Jason LaForest; photo by James Kennedy.
Jason LaForest; photo by James Kennedy.

North Adams City Council ’19 Elections: Jason LaForest

October 16, 2019

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 am the father of two teenage sons, Ben and Nick — they’ll be 17 and 19. My partner’s name is Suzanne, and she has twins, a boy and a girl named Jack and Ellie, who actually turn 16 today, and we have a dog named Copley. I am a nurse and a father. I was an educator earlier in my adult life. I’ve had a life-long interest in North Adams and in politics, and it’s been my pleasure over the last two years to serve on the North Adams City Council.

I’m currently chairman of the Public Safety Committee, and as a nurse and a father, I take that role very seriously. One of the primary concerns of the commonwealth, and across the nation, remains the opioid crisis, and that’s a topic that comes up frequently, and I support our local agencies and state and local authorities in addressing that concern. I am also a member of the Massachusetts Municipal Association’s Legislative policy committee on labor relations and personnel.

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 BonaRobert CardiminoRoger EurbinMarie HarpinPaul HopkinsJason LaForestBenjamin LambRobert Moulton, Jr.Pete OleskiewiczBryan SapienzaRonald 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’ve had a life-long love of North Adams and politics. When I was in college, my friends used to make fun of me because I would always talk about North Adams, and I didn’t realize it at the time that I spoke so highly and so lovingly of North Adams, and this was in the early 1990s when North Adams was facing a lot of struggles. They would make fun of me behind my back and say that the trees are better in North Adams and the sky is better in North Adams. North Adams really is a phenomenal place, both as my hometown, and also a center of perseverance and innovation.

I decided to run for City Council in 2017 because as I’ve said I have a life-long love of politics and a strong desire to help and to serve the people of North Adams to be a better, stronger community. So, in terms of what separates me from the other candidates; I have a strong worldview that’s grounded in public service and what happens in our home town. I’ve studied politics and I have a wealth of public service going back to volunteer opportunities as a youth and a teenager. Internships in college were focused on constituent services for the Albany County Bar Association. I interned for former Governor Jane Swift when she was a state senator. I have been very involved in the local and state Democratic party because I believe that platform speaks to what the majority of the residents of North Adams need in terms of support and government structure in their daily lives.

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?

I don’t have a particular issue that I’m running on, but I do have a strong understanding of a broad array of issues facing the residents of North Adams. As I mentioned, the opioid crisis is a huge issue for the residents of North Adams, so all forms of violence are forefront in my mind, helping families to both mitigate risks of violence and to heal from those wounds. Violence is a factor affecting almost every resident and family in North Adams.

I’m also deeply concerned about process. A lot of the issues the city faces, whether they are legislative issues, budgetary issues, personnel issues , whether they are relative to the refocus of our economy in the fine and performing arts. All of these things have a process issue that requires attention to both immediate needs and the long-range picture. North Adams has a broad array of concerns. As our community and economy progresses and we redevelop around MASS MoCA and MCLA we still have all of the issues that small communities, especially small rural communities, have in New England and across the country.

One of the primary concerns for North Adams as the economy refocuses to education and the fine and performing arts and with healthcare also being a big employer in the area is that we need to be mindful of individuals, primarily our elderly residents and young families can still afford to live in North Adams. Many of the economic opportunities that North Adams has been presented with have — both struggles and opportunities — when you look at things like public transportation we have to be mindful of the fact that improving transportation in the area helps to facilitate current families and residents moving around and getting access to healthcare, social services and their jobs. This would also make it easier for new residents to come into our city and that opportunity invariably drives up the cost of living, and as a small rural community with so many people dependent on social aid we have to make sure that North Adams remains to be an affordable place to live.

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?

It is critical for North Adams to continue to develop an economy that reflects global shifts in economic infrastructure and the post-industrial world that we find ourselves living in. The jobs that my family and many others moved here for, primarily French-Canadians who came here to work in the mills were all over this valley at one time. Those jobs no longer exist. It’s not just a matter of those jobs being moved to Central and South America and China; those jobs are now being done by computers and by high-tech manufacturing, so there isn’t a need for those hands on types of employment opportunities in North Adams, or even in North America for that matter.

So, as North Adams continues to develop an economy, again, around education, the arts, the performing arts, healthcare and the many small creative businesses that have arisen in the area as a result of those major economic forces , it is important for North Adams to remain an accessible and affordable place to live for residents who have lived here for generations as well as new individuals and new families who would like to settle here and enjoy the outstanding quality of life that North Adams is known for. In all things there is a tipping point and I believe it is the responsibility of local elected officials to maintain and direct an economy that reflects the needs of all of the residents.

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?

This is a concern that has been raised in North Adams for decades. North Adams has an abundance of clean, fresh water and we are blessed to have a phenomenal reservoir system and a state of the art filtration system that delivers to us clean, fresh drinking water to all of our faucets. And while there is a need for infrastructure updates, North Adams is incredibly fortunate to have the water resources that it does. In many parts of the country, and especially in many parts of the world, there is not access to clean water like we do in North Adams. So, while North Adams does need to continue to invest in it’s filtration system and it’s water and sewer infrastructure, we are very lucky.

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?

Not only do we need to keep an eye on every penny and dollar that the city spends due to tight fiscal realities both in the city and in the state, I think it’s important to build a coalition of local, state, and congressional leaders that are willing to go to the line for small rural communities like North Adams because the solution is not just in raising local property taxes. The solution actually lies in addressing wealth inequality across the country, so that elderly residents on fixed incomes and families of limited resources in rural communities like North Adams can still have a quality of life that reflects the American dream without bankrupting themselves with local property taxes.

While one argument can be made that North Adams can have what North Adams is willing to pay for, we are also dependent on our cherry sheets from the state and reimbursements for our education and Medicare services within the school system, we have to make sure that our entire delegation is fighting for the needs of our residents. The only thing certain in life is death, bu, taxes come as a close second. While it may be necessary from time to time to raise taxes, that needs to be done with a great deal of care and concern for the many people in our area who live on fixed incomes. The way that North Adams can balance it’s budget is by looking for every opportunity for growth and economic development that will raise our tax levy ceiling so that we can grow the local economy and grow the local tax base without creating a significant burden on homeowners.

If you appreciate this series on the candidates for North Adams City Council, please consider throwing $1 or more in the tip jar…

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James Kennedy

James Kennedy is a local artist and former businessman. He enjoys fine art, cooking and music. His own artworks are on view and available for purchase at his website.

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Benjamin Lamb; photo by James Kennedy.
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