NORTH ADAMS, Mass. — Local officials are reacting to Mayor Thomas Bernard's sudden decision not to stand for re-election — an action that's put an early spotlight on the race for the corner office.
Several city councilors responded with their regrets that the mayor would not run for a third term, and saying they respected what must have been a difficult decision.
"I respect Mayor Bernard's decision as he will get more time to focus on the job instead of an election to finish off his term, which still has 10 months left," said Councilor Keith Bona, the senior member of the council. "A lot can happen in that time."
What will happen in any case is an election and City Councilor Jason LaForest confirmed on Tuesday that he is exploring a run for mayor, noting it was not really a secret.
LaForest, first elected in 2017, has been considered potential contender for some time. He has been particularly critical recently of the administration's lack of a capital plan and failure to aggressively address infrastructure issues.
"I'm still working with my core team to put social media and campaign strategies in place but I fully anticipate making an announcement in the next few weeks and we'll pull papers when they become available in April," he said.
A second councilor whose name has come up before as a possible mayoral candidate, Benjamin Lamb, in January said he would not run for a fifth term, citing a desire to continue helping the community along a different path. On Tuesday, he responded that "nothing was off the table," but thought this was a time to respect Bernard's decision.
"It is an unfortunate symptom of our two-year election cycles in North Adams that we ultimately create a model where doing the necessary and difficult work of a mayor is constantly paired with spending a ton of time and energy running for the next cycle," the former council president said.
"For him to buckle down and see this as a way to do the incredibly important and challenging work for the remainder of this year is something I greatly appreciate and respect, and I look forward to working with him and his administration full speed ahead over the remainder of his term as we do take on the numerous needs of the city."
The possibility of extending the mayor's term to four years to give the officeholder more time to enact their agenda was raised nearly a decade ago during the tenure of Mayor Richard Alcombright. The proposal never took concrete form and Alcombright stepped down after four consecutive terms.
LaForest said he, too, had great respect for the Bernard's decision to focus on his administration during this last year of his term.
"One thing that is much harder than the decision to run for elected office is the decision not to run for re-election. So, certainly this couldn't have been an easy decision for Mayor Bernard," LaForest said. "He has served the city well in a very difficult era over the last term and a half. And so we do have to extend our gratitude and respect for the service he has provided the city."
Councilor Lisa Blackmer, another council veteran, said she was sorry to hear he was not running for re-election.
"I think that COVID has unfortunately but necessarily diverted focus from other priorities," she said. "I am hopeful that we can spend the rest of the year working on the important issues facing the city of North Adams, including maximizing revenues and balancing current expenses with planning for our future."
Councilor Peter Oleskiewicz described himself as the new guy — he was appointed last year to fill a vacancy — who is still learning. But he knows the city has a failing infrastructure, a declining tax base and a dependency on state funding, he said.
"Being mayor is not an easy job, it is very challenging especially over the last year with COVID thrown in the mix," said Oleskiewicz. "We have a host of issues in this city which have gone on for years, not just under the current administration."
North Adams can borrow money but it won't cover everything and will still mean an increase in taxes at the end of the day, he said. "We are in very tough times, and there is no easy fix no matter who is in the corner office. I would like to continue on council and work closely with whoever our next mayor will be to hopefully put a dent in some of the larger issues. We are all elected to do a job, we need to sit at that table of nine and work together as a team and also work with the city administration."
Nominations for the municipal election won't be available until April and candidates will campaign for the mayoral term and City Council and School Committee positions during the pandemic aren't clear.
Bernard's decision pushed LaForest to answer questions about the election a little sooner than expected but expected other candidates will come forward.
"One of the things North Adams most needs to come out of this election cycle is a strong debate season, which we haven't seen in recent years," he said. "Debates are great for clarifying what the community really needs and really desires. And that taking that information from a strong debate season will be critical for the next administration."
The city needs "bold, transparent leadership" that can work with state leaders and the congressional delegation to expand revenue opportunities, he said. The city has been kicking the can down the road and pinch hitting responses to its long failing insfrastructure.
LaForest said his experience as a nurse manager has given him the ability to take in critical information and work with interdisciplinary teams to produce good results for patients.
"Municipal government is very much like that," he said. "My experiences as a nurse manager together with my experience on City Council, MMA, working with our congressional delegation through the Hoosic River Revival really positions me to be a strong candidate in this election cycle."