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David Scribner
Flanked by the Great Barrington Finance Committee on the right and Selectboard at left, Town Moderator Michael Wise presides over Monday evening's special town meeting.

NEWS ANALYSIS: Plastic water bottle ban exposes divisions as town fails to buy off O’Brien

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By Tuesday, Aug 7, 2018 News 25

Great Barrington — Even by Great Barrington standards, it was a night of discord, division and uncertainty at Monday’s special town meeting (August 6).

But when it was over, opponents of the town’s plastic water bottle ban had suffered another stinging defeat while the residents who live near Gary J. O’Brien’s trucking business on Blue Hill Road will have to continue the fight in pursuit of some semblance of peace and quiet. 

The defeat of the effort to repeal the plastic water bottle ban points to what is now an indisputable fact: For better or worse, Great Barrington is now a solidly progressive community that prides itself on getting in on the ground floor of environmental issues.

Great Barrington resident Laura Keefner organized the petition to repeal the plastic water bottle ban. Photo: David Scribner

Five years before the water bottle imbroglio, town residents approved a ban on the sale of thin-film plastic shopping bags with handles. Current advocates of the water-bottle ban point to the success of the so-called “plastic bag reduction bylaw.”

And this phenomenon points to yet another reality: The divide between the natives and those from outside the area is as wide as it’s ever been. Don’t take my word for it or judge based only on last night’s meeting.

Take a look at the post by Egremont resident Karen Berger lamenting the divide on the Great Barrington Community Board Facebook page. As of Tuesday afternoon, there were more than 500 comments, some of them off-topic — this is social media, after all — but many appeared heartfelt and even soul-searching.

Nowhere is this division more evident than on the plastic water bottle ban. Most of those who spoke in favor of the repeal appear to be either natives or people who had lived in the area for decades. The woman who organized the petition for the repeal, Laura Keefner, has lived in town for 45 years.

Another woman who spoke out for repeal, Emily Fahey of Housatonic, said she is part of five generations of a family that has lived in the town. Fahey argued against paternalism by those who think they know better.

Great Barrington Republican Town Committee Chairman Andy Moro. Photo: David Scribner

“Never in my life has someone told me what I can and cannot drink out of,” Fahey said. “I’m an adult. I am educated. You should trust in me to make the right decision.”

At the annual town meeting in May where the ban was initially passed, one of those arguing against it was Andy Moro, who chairs the Republican Town Committee.

Many — but not all — of those who favored keeping the ban moved here from elsewhere, or perhaps started out as part-time residents. They were passionate and spoke of the need to lead by example.

Wendy Kleinman, who helped organize the original ban as a member of the environment committee of the Berkshire Women’s Action Group, said, by her estimate, Great Barrington residents were responsible for generating 1 million single-use plastic water bottles per year. 

But there was also action group member Anni Crofut, a Berkshires native, who made a passionate plea to retain the ban and rightly noted that recycling is not the answer because China, which previously took most of our recyclable plastics, no longer accepts them.

Wendy Kleinman, a member of the Berkshire Women’s Action Group, was one of the organizers of the original water bottle ban. Photo: David Scribner

But more than anything, the vote of the repeal confirms the near collapse of political conservatism in Great Barrington. Five years ago, Republicans in the town thought they were making strides in “taking back” their town like Sheffield did, as they told me at the time.  

They were riding a wave that crested with the rejection by Great Barrington taxpayers of not one but two $50-million-plus reconstruction plans for Monument Mountain Regional High School. Republicans were so emboldened that they practically drafted young John Beebe, son of conservative firebrand George Beebe, to run for selectman. Those hopes were dashed when the young and untested Beebe was trounced by current selectman Ed Abrahams, a progressive.

But the GOP resurgence was not to be. Republicans have gone the way of the dinosaur in Berkshire County, which is the second bluest in the state after Suffolk, the county that includes the city of Boston. Call it what you want: Great Barrington is now liberal, progressive and forward-thinking.

