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Terry Cowgill
Selectman Ed Abrahams, center with hand raised, told fellow board members that he did not think Steve Bannon's appointment as chair would be 'good for Great Barrington.’ From left, Steve Bannon, Dan Bailly, Abrahams, Bill Cooke, and newly elected member Kate Feuer Burke.

Discord marks Bannon’s appointment as chair of the new Great Barrington selectboard

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By Wednesday, May 16, 2018 News 7

Great Barrington —It was supposed to be a feel-good moment. The day after the elections, the selectboard holds a meeting in which the newly elected members are welcomed, the board appoints a chair, conducts a little routine business and then quickly adjourns.

It turned out to be something less than that when a struggle over the chairmanship of the board spawned a discussion about potential conflicts of interest versus the need for experience at the helm during a time of transition.

Selectman Bill Cooke was re-elected to a second term last night and young newcomer Kate Feuer Burke, who replaced the retiring chair Sean Stanton, won the second most votes of any candidate in a contested race, landing her on the board as well.

Selectman Dan Bailly, second from left, confers with fellow selectboard member Steve Bannon to his right. To Bailly’s left are fellow members Ed Abrahams, Bill Cooke and Kate Burke.

But when talk turned to appointing a new chair, Selectman Dan Bailly quickly nominated veteran board member and fellow Great Barrington native Steve Bannon. Bailly also nominated Selectman Ed Abrahams to serve as vice chair. 

In a perfect world, Bannon would seem like the ideal chair. He is a workhorse, has been a selectman since 2010, is known for his fairmindedness and is intimately familiar with the town. Bannon and his family owned and operated Bill’s Pharmacy for over 40 years until it was sold to CVS in 2008. Bannon himself now works as a pharmacist at Fairview Hospital. 

But there is only one problem. Bannon is also a member of the Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee. On top of that, he chairs the committee. It’s a post he has held since 1999. 

Some have questioned whether it is even legal for Bannon to serve on both boards but evidently it is. Still, some have questioned whether it is appropriate and whether Bannon might be pulled in opposite directions because of the dual allegiances.

Steve Bannon in his role as chair of the Berkshire Hills Regional School Committee.

As a selectmen, Bannon represents Great Barrington, but as a school committee member, he is elected not only by Great Barrington residents but also by those living in the other two towns in the district: Stockbridge and West Stockbridge. 

This is an important consideration because Great Barrington had been at odds with the other two towns when it comes to fiscal and budgetary matters, such as whether to spend $50 million-plus to renovate Monument Mountain Regional High School and how the towns are taxed to pay for the district. 

“I think it’s a little problematic for Steve to be chair of selectboard and the school committee,” said Cooke, who made it clear that he supported Abrahams. “I like you, Steve, but I think it’s a little awkward to do that.” 

“I don’t think this is good for Great Barrington,” added Abrahams, who is in his second term on the board, having been elected in 2014. “I think we already have conflicts with the other two towns over the school and I don’t see this as bringing it together. I see this as doing the opposite, so I’d rather not facilitate it. I will work obviously with whoever is the chair and happily.”

Bailly said he wasn’t concerned about it since, like other board members, the chair only has one vote and has little authority beyond running the meetings and setting the agenda. 

Bailey further explained that Town Hall was “kind of in a transition phase” and that “Steve has just a little bit more experience.” It was an apparent reference to the fact that Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin announced last week her intention to leave her post when her contract expires in a little more than a year.

At right, newly elected selectboard member Kate Burke explains her reasons for supporting Bannon as chair, as Ed Abrahams and Bill Cooke listen. Photo: Terry Cowgill

“I see it symbolically represented in a different way,” said Burke. “It would mean a lot to show in some ways that the town and the school are willing to work together.” She added that Bannon’s chairmanship of the selectboard could make relations with the school district “less confrontational at times.” 

In objecting to Bannon becoming chairman of the board, Abrahams said he would decline Bailly’s nomination to be vice chair, while Bannon termed the upcoming months to be a “pretty substantial year for us.”

“If I can help by chairing and organizing a search committee, and going through all the bumps that we have and doing some planning, goal setting, I’d be more than willing to serve [as chair] at the will of this board, at least for the year,” Bannon explained.

Serving on more than one board or committee is not terribly uncommon for public servants, especially in small towns. In Egremont, for example, the now-retired Charlie Flynn served for several years on the board of selectmen — some of them as chair — while also sitting on the Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee. However, he never served as chair of both panels at the same time.

With Selectman Ed Abrahams to his right, Selectman Bill Cooke explains why he objects to Stev Bannon serving as chairman. Photo: Terry Cowgill

After some discussion of Cooke’s idea of amending the original motion to nominate Abrahams as chair, Bannon said the amendment was “substantially different” than the original and so it would be wise to vote on the original first. He and Bailly voted for it, with Cooke and Abrahams voting against it. 

When it was Burke’s turn to vote, she hesitated but eventually said she would vote for the motion to support Bannon, who promptly asked Abrahams to reconsider his intention to refuse the nomination to be vice chair. Abrahams reluctantly accepted and the motion passed 3-2.

“Besides, if the public decides to tar and feather Steve, then you’d become chair anyway,” Bailly joked to Abrahams.

“I do want to register again that I think it’s a big mistake,” Abrahams reiterated. “Nothing against you, Steve.” 

Bannon termed the whole episode “kind of disappointing … because I think we’re all looking out for what’s good for Great Barrington.” 

“Ed and I will sit down and talk at length and hopefully we can come back to being cohesive,” Bannon said. 

Time will tell. There are some key issues that will likely command the town’s attention over the next several months: the siting and regulation of cannabis facilities; the unfolding story of the redevelopment of the Housatonic School; the conundrum of the old Castle Street Firehouse; and the aforementioned tension between the town and the regional school district over its steadily rising costs to the town.

The selectboard’s next regularly scheduled meeting is Monday, May 21, at 7 p.m in Town Hall.

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7 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Steve Farina says:

    I think this is a HUGE mistake! Wow, I’m floored.
    At least in my count – strike two for one board member, and I was really hoping the newest member would come out strong…sad

    1. Steve Farina says:

      When I first made this comment, two words popped into my head….Property Taxes.
      There are multiple people capable of chairing either the School Board or the Select Board, and it does not seem appropriate, nor necessary, to have one person chair both.
      If indeed “the chair only has one vote and has little authority beyond running the meetings and setting the agenda” then there is even more reason NOT to select the person who heads the other board responsible for our Property Taxes.
      If having representation on both boards is such a positive, and one person one vote, what would make anyone think that giving that vote more influence is going to change anything for the better. It is essentially more of the same thing (see comment below).
      Hopefully, each of the Select Board members will keep each other accountable, regardless of who is Chair Person.
      Again, there is no need for Steve to Chair BOTH boards, as there are others qualified to hold chairmanship positions, so it would seem most beneficial to the Town if he stepped down from one chairmanship or the other.

  2. Karen Smith says:

    I have known Steve Bannon for 35 years and worked closely with him on many projects. He is my friend first and I Trust him with my life.For a long time I shared with him I did not like that he was on both boards
    And we have gone round and round it.

    However NOW is a different time and different circumstances. 1. The situation is with the town manager and the transition that will be forthcoming is challenge for many reasons and we need some one who will hold all involved accountable. Enough said.
    2. One man one vote…..what is hard about that to understand.
    3. I agree with Ms. Burke that the largest hurdle is the school budget and PERHAPS it may be helpful to have similar eyes with impeccable credentials to try to come up
    With a solution. Doing the same thing over and over again expecting a different result….that’s is insanity. Give it a try

    Stop pouting, get to work, grow from it, self evaluate and learn why things happen the way they do.
    Karma is a funny thing isn’t it?

    1. Marc says:

      “Doing the same thing all the time and expecting different results”.. great quote.. kind of like how you bully and berate people Karen when they don’t see things your way or agree with you. SMH

      1. Karen W. Smith says:

        From a person who does not have the basic guts to identify itself. Bully and berate hmm? Direct and no BS scare you nameless one. Please cite examples and at least have the guts to confront publicly ….anytime any place.

  3. John Breasted says:

    I am repeating here what I said in a letter published in The Berkshire Eagle in May 2010 (and discussed with Steve Bannon in person at the time).

    Selectmen and school committee members have distinctly different – and at times conflicting – responsibilities, especially in relation to Great Barrington’s share of the regional school budget, the largest single item in the town budget.

    These different roles in the oversight of the public interest will lead at times – by the very design of our system of government – to significant differences in viewpoint between the two bodies on key budget decisions and related policies.

    I see an analogy here to the principle of checks and balances in our federal government that was an axiom taught in American history classes when I was in grade school and high school.

    It is a functional conflict of interest for any one of us to serve on both the selectboard and the regional school committee, much less to serve as chairman of both. To state the practical importance of our collective respect as voters for this basic principle of democratic governance is not a negative reflection on Steve’s integrity or his admirable, proven commitment to public service.

    We need more people to run for these offices.

    1. John Breasted says:

      I meant to add:

      When I moved to GB in 1995, we had two BHRSD teachers serving on the town finance committee. That service was legal, and I thought both of them were good men (I worked beside them in my part-time work at the high school), but their dual roles as overseers of the town budget and as employees of the school district seemed iffy to me for reasons parallel to the one stated in my comment posted above.

      Again, I think that such dual service poses an important functional issue, not a personal one.

      And again: We need more people able and willing to run for these offices.

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