebuttal segment.
During the rebuttal, Cohen talked about what she has learned as a councilor; Marchetti touched on the school's spending and student retention; Persip talked about his previous petition to regulate outdoor cannabis and the role of the council; Kalinowsky spoke on safety in schools, retention, and jobs; White expanded on a number of topics including the role of a police officer, the city's cannabis industry, the bike lanes on North Street, and issues within the schools; and Benoit spoke about the city budget, negative effects of bike lanes on North Street, and his style as a councilor.
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