Great Barrington — Unlike any in recent memory, the upcoming Tuesday, May 15, town elections will offer voters an unusual number of candidate choices — for selectboard, anyway. Click here to see the sample ballot.
There are six candidates for only two available seats. They range from two men and one woman who have been on the scene for a long time to younger office seekers looking for generational change on the board.
One of the latter group, Gavin Pollock, was absent from the candidates forum, sponsored by Eileen Mooney of the NEWSletter and the Democratic Town Committee, Wednesday night (May 9) at the Claire Teague Senior Center. The Republican Town Committee was asked to be a sponsor but declined, Mooney said.
In addition to the forum, The Edge has interviewed four of the candidates separately, so some of the remarks here are from those interviews. Besides Pollock, the candidates are incumbent Bill Cooke, Chris Tucci, Kate Feuer Burke, Holly Hamer and James Clark.
See video below of the selectboard candidates making statements and fielding questions from the audience:
Incumbent Selectman Bill Cooke is up for re-election and outgoing selectboard Chairman Sean Stanton is retiring. Cooke cited the work he has completed and continues to perform during his first term.
Cooke is most proud of his work in the area of affordable housing. When mounting his first campaign three years ago — ironically, to replace his wife, Deb Phillips, on the selectboard (she retired from the board) — Cooke identified the issue as essential to the town’s future.
“I think it’s the most critical thing we need is more housing people can afford,” Cooke said. “Nobody working in a store can afford to buy a house here.”
Cooke worked with town planner Chris Rembold to create a bylaw establishing the Great Barrington Municipal Affordable Housing Trust. That bylaw passed with a clear majority at last year’s annual town meeting.
He also serves as the selectboard’s representative to the Berkshire Regional Transit Authority’s advisory board. Amid BRTA budget cuts, Cooke said he has fought to improve the No. 21 bus serving Great Barrington. That route is one of many threatened with cuts if an austerity plan is implemented by the BRTA in the face of a proposed cut in funding from Gov. Charlie Baker.
A Meriden, Connecticut, native who has lived in Great Barrington since 1989, Cooke also lists among his accomplishments his service as the selectboard’s representative to the Lake Mansfield Improvement Task Force, which has made substantial progress on beach, road and boat launch improvements.
In announcing her candidacy last month, Holly Hamer, who spent 30 years as a downtown merchant (she owned the former Mill River Studio) and is a frequent attendee at municipal board meetings, she too cited affordable housing, a declining population and the need for better paying jobs. She also wants to focus on Housatonic and to make downtown more sustainable.
“Downtown’s viability is crucial to the success of our entire town,” Hamer said. “I would help initiate a merchant and landlord association, bring back late night Thursdays and make parking easier.”
Some have complained about the many vacancies in downtown storefronts but Hamer isn’t convinced it’s because of a poor business environment.
“Vacancies don’t speak to real issues,” Hamer said. “I have serious concerns that high rents are having a negative effect.”
Hamer served for 11 years on the Friends of the Great Barrington Libraries, where she is treasurer. When she was 12, her parents bought a home in Monterey. After college and some travel, she returned to Berkshire County and says she has loved it.
Hamer declined to endorse any other candidates but hinted at it, referencing the currently all-male selectboard: “I think that the gender inequality on the selectboard could be addressed by electing two women.”
Egremont Plain Road resident Burke is co-manager of the Great Barrington Farmers’ Market. She has politics in her blood. Ten years ago, her father, Stockbridge attorney and Democrat Bob Feuer, challenged incumbent Democrat Rep. John Olver but was defeated in a primary.
Burke, 32, grew up in Stockbridge and graduated from Monument Mountain Regional High School in 2003. She has a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in dance from the University of Missouri in Kansas City and worked as a professional dancer in Memphis.
She has two young children who will be attending Muddy Brook Regional Elementary School. He husband, Joseph, is a carpenter with a shop in Housatonic. Her mother, Mary, manages WIC and family services at Community Health Programs in Great Barrington. Joe’s parents are Jane and Larry Burke of Flying Cloud Institute.
Like the other candidates, Burke sees affordable housing as an immediate and long-term challenge but, as a younger person, also sees the lack of high-speed Internet choices in town as an impediment to businesses and families.
“I’ve been interested for a while in being involved,” Burke said in an interview. “I knew Sean was stepping down and, when I saw who was running, I just thought my demographic wouldn’t be represented the way it was with Sean.”
Burke has been “making the rounds,” as she put it, meeting with Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin, Berkshire Hills superintendent Peter Dillon and current selectmen “to gain some perspectives.”
Burke is interested in a proposal to reuse the Housatonic School. Her husband has a shop in Housatonic. She has also met with developer Bill Nappo to learn more about his proposal for the reuse of the school.
Burke is interested in attracting biotech companies to town and would like to see the mills in Housatonic converted to residential spaces. She thinks her passion for the Berkshires can be put to good use on the selectboard.
“I find it incredibly important that young parents with young children are represented,” Burke said. “I want to make sure that we can raise our children here … while preparing for the future and so that they have the option of returning … What I do have is the ability to listen, learn and make an informed decision about the future.”
Tucci was the last to speak and immediately commended previous speakers for statements they had made or actions they had undertaken.
Tucci is a deputy director at the Railroad Street Youth Project and has worked there since August 2016. Before that he was a director of theatre and a tenured professor at Heidelberg University in Ohio, where he grew up in a small town. Tucci is a 2000 graduate of Muskingum University and received a Master of Fine Arts degree in acting from the University of California at Los Angeles.
In response to an email in advance of the forum, Tucci said: “I’m interested in continuing the work that has begun in affordable housing, meeting the internet speeds for 21st century industry and developing more equitable distribution of the financial burden that Great Barrington carries for education. These all are important because they provide more opportunities for families and young people.”
Tucci said, when he moved with his family to Great Barrington a few years ago, “Our aim was to come here as servants.” At RSYP, he focuses on intergenerational communication and youth empowerment. His wife, Kate Tucci, is director of educational and community programs at Berkshire South Regional Community Center.
But Tucci said, “The beauty of this community is also met with great need.” He said he sees “a need to restructure our tax commitment relative to our neighbors in Stockbridge and West Stockbridge.” Those two towns have a much lower tax rate than Great Barrington, which shoulders a higher burden in funding the Berkshire Hills Regional School District.
But the candidate who stole the show — though perhaps not intentionally — was Clark. A Housatonic resident and structural engineer with multiple degrees, Clark listed his concerns, including how the town has handled surplus property — not only the Housatonic School but the Castle Street firehouse.
At one point, when responding to a question and without mentioning her name, Clark said current town manager Tabakin was “ineffective,” is paid too much and suggested the position be changed to “administrative assistant” with the selectboard effectively managing the town. This is a model that some very small towns in the Berkshires have adopted, including Egremont and Monterey.
That drew a sharp rebuke from Berkshire Co-op Market Treasurer Dan Seitz, an attorney and healthcare professional with extensive business and nonprofit experience. He wondered aloud how members of a volunteer panel such as the selectboard could possibly handle the complexities of running a town the size of Great Barrington.
Clark complained about Tabakin’s “six-figure” salary and said, in his career, he has seen numerous administrative assistants who could handle the job. Hamer told Clark it’s best not to change the position simply because you think its current occupant isn’t performing well.
Later, in response to a question about what the town could do to further honor native son, scholar and civil rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois, Clark said the legend of Du Bois was “revisionist history.” He branded Du Bois a communist and said he was associated with Adolf Hitler.
In the few years before his death, Du Bois embraced communism but there is no evidence he embraced Hitler. Du Bois spent nearly six months on a fellowship in Germany in 1935 and 1936. According to this passage from Du Bois’ Wikipedia entry, which is sourced to academic publications that are not available online:
“Du Bois took a trip around the world in 1936, which included visits to Nazi Germany, China and Japan.While in Germany, Du Bois remarked that he was treated with warmth and respect.After his return to the United States, he expressed his ambivalence about the Nazi regime.He admired how the Nazis had improved the German economy, but he was horrified by their treatment of the Jewish people, which he described as ‘an attack on civilization, comparable only to such horrors as the Spanish Inquisition and the African slave trade.’“
When pressed by an audience member to cite an authority for his accusation against Du Bois, Clark thumbed through some papers but could not come up with the source. Eventually he told the questioner he had read it “in a history book.”
It all seemed to overshadow Clark’s campaign issues, including economic development, improving the labor pool, widening the tax base, affordable housing and controlling taxes.
In an Edge interview, Clark was adamantly opposed to allowing marijuana cultivation and retail facilities in town. He argued that recreational marijuana, which was legalized in Massachusetts but is still illegal under federal law, is “a gateway drug.” As for medical marijuana, which was legalized in the state in 2013, Clark said there is no evidence that it’s effective.
Asked, if elected, whether he would attempt to shut down Theory Wellness, the medical marijuana dispensary that opened last year in Great Barrington, Clark replied, “You bet I would.”
See video below of finance committee candidates Michelle Loubert, Buddy Atwood and Will Curletti making statements and fielding questions. At one point, Atwood branded Social Security a “Ponzi scheme“:
See video below of zoning board of appeals candidates Madonna Meagher, Steve McAllister and James Kotleski making statements and fielding questions:
See video below of David Magadini announcing his write-in campaign for town moderator as current moderator Michael Wise looks on: