The West Stockbridge Town Offices will welcome a new selectman later this month. Photo courtesy EDM Architects

Forced out as fire chief, fined by state ethics panel, Skorput seeks to reclaim seat on select board

In the last 12 months, some of the board's meetings have been standing-room-only and the manners among some attendees have been anything but mild.

West Stockbridge — It’s been said before that West Stockbridge is a town in transition. From an economy formerly centered on stone and marble quarries to its ever-evolving town government, West Stockbridge has certainly seen its share of changes over the last decade or two.

And in an odd quirk of fortune, two of the three seats on the select board are available for office-seekers in the June 29 election. Bernie Fallon, who chairs the board and has just completed his first three-year term, has opted not to run for reelection. Finance committee member Kathleen Keresey received the nomination for that post at the town caucus and will run for Fallon’s seat unopposed.

But Doane Perry, who had served fewer than two years of his term, resigned earlier this year, so the race to serve out the remaining year on Perry’s term is taking shape. And it’s a classic Berkshire County match-up between a native and a newcomer.

Former West Stockbridge Fire Chief Peter Skorput at an Aug. 14, 2019, select board meeting in Town Hall. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Former selectman Peter Skorput is running to serve again after a one-year hiatus marked by more controversy than most people experience in a lifetime. Last year, Skorput was defeated by newcomer Eric Shimelonis. At the time, Skorput had also been the town’s fire chief since 2002.

Also running to fill Perry’s unexpired term is retired consultant Roger Kavanagh, who moved to town four years ago and has become a regular fixture at select board meetings ever since.

“It’s a good way to get to know people and find out what’s going on in town,” the mild-mannered Kavanagh told The Edge. “I’m frequently on my own in the audience.”

But in the last 12 months, some of the board’s meetings have been standing-room-only and the manners among some attendees have been anything but mild.

At issue was Skorput’s performance as chief of the town’s volunteer fire department. Shimelonis defeated Skorput last year as the chief was seeking a third term on the select board. Shimelonis, a former firefighter who resigned and later announced his candidacy for the board, quickly raised questions about Skorput’s leadership as chief.

Also at issue was a 2016 report by a consulting firm that raised serious questions about management and finances in the 12-member fire department. Shimelonis has also written about the town fire department in the Local Yokel, a town newsletter.

Several months later Skorput was fined $5,000 by the State Ethics Commission for violating conflict-of-interest laws by, among other things, voting as a select board member to reappoint himself fire chief, terminating a firefighter who had filed a complaint against him and signing pay warrants for his daughter.

Members of the West Stockbridge Fire Department showed up in force at an Aug. 14, 2019, select board meeting to support the department and its chief. Seated in the audience at right is Roger Kavanagh. Photo: Terry Cowgill

The commission also found that Skorput used his position to retaliate against a fire lieutenant who complained to the select board about Skorput’s job performance. And more recently, the department was slow to respond to a devastating structure fire on Stockbridge Road, and word got out that some neighboring fire departments were reluctant to include West Stockbridge on mutual aid calls.

About a week after the ethics revelations, the selectmen placed Skorput on administrative leave, at which point Skorput walked angrily out of the meeting room in Town Hall, followed by other fire department members and supporters.

It is against this tumultuous backdrop that Skorput and Kavanagh are vying for Perry’s seat. In an Edge interview, Kavanagh hesitated to address the matter of Skorput’s removal.

“This is kind of a tricky question because I don’t think this issue is over and it’s probably going to be a matter that the board deals with in the future,” Kavanagh said. “I’m a little reluctant to say what I would or wouldn’t have done.”

“Peter is on administrative leave; that’s what we know,” he added. “It’s unfortunate that the whole process went that far off the rails.”

Kavanagh, 74, thinks his background in business, government and the military will serve him well as a member of the executive arm of the government of the town of West Stockbridge.

Though he has lived in West Stockbridge for only four years, Kavanagh is no stranger to the region. He grew up mostly in nearby Chatham, New York, moved to Great Barrington as a teenager and graduated from the former Searles High School.

Kavanagh then enlisted in the Air Force, where he stayed for eight years and eventually became a nuclear weapons specialist and crew chief. When he left the service, Kavanagh took advantage of the GI Bill and earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in finance and business administration at the University of Connecticut.

West Stockbridge Selectman Eric Shimelonis pointed to lack of leadership and record keeping in the department at an Aug. 14, 2019, meeting. Photo: Terry Cowgill.

He then enjoyed a long career as a project manager in both the private and public sectors before returning to the Berkshires with his wife, Karen. Why did he decide to run for office?

“A variety of factors,” Kavanagh replied. “I thought that some of the skills I gained in my career in project management were directly applicable to going into a seat on the board because I’m used to dealing with groups that come together to solve problems. Most projects are like that.”

Kavanagh doesn’t view West Stockbridge as facing challenges that are unique to it. As he sees it, most of the town’s problems are Berkshire County issues: lack of affordable housing and good-paying jobs. He noted a trend that has increased over the years: “Our young people go off to college and do like I did. They don’t come back until they retire.”

