North Adams City Council Debate Reveals Deep Divide

Incumbents Mostly Look Back, Challengers Look Ahead

By: - Oct 22, 2009

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Regardless of the outcome, whoever is elected Mayor or to the City Council in North Adams will have the future of the city in their hands. The Mayor will be challenged trying to secure the maximum amount of State and Federal aid to meet the city's needs, while trying to keep the tax rate reasonable. Equally important is the need for jobs and economic development. It is the central theme of this campaign.

The next Mayor is going to need a lot of help. Never before has the choice of members of the City Council been so essential to meeting the challenges. North Adams needs more than a deliberative body, it needs an activist one.

Finding time to get out and beat the bushes for new jobs and  investments in the city is the only way to grow our economy, and, with it, the tax base. If more money has to be found, let it be from a larger base of homes and businesses so that the city's actual tax rate does not have to rise as much.

That is why the City Council race is as important as the one for Mayor. There has to be an infusion of new ideas and energy for the city. It must come from all our elected officials. The debate last night between the 15 challengers for City Council contained many clues as to which of them are best  prepared for the special demands of 2010-11.

Voters are fortunate that there are some very smart and savvy people - both incumbents and challengers - ready to pick up the ball on jobs and economic development. One hopes that voters will be able to wean out the old and tired ones, as some clearly do not make the cut. The future was the hot topic of the evening, and has come to dominate the politics of North Adams Election 2009.

Background and Analysis

There were eight challengers: Michael Boland, Keith Bona, David Bond, Eric Buddington, Brian Flagg, David Lamarre, Greg Roach and Dennis Whitney.

And seven of the eight incumbents: Lisa Blackmer, Michael Bloom, Ronald Boucher, Gailanne Cariddi, Alan Marden and Robert Moulton Jr.  Councilor Marie Harpin, who is running for a seventh term, was absent. Moderator Glen Drohan, the editor of the North Adams Transcript,  announced that she had the flu.

A lot of attention was focused on Al Marden who has been on the North Adams City Council almost as long as John Barrett has been Mayor. As the current head of that body, he is the second most powerful man in the city. He has closely tied his fortunes to those of Barrett. Marden tends to see the future through a rear view mirror.

At the outset of the City Council "debate" - a misnomer if ever there was one - Marden took his two minute opening statement  to inform people that this was the twelfth time running for the office, and that "I love this community."

He then read a letter to the editor penned by Democratic City Committee Chair, Joyce Wrend. She described the duties of a City Councilor, as doing more than warming a seat. It read in part: "I want a councilor who is not hesitant to bring forth new ideas to the council. I want some time and research spent on issues; to merely say time has been served on the North Adams City Council is not enough." It was a fine letter from a good and caring citizen. All the candidates, especially the incumbents, should read it carefully.

The Council is a body often described locally as "bobbleheads" because the group rarely asks questions or challenges the Mayor. Some call this a sign of working well together. Others see it as the reason North Adams has continued to remain in the economic doldrums after 25 years of the same leadership. Much of the success of Mass MoCA has not yet translated into jobs and prosperity;  perhaps that is yet to come. To rely on Mass MoCA alone to save our city is not realistic. It's going to take a lot more, and that has been true since day one. Most of all, it is going to take energy and imagination, something in short supply anywhere beyond the corner office of his Honor the Mayor.

The challengers are an interesting group, all male, and a blend of native born North Adams residents, and individuals who have chosen to buy, live and work here. Unlike the current councilors, they are pretty savvy about the fact that jobs and economic development won't happen by just passing resolutions. Progress and change occur by rolling up their sleeves, becoming active and involved with the actual doing and getting.

Emerging to lead this charge is David Bond, whose campaign has dispensed with the safe nostrums of the past.  Bond outlined a pro-active series of solutions that he is prepared to help implement. This involves updating the city's website so that prospective businesses do not have to book a personal meeting with the Mayor to investigate the city.

Michael Boland  sees the importance of getting out and promoting the city beyond our own borders in order to attract businesses. Greg Roach and Eric Buddington  are sometimes mistakenly described as "hippies" because they have beards and full heads of hair. Actually they are deeply involved with the rapidly expanding trends of America's economic future: the local foods, organic, environmental and technology businesses. These are some of the few areas growing in the current economic climate. Keith Bona makes his living marketing products and has a handle on promoting and selling North Adams.

Thankfully, iBerkshires is in the process of putting up audio and videos of this debate, (see links below) just as they did for the Mayoral debates. Among the old city councilors, however, there seems to be little awareness of  the important role the internet is now playing in the city's governance. Perhaps this election will wake up some of them. Two current city councilors, Moulton and Harpin, don't even have email addresses.

For this North Adams election, it seems the incumbents have played it safe, speaking mostly in clichés. Their opening statements revealed the wide chasm between the old timers  and newcomers. For the incumbents, original thought seemed to be a danger zone, so they delivered a steady diet of truisms, bromides, safe opinions, and statements that everyone could agree with. Several of the challengers didn't edit their words - they used plain talk when they explained the need to do something and not just stay put. The difference in approach was dramatic.

When asked why the candidates had not bothered to send information on their positions and record to the voters via the mails (so far, anyway) most of the incumbents treated it as a strange idea, as if there were no new people in town that might want to vote for them. Apparently, it is more important to put up lawn signs. And only a couple, Greg Roach and Eric Buddington, initiated websites to outline their views.  The other candidates had little or no internet presence beyond local media. Only Dick Alcombright used the social media (Facebook) as an integral part of his Mayoral campaign. In a community where technology jobs are an important area of growth, it was revealing.

Notes from the Debate

Here are the notes I made during the debate, in the order that each candidate was seated. The opening statements took the longest, and then questions were asked by groups, though all councilors were permitted to comment on all topics. The incumbents showed a remarkable ability to always have something to say, even if it had nothing to do with the topic at hand. Some challengers seemed to only speak if there was something they could add to further the discussion. That alone was interesting to observe. Watch the tape and see for yourself.

Lisa Blackmer was first elected to the Council in 2007. She has a sense of humor. "Yes, I am standing," she snapped during one of the follow up questions.  In her opening remarks, she outlined her role on the Governance and Tourism Committees. She was active in the 2009 Open Studios event, NoAMA,  and is the only incumbent to have built connections to visual artists. She set her goal in 2007 as one in which she would listen and learn and has quickly moved beyond that.

She see the needs of the city as not dividing up the pie differently, but simply one of needing "a bigger pie. If you bring in new jobs, you will automatically solve a lot of other problems."

Brian Flagg, a challenger, offered his family's long history and his personal memories of North Adams as evidence of his qualifications to be on the Council. He envisions the city returned to the way it was before, with lines on Main Street, excitement and energy.

"I don't believe the city is unsafe, or uncooperative," he said at one point when crime and attitude was being discussed.  He painted a pretty picture, but offered little real substance as to how to make this happen.

Keith Bona is the one challenger who has served on the City Council before. He outlined his history and noted that "change is coming" not only downtown, but also in our neighborhoods. He promised he would not be afraid to ask the tough questions of the man in the corner office. He is an artist and has helped with numerous North Adams arts events over the years, most recently the  Open Studios. He is a marketing and communications specialist with a local business.

In a later discussion on the split tax rate, where businesses pay more than homeowners, he said that the commercial tax rate should come down, and that one way to do that is to bring more businesses  to the city so the burden could be shared.

Mike Bloom, chairman of the Finance Committee distinguished himself by being neutral on the sewer tax. He has been on the council for 10 terms. He promised to make decisions that are in the best interests of the city, and noted that he has served "for many, many, many years." He talked about coaching, the YMCA, and other activities. His vision of the future included hockey rinks, beautiful ball fields along the line of "Field of Dreams." and improving Windsor Lake, all of which would then attract business.

Another challenger, Dennis Whitney, was for the sewer tax before he was against it. He outlined his service on various community boards and painted a dire picture of slashed state aid cuts, tough times, and bemoaned his position at the bottom of the ballot. When asked about how to develop existing businesses, he admitted not having any answers.

In follow up questions, Whitney had no specific solutions to offer, except to complain that David Lamarre stole his wind by mentioning the chip plant  being developed in New York by Advanced Micro Devices-Gobal Foundries. And to save one vote for him.

After his brush with the Sewer Tax issue, Whitney seemed to be mostly concerned in keep tax rates low,  and did not see expanding the economic base as one way to do that.

David Lamarre was the best campaigner of the lot, being sure to mention his name twice, and tied  the past to the future. He sees North Adams, which once was a leader in the region, returning to that position. To do that he felt the city must respect its roots while working with newcomers to move things forward. "We all have a stake in the future," he said, and we must have a city council "that is never dull, but one that is passionate and opinionated, and hardworking."

According to him, one avenue for growth continues to be the development of artist's live-work space, replacing deteriorated housing stock, and addressing public safety at the same time.

His energy contrasted sharply with the calm, sober presentation by Gailanne Cariddi who has been on the council for two decades. She sees herself as an advocate for the citizens.  "I am your voice on the City Council" she reminded the audience. She is VP of the council and has served as President in the past. Her accomplishments appear to be primarily in the form of writing and passing ordinances and resolutions for that body.  At this point one of the audience members whispered "Resolutions don't attract jobs, businesses do."

She was clear about the sewer tax.  "A tax, is a tax,  is a tax" she chanted. Not taking this election for granted Cariddi  has taken her campaign door to door.

Then came Mike Boland's turn to differentiate himself.  The challenger did just that by standing up, aware the people in the American Legion hall could not see the candidates very well since they were not raised above the audience. He focused his attention on his qualifications as the economic development and human resources candidate. The most important quality for a city council candidate was not the amount of time someone was lived in a community, but the knowledge and professionalism they have to solve the community's problems.

He saw the current priority as access to jobs, secure housing, downtown development, and making sure the Mohawk project is integrated into that picture. He sees part of the equation in supporting and focusing on our local businesses, that if we help them to grow, so will jobs.

Eric Buddington, who has run twice before, is a computer programmer by day and a musician specializing in contra-dance by night. His vision is to bring people together to plan for the future, and to provide better access to the city's inner workings and information online. He sees the Hoosac River as an essential part of the city's identity and future development.

During the discussion Buddington said that to get a healthy community you need citizen involvement, open government, and better input.

David Bond not only stood up for his two minutes, but walked  in front of the table where the candidates were seated to deliver one of the polished, rapid fire, barn burner speeches that have become his trademark. If the city has a Mayor in the making, this is the guy. With deep family and business roots in the community, Bond is a walking Chamber of Commerce.

David Bond used Waterfront Media with its 60 jobs as an example of a home grown business that could serve as a model. "Let's put people on the road selling North Adams as an ideal location for more jobs of this type. They pay $12-20 hour, and working with, say, MCLA, we can promise similar companies that if you relocate, we will train the people."

The crowd at the Legion saw the kind of presentation he can deliver, with an idea a minute. These ranged  from groups of North Adams citizens trekking around the country selling the city.  To serious updating of the city's online presence. This would be translated into jobs and businesses that can more easily discover, explore, and settle here. With minimal red tape.

His energy and enthusiasm was in sharp contrast with three lackluster incumbents who followed. It  remains to be seen how enthusiastic he can be about other people's ideas.

Ronald Boucher is up to his fifth term, and he outlined his duties on the traffic, water, and other commissions.  Contrasting with the optimistic approach of Bond, he pointed out that the next two years were going to be tough on the city. Boucher acknowledged that there were a lot of great candidates in the race. He suggested we should put issues aside for the good of the city. Rather than focusing on them we should work on the basics, like the neighborhoods and housing which are more important. "People are losing their homes."

In a discussion about lowering the business tax rate, he sidestepped the question by answering "The commercial rate is high enough."

Later in the debate, Boucher said that to "support the corner office is the most important thing."  He also imparted these words of wisdom: "If it was a good idea, it would have been done before." He was likely referring to several ideas that had been proposed, including the sewer tax.

Al Marden, as reported earlier in this article, mostly told the audience how much he liked North Adams and wanted to continue his role as council leader. He offered little except the bromide that with a diminished budget we must support the Mayor.

If Marden talked about his long service, Bob Moulton also focused on his family's three generations in North Adams and his four terms on the council. His greatest source of pride seems  to be the growth of the North Adams Ambulance Serice. It has expanded from one vehicle to a large operation with a new headquarters and several state of the art vehicles. He pointed out that his family "has invested a lot of money here."

Moulton is the city councilor who was responsible for a public battle in this city over artists when he tried to censor a figurative sketch by Eric Rudd that was in a store window on Eagle Street.

Oddly, for  such a long time member of the council, Moulton complained that "Long term planning has been reactive...we have no plan." One would think he would see the connection between the lack of planning and the job of the council to tell the Mayor to get one in place, and otherwise rise to the challenge. When pressed about this, some long time council members complained it is "not their job."

Others see it differently.

The last candidate to speak was Greg Roach, who moved to North Adams six years ago, and in that short time created nine jobs as a prepared foods manager for Wild Oats natural foods store. He sees the city's current businesses as part of the economic development picture. "We are creating jobs that didn't exist before, and that's one way to grow quickly, not just looking for the next big thing to come in and build a plant."

Marie Harpin, incumbent, did not participate in the debate.

Moderating the panel Glen Drohan, who kept things moving was subtle and even handed. He took the opportunity to ask the candidates to submit their answers to that newspaper's extensive candidate's survey to be published shortly. The newspaper also plans to make endorsements in both the Mayoral and City Council races.

iBerkshires estimated that about 70 people attended the debate, but many more would see it via cable broadcast on Northern Berkshire Community Television on Thursday, Oct. 22, at 8 p.m.; Friday, Oct. 23, at 7 p.m. and Saturday, Oct. 24, at 6 p.m.

The audio is already available, with video to follow shortly at  iBerkshires