Thanks for checking out our elections coverage. We try to cover at least one race a year in an in-depth, meaningful way, and 2019 finds us at it again. The only difference is that James Kennedy, artist and founder of the much-loved “Unsung Eats” column here at the Glass, has wrested control of the interview-ometer away from the editors this time around. In an act of tremendous ambition (or lunacy) he committed to interviewing ALL the candidates for North Adams City Council (assuming they all got back to him). We hope you enjoy this campaign season series, brought to you as a service to the democratic process and the peaceful transition of power.
Editor’s Note: This conversation has been abridged for space and clarity. No information provided by the candidate has been checked for accuracy.
Tell us about yourself.
I wasn’t born in North Adams but I did come here at a very early age and I’ve lived here my entire life. I was two months old when we moved here. My mother was from Bennington and my father was from Adams and I graduated in the class of ‘87 from Drury High School. I am a local business owner. I moved away from North Adams once and found out how much I missed it and realized this is the city that I love and the place I will die.
We have an awesome community that I see come together in times of need and when something tragic happens we all band together and try to help each other out as much as we can. Case in point was the Houghton Street fire that displaced four families. The community rallied together and we were able to help the four families that were displaced to get all new belongings and new places to live. It didn’t replace any memories, but it helped them to get a fresh start and get back on their feet.
The night of the fire I offered up that all proceeds from sales of chicken wings to go to the victims and it seemed that night that so many people were calling to order chicken wings and didn’t even want them; they just wanted to give the money. So for probably about a week after the fire we were just accepting cash donations and gift card donations and by the week’s end I believe we had enough to give each of the four families almost 700 dollars in cash and Walmart gift cards. So it shows that we do live in a pretty caring community.
2019 Elections — North Adams City Council,
Be sure to read all the interviews that James Kennedy conducted with the candidates as they’re published:
Lisa Blackmer • Keith Bona • Robert Cardimino • Roger Eurbin • Marie Harpin • Paul Hopkins • Jason LaForest • Benjamin Lamb • Robert Moulton, Jr. • Pete Oleskiewicz • Bryan Sapienza • Ronald Sheldon • Jessica Sweeney
Why did you decide to run for North Adams City Council and what is it that you think separates you from the other candidates?
I decided to run because at the onset of the election, there were only going to be five incumbents to return. Which later on, thankfully, Paul Hopkins changed his mind and decided to run again. He’s a very good strong voice on the council. I try to be as active as I can in the community. I like being involved. It really gives you a good feeling. Of all those years I spent driving a truck, the things that I’m doing now are the things that I always wanted to do and I never had the time or the means to do so. So now I am afforded that opportunity where I can get out there and give back. I’m meeting new people every day and it’s something I’ve never experienced before and I’ve learned to really truly enjoy it.
I think all the other candidates believe in the same core values as I do. We all want transparency in our government. We all want to make sure that our money is spent in a responsible manner. I am not coming on here with any pet projects to push forward or any voices behind me telling me what to do. I’m just running to be an extension of the voices of the people of North Adams.
What do you regard as the most important issue facing North Adams today and do you have a particular issue that you will be running on?
One of the biggest issues that I see is that our police and fire departments are working in a building that should be condemned. This has been ongoing for years. It’s not ADA compliant. There are tarps at the fire department catching dripping water. I’ve been inside the police department and I’m amazed. I do not know how these guys can report to work every day and work in that kind of environment. If I were to gain a seat on the council I wouldn’t mind being appointed to the Public Safety Committee to try to work to solve this problem.
I have a good friend of mine that was pretty instrumental in working with Williamstown and their goals of getting a new Police Department. He offered his services to work with me and show me the proper steps with who to contact between the state and federal governments. Williamstown has a brand new police complex that was financed through grants and Williams College also gave them 400,000 dollars but unfortunately we don’t have a Williams College to give us 400,000 dollars. Their fire department will be getting a new station but they operate differently. They’re a fire district.
What is your opinion about the pros and cons of gentrification and what role do you see it playing today and in the future of North Adams?
I think this is in play today. For example, across the street from my business you have some investors from the city that bought the vacant brick building across from me and they’re going to turn it into a hotel. Behind me they also bought the old Dowlin block which they wish to turn into 30 apartment units. The building has been vacant for years so everything has to be brought up to code.
On the plus side, these outside investors come in and put these properties back on the tax rolls, but on the other hand the rents have to be attainable for the regular demographic of North Adams. Are they going to attract families that are going to live here on a full time basis? That’s one of the biggest things we need in North Adams because the school department pretty much sucks up half of our budget. With the declining population in our schools we need to try and find ways to get more families to live here on a full time basis. We’d like to attract families.
I think Pittsfield has built a pretty good model by bringing in two larger scale employers. Wayfair came in looking for 300 jobs. I think a lot of them were 15 dollars an hour, and I know that might not be the highest labor rate, but it’s better than no jobs at all. So I think gentrification is a 50/50 thing. The outside investors are buying up these properties that would otherwise be sitting vacant. The wages around here are very low unless you travel like I did for twenty something years. I had to travel over 100 miles a day just to make it, but right here locally there’s nothing to offer. That’s why the kids all graduate from college then they pack up and they leave because there’s nothing for them here.
We could make it easier for businesses to come here, which we’ve already been doing with the TIFs, but it seems like they’re finding these jobs hard to fill. Our workforce is not geared for the jobs. We do have a vocational school. Maybe we could work a little harder with McCann and offering more programs. We do have night programs down there for adults but mainly its cosmetology and hair cutting; more service industry oriented.
Whether real or imagined, there is a perception that there is a water quality issue in North Adams. Do you believe there is a water quality problem, and if so, what solutions do you offer?
I don’t believe there is a water quality problem. We spent millions of dollars to build a filtration plant that is monitored. Our water is not unsafe to drink. I’ve never seen a boil water order in North Adams, so I don’t believe there is a quality problem. It’s mainly in the delivery because we do have aging pipes. Infrastructure is an issue in every city and town. If we had ten billion dollars to dig up every road and replace every pipe it would be a dream, but we know that’s something that will never be attainable. I would love to start replacing pipes by starting with the oldest ones first, but you have to have the money to back it up. We see it every Winter where we have water mains breaks constantly. We’ve even had them over the summer like right on Main Street for instance. .
In order for many municipalities to balance their budgets, oftentimes larger infrastructure projects and investments get kicked down the road rather than raise property taxes. What is your plan for a balanced budget?
Regardless, taxes are always going to go up. The mayor presents a rate and the council approves it, but I don’t think ever in history you’ve seen taxes go down. We need to see more transparency in the budget and our money does need to be spent wisely. Anyone is welcome to come to any city council meeting to see how their money is spent. People have questioned the budget but they have their two minutes to stand up before a meeting and ask questions.
When I went to the passing of the budget the galley was pretty much empty. We have a certain group of maybe three or four people who will get up ask questions. Everything else is done on social media. For you to be effective you have to come to a meeting. It’s an open meeting. I would like to see more people getting involved in their city’s budget and how their money is being spent. Most people sit back and read the headlines the next day and give their opinion then which is fifteen hours too late.
To this day I still sit around and talk to people and try to explain how everything works. A lot of people don’t understand how it works. I sit in the parklet almost every day,or the park itself, or usually you can catch me downtown in front of Empire café sipping coffee and talking with people on Main Street. I’m on the street and I talk with people from all different walks of life. I see everything and honestly I don’t care who you are I actually enjoy talking with every person I do.
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