At least there were no (audible) hisses, catcalls, boos, groans or other sounds of scornful discontent, nor (visible) middle digits directed at candidates – though there was one near physical confrontation between moderator Paul Gibbons and former selectman and finance committee member Andy Moro.
Gibbons had ruled Moro out of order for attempting to repeat for the audience a specious accusation and misrepresentation of facts against Select Board candidate Ed Abrahams. Gibbons and Moro went chest to chest, but that’s as far as it got.
That’s the best that can be said about a dreary evening forum at the Claire-Teague Senior Center April 30 during which voters were to get a chance to listen to the candidates explain why anyone should vote for them.
If you had expected a coherent delineation of pragmatic, slogan-free proposals to address the persistent challenges confronting the town, you would have been disappointed – mostly. At least, Michael Wise, running for the Finance Committee, offered actual new ideas for reducing the tax burden on those most in need of tax relief: the low and middle income residents.
Otherwise, in the general miasma of sloganeering, let’s just say that, by contrast, a strikingly
persuasive and coherent presentation came from David Magadini, expounding upon the virtues of participatory democracy, though dressed as he always is in a ragged green and blue nylon parka, baggy wool pants and workboots, peering through wireframe glasses at his prepared statement and enunciating through his dangling white beard, he more nearly resembled a biblical prophet than a pretender to the post of town moderator.
But, of course, it was the contestants for the other town positions that had brought a full house to the Claire-Teague meeting room. They are the cast members in the larger drama about the future of Great Barrington, driven by simmering anger over the seeming indifference of town and school officials to what is perceived as a burdensome property tax rate and by resentment toward those newcomers to town and the local friends of the newcomers – regarded as the well-to-do with alien urban expectations, tastes, and lifestyles.
This resentment emerged loud and clear last November 5 when Great Barrington voters — though not voters in Stockbridge and West Stockbridge — resoundingly rejected a proposal to renovate and upgrade Monument Mountain Regional High School. Supporters of the school project were spit upon and confronted with rude gestures.
Several years ago, George Beebe, the self-proclaimed leader of the local Tea Party faction, framed the issue this way after his wife, Karin, was elected to the Library Board of Trustees: “We’re taking the town back.”
For whom and from whom was not clear – and still isn’t. Still, that sentiment is very much at the heart of what the town elections this May are all about.
Beebe’s son, John, recently returned to Great Barrington, is running for the Select Board, on a predictably conservative platform.
“The future of Great Barrington is very bleak,” Beebe the younger declared during the forum. “The root of the problem is runaway spending and mounting debt on the local, state and federal levels. We need to be more business friendly. We need to level and cut taxes. It’s a dire situation. We need to adopt policies of austerity.”
He did not specify what expenditures, among town operations, he would trim or could trim. In recent years, the town’s operating budget has remained flat. Increases in the tax rate are due primarily to rises in the Berkshire Hills Regional School District budget over which the elect board has no control.
Ironically, Beebe’s opponent is Ed Abrahams, president of the Board of Library Trustees, the post once held by Beebe’s mother.
“There is no magic wand to lower taxes,” Abrahams argued. “What we need to do is to focus on economic development and to become a business incubator to attract high tech firms.”
The contest for a seat on the Finance Committee highlighted similar differences between candidates.
Michelle Loubert, who has aligned herself with Beebe, declared herself to be struggling financially, and therefore distressed by escalating taxes.
She repeated Beebe’s lines that “the future of Great Barrington is bleak” and that “the budget is out of control.”
Her opponent, Michael Wise, on the other hand, offered ways to find new revenue sources, including a “residential exemption” that could reduce property taxes for qualified homeowners (see accompanying article (https://theberkshire.wpengine.com/toward-affordable-great-barrington ).
He also advocated an increase in the size of the school district as a way to establish an enrollment that was commensurate with the capacity of school facilities.
“I voted against the renovation project,” he said. “It was an imaginative plan, but it was too much. As for the district’s operating budget, it is embarrassing and awkward.”
Finally, there are three candidates vying for the two seats available on the Planning Board. Chairman Jonathan Hankin and associate member Malcolm Fick are seeking re-election, and are being challenged by Patrick Fennell.
An architect by training and a real estate broker by trade, Hankin cites his 17 years on the Planning Board, and his volunteer work for the Land Conservancy, Berkshire Grown and the Food Pantry, and points out that under his stewardship the Planning Board has proposed revised bylaws that will streamline the permitting process.
Fick noted his membership on the Historical Commission and his leadership of the Great Barrington Solarize Massachusetts program. He recommended that town policies be guided by the recently completed Master Plan.
An independent contractor, Fennell said that the town should become “more business friendly.” He also recommended the town demolish the Castle Street firehouse and build a parking garage in its place.