Other divisions were evident during the meeting, as well. Matt Masiero, co-owner of Guido’s Fresh Marketplace, attempted to speak but was shouted down by those who didn’t want to hear his voice because, though a Great Barrington business owner and taxpayer, Masiero lives in Richmond. 

Berkshires native Anni Crofut spoke against the repeal of the plastic bottle ban at the Aug. 6 special town meeting in Great Barrington. Photo: David Scribner

In a letter to the editor of the Edge, the Masiero family had supported the water-bottle ban but moderator Michael Wise had announced in advance that Great Barrington residents would have first crack at speaking. 

“I feel like I’m at a Trump rally here,” a disgusted Masiero fumed as he walked away from the podium. 

If ever there was better evidence of the waning conservative influence in Great Barrington, it’s the margin of defeat for the repeal effort. In May, the ban passed by a show of hands that I estimated at 2–1 in favor. Despite a substantial social media and public relations push and more than 500 residents in the auditorium, the repeal effort last night fell short by almost 100 votes: 296–199.

“I was disappointed with the tone of the meeting,” Abrahams told me afterward.

Over the weekend, Abrahams had proposed in a letter to the editor that the implementation of the ban be postponed until next May. He said he decided against making the motion after finding little support for it on either side of the aisle. 

“My motion wasn’t entirely in order, either,” Abrahams said. “It would have essentially undone the other motion.” 

* * * * * * * * 

The other matter that proved contentious was the failure of the town to approve the purchase of 11 Roger Road, where O’Brien’s trucks are driving the neighbors to the brink of a nervous breakdown, or so it seems.

The short version is that O’Brien’s property predates zoning and his use of it for trucking in an otherwise residential zone is grandfathered. But neighbors and code enforcement officer Edwin May insist he has expanded his operations over the years, which he may not do without a special permit.

The matter has been tied up in court for years, with about $30,000 spent by the town in legal bills and an estimated $100,000 total that will need to be spent to end the matter with court proceedings that could take years.

Last night the selectmen and the finance committee proposed buying the property for $298,000. Click here to read our last article on how that proposal came about and to review the history of the controversy.

See video below of the discussion last night of the proposed purchase of 11 Roger Road:

The proposal sparked a lively debate between those who thought the residents deserved relief and those who feared that “buying off” O’Brien would set a terrible precedent that would embolden other zoning violators to refuse to budge and simply await a payment from the town before ceasing and desisting. 

Town counsel David Doneski weighs in on the 11 Roger Road controversy. Photo: David Scribner

This is one of those cases where both arguments have substantial merit. Yes, paying O’Brien to go away sets a terrible precedent. But innocent parties settle nuisance lawsuits all the time. And yes, settling could invite further litigation, but you do a cost-benefit analysis: Do we lose more from inaction than we do from paying the offending party to go away? If the answer is yes, then you write a check. 

There seemed to be confusion in the audience regarding the clean-up of any environmental problems a review might uncover. Selectboard Chairman Steve Bannon said the purchase-and-sales agreement stipulated that the town could back out of the deal or expense it to the seller if the remediation effort proved too expensive. However, I did not hear Bannon say how expensive was too expensive.

Taking into account the purchase price, the legal fees and the environmental assessment, Abrahams conceded the town would likely lose money on any resale. He is to be commended for his candor but the admission might very well have sealed the proposal’s fate.

Part of the problem is that property owners who run afoul of zoning regulations are considered violators of civil law. That means if the property owner does not comply with a cease-and-desist order, for example, the town’s only recourse is legal action. And the violator’s avenues for appeal appear to be endless, which is why the billable hours accumulate for both sides.

If, on the other hand, chronic zoning violations were considered criminal acts, things might be a little different. If an offender had to spend a night in jail, get bailed out — or run the risk of establishing a criminal record — zoning violators might think twice before flashing the middle digit at town officials.

O’Brien neighbor Roger Belanger, who is suing the town