“When I lived in Great Barrington, GE was a thriving industry. It was a completely different environment. Now the economy is very focused on culture and what the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission calls the ‘visitor economy.’ That narrows the field for a lot of people, so a lot of folks here work in service industry positions. We have a host of people who manage properties or own landscaping businesses, or work in health care.”

Kavanagh praised the work of the planning board, which enacted a temporary moratorium on cannabis establishments until appropriate regulations could be drawn up. He also would like to advance some of the work of the town’s vision committee, the mission of which is “to further develop our foundation of craftsmanship, entrepreneurship, and the arts, while continuing to beautify our landscapes and architecture, preserve our natural resources, and build, advance, and diversify our community.”

“How do we continue to beautify the town? How do we make it attractive for people to visit? How do we attract business? They’re looking at a host of things that all small towns are looking at. How do we keep this place thriving and potentially growing?”

The West Stockbridge Public Market is a popular gathering place. Photo courtesy West Stockbridge Public Market

Kavanagh would also like to have seen the process that led to Skorput’s downfall handled differently:

“I would have tried to structure the meetings in a way where it wouldn’t have been allowed to turn into the brouhaha that it did. As a member of the board, I would have been much more probing about where we’re going with this.”

In the public sector, Kavanagh has done extensive consulting work for housing authorities in Atlanta and New York City. Since retiring to the Berkshires, Kavanagh has also volunteered on a pair of committees: one contemplating the future of Monument Mountain Regional High School and another looking into a merger between the Berkshire Hills and Southern Berkshire regional school districts. Still, he acknowledges the irony of his candidacy:

“It’s odd that I’m running for political office because I like to stay in the background. I’m not a great greeter and handshaker, but I know all of my neighbors and I know all the people I’ve met at select board meetings, or the various committees I’ve served on, or just my neighbors when I walk my dog around here.”

Interviewed this week by phone, Skorput, 62, appeared to be in good spirits, even though he was helping his wife recover from a back injury and he had been laid off from his job at a stone quarry. He was confident he’ll find another job because he is a licensed truck driver.

Asked why he was running to regain his seat on the select board, Skorput replied: “I’ve lived in this town all my life. I know a lot of the people and I’m a little concerned about fiscal responsibility.”

“We have over 600 elderly people, most on fixed incomes,” Skorput continued. “Plus we’ve got some working-class people. Same thing: They’re struggling. I’m worried about crazy spending and being a little bit more responsible with money. I’m not opposed to spending money to improve the town but in a responsible way.”

Asked for examples of excessive town spending, Skorput could not cite any because he has not been able to access all of the budget figures because of the shutdown. He did say he’d like to bring down the tax rate.

“Other towns have cut back,” Skorput said. “Great Barrington has furloughed six people, Lenox and Lee have cut back.”

The Old Town Hall in West Stockbridge, now the home of the West Stockbridge Historical Society. Photo: John Phelan

Skorput also said he would also like to improve the public restrooms near No. 6 Depot, the popular coffee shop on Depot Street. He applauded the renovation of the old town hall into the new headquarters of the West Stockbridge Historical Society, and the town’s acquisition of the parking lot next to it.

“Before the coronavirus hit, when I was on the board, we were trying to improve town facilities. We purchased a parking lot in the middle of town because we were experiencing a lot more tourism and parking was starting to become at a premium. That’s what we want. We want people to stop, browse and spend money. Several businesses on Main Street depend on tourist dollars.”

Skorput said the town’s only mobile home park, the Mill Pond Trailer Park, improved while he was on the board. An Edge report from 2016 found that the park had “bad roads and mega potholes, overgrown and dead trees, numerous water issues and waftings of septic scents.”

“It’s getting there,” Skorput said when asked about improvements. “It’s not bad. We’ve got a trailer park in town and it’s full of working-class people. I’m sure a lot of them would like to buy a house but they’re kind of struggling. I’d like to help them out, too.”

Asked whether he had learned anything from his removal as fire chief or his scrape with the State Ethics Commission, Skorput dismissed the ethics findings as an oversight:

“Basically, what that boils down to is I didn’t file the proper paperwork. I didn’t steal any money. I didn’t misuse any funds. I just didn’t file the paperwork with the town clerk saying I’m the fire chief and a selectman, nothing criminal. Just mistakes and bad judgement; that’s all. And I learned the hard way … I paid the fine, so it’s all over and done with.”

Of the criticisms he received as fire chief, Skorput said: “It kind of hurt me that I would be treated like that. It’s a small department … you have a fire, you’re going to lose a house … Sometimes you get lucky and you knock it down quick but when you’re dealing with a volunteer department, especially in the middle of night, people have to get up, get dressed, go to the firehouse, get equipment, gear and then go to the fire. It takes a little longer to react.”

If he returns to the board, could Skorput get along with Shimelonis? Skorput said he would certainly try because all he cares about is working for the benefit of the town.

“This whole thing was done by an individual that was on the fire department, didn’t like the way things were operating so he quit and then did this whole thing, so I think the voters will realize exactly what went on.”

Asked if he had anything more to add, Skorput replied: “Just make sure everybody votes. Last time, that’s what happened. The weather was crappy and I talked to a lot of people and they said to me, ‘I didn’t vote because I thought you were a shoo-in.’”