PCTV & iBerkshires Debates Conclude With At-Large Candidates
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The six candidates running for the City Council's four at-large seats debated in person for the first time on Monday.
Yuki Cohen, Pete White, Peter Marchetti, Craig Benoit, Earl Persip III, and Karen Kalinowsky debated important city topics such as homelessness, crime and violence, and housing. Cohen, White, Marchetti, and Persip are incumbents.
The candidates had varied positions on projects such as the North Street bike lane reconfiguration, Pittsfield's trash system, and mosquito spraying.
The forum was held by Pittsfield Community Television in partnership with iBerkshires at the Berkshire Atheneum and was moderated by PCTV's Executive Director Shawn Serre and iBerkshires Editor Tammy Daniels.
This was the last of a series of three debates that began on Thursday featuring eight City Council candidates running for the four contested wards.
On Monday, seven candidates running for the School Committee tackled issues within the district.
This event was dedicated to longtime publisher of the Pittsfield Gazette Jonathan Levine, who began this series of televised debates 30 years ago, and local human services advocate Daniel Dillon, who moderated many of Levine's debates in that three-decade span. Both men died earlier this year.
To address violence both in the schools and on the streets, all candidates the candidates said they supported an increased police presence in term of student resource officers and patrol officers.
Kalinowsky was a school resource officer for 13 years at Reid Middle School and emphasized the importance of the officers in schools from a personal standpoint.
"Does the school need them? I believe so, yes. Are they the overall end-all to what's going on in schools? No, they are not," she said.
"Our job as a resource officer is to be part of the school community, it was not to be someone there in the school that is going to progress kids to make it on the pipeline to jail, that is not our role."
As a former beat cop on North Street, Kalinowsky also said there need to be more officers on the streets talking to people and doing crime watches. She said the city also needs to talk to the youth to discourage crime from a young age.
Cohen and Persip pointed out the importance of diversity, equity, and inclusion training for SROs in the schools.
"I think we still need to have a conversation about how children of color really don't feel comfortable with police officers in the school," Persip said. "As a person of color, I did. I have a different experience than some other kids, so I think it's important that we address that, and really talk about the role that our officers are doing in the schools because that's important."
Persip also called for the need to have an adequate staff of police officers rather than an understaffed force that is working on a large amount of overtime.
Cohen said her daughters feel comfortable having an SRO in school with them but added it is alarming how enforcement can be skewed negatively toward more vulnerable populations and people of color.
Candidates expressed a need for housing and mental health services to address the uptick in homelessness that has occurred in Pittsfield since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Persip said the city needs transitional housing and to address the underlying factors that contribute to homelessness. He added that American Rescue Plan Act funds should be used to keep people in their homes.
Kalinowsky said that in her experience, she had encountered some people who choose to be homeless because of substance abuse or mental health issues and emphasized the need for a detox center in the city.
Cohen had similar sentiments to Persip and added that in her experience being a business owner on North Street, she hasn't met anyone who has chosen to be homeless.
Marchetti first brought up the need for transitional housing when asked if the city needs more low-income, affordable or market-rate housing.
"I am going to say something strange and then explain it: none of the above," he said in response to the question, adding that transitional housing is needed to address the homeless community.
He also called for a better definition of housing terminologies.
"People of the community say 'What does affordable housing mean? What does low-income housing mean?' and 'What does market-rate housing mean?' and I think I may get different answers from different people and I think some of the terms may be misleading and some of the terms have stigmas too, so when you talk about low-income housing all of a sudden people get a message about what type of person that is in low-income housing," he explained.
"I was talking to one of my employees this morning, and he just got a new apartment and he says it's affordable housing. And he's paying $1,300 a month without utilities for his housing, and I just kind of went 'wow,' because for another $95 you could pay my mortgage payment for me, and so affordable housing market-rate housing, low-income housing, I would say transitional housing to help our homeless people get where they need to be, and better define what these housing terminologies are."
During the rebuttal period, Kalinowsky suggested remodeling city houses in disrepair for people who cannot find a place to live and Persip stressed the need for all types of housing in the city.
"I think we also need to hold landlords in the city of Pittsfield accountable for the way their properties are looking these days, there are some properties out there that just don't get addressed, it's a quality of life issue, and that's what's important to people," he said.
"We talked about the low-income rents for people who need those spaces, but let those spaces look good, people want to live in a nice looking place, so when we build these places, it's keeping the landlords accountable for making sure these places look nice."
Persip added that a mixture of different kinds of housing is what builds community, meaning that low-income housing should be out beside market rate and everything in between.
When the candidates were asked what they believe should be the top three priorities for ARPA funds, housing was also a common trend.
Addressing the city's housing stock also came up when White was asked how the city can attract young professionals and families.
"We need to make sure we continue to invest in our housing stock so when we have jobs that they're willing to take that they have places that they want to live," White said.
"I think we need more mix of affordable housing for that to happen, I think we also need to make sure that we have a great amount of market-rate housing for the jobs at General Dynamics, the hospital, and other businesses that do pay enough for that."
When it came to addressing city programs, the candidates had varying opinions.
Last week, the Public Health and Safety Committee had a presentation from the Board of Health about the city's mosquito spraying program through the Berkshire County Mosquito Control Project; the council has voted to opt of the spraying portion.
Cohen observed that even after having a wet season with high amounts of mosquitos, there were no mosquito-borne illnesses such as West Nile virus in the community. The city should look at that data, she said, to determine whether the spraying is important.
White stands against mosquito spraying and Marchetti said measures should be taken to mitigate the mosquitos before the need to spray and, if needed, to spray cautiously.
When asked about the city's trash system, Persip and Marchetti, who previously submitted a petition to explore a pay-as-you-throw trash option, said the city needs to have a hard conversation about its future with waste.
Marchetti said the system is broken and needs to be changed.
PAYT was proposed as an option by Marchetti, White, and Persip earlier this year. In the program contracted with WasteZero, residents would be provided with 104 15-gallon bags free each year at cost and any additional bags would be purchased for $1.50 per 30-gallon bag and $0.80 per 15-gallon bag.
"My opinion on that is I think maybe we just have to take the city as an average," Benoit said. "There are households with one or two people and there are households with five or six people, I think the taxpayers pay enough for our trash removal."
When asked about the reconfiguration of North Street into one-lane traffic for the addition of bike lanes, a majority of candidates did not agree with the change.
Benoit said it is overkill and expressed public safety concerns with emergency vehicles being able to pass down the corridor. He said he has spoken to many residents who are confused with the change.
Marchetti apologized to Commissioner of Public Services and Utilities Ricardo Morales, who attended the debate, to say he doesn't support the changes even though he understands the concept.
White was the outlier, supporting the second reiteration of the bike lanes with a new traffic pattern, and said he supports extending it across the city.
In her rebuttal, Kalinowsky said she has not met one person who likes the bike lanes.
The candidates were also asked a series of lightning questions that were to be answered in a "yes" or "no" format.
When asked if they support the Springside Park pump track proposal, all of the candidates were in support besides Cohen and Benoit.
The panel was then asked if they support a vaccine mandate for municipal and school employees, which was split down the middle with White, Persip, and Cohen supporting it and the rest opposed.
Similarly, they were asked if they support a mask mandate in the city and Marchetti and Persip were the only ones to vote in the affirmative.
Tags: debate, election 2021, municipal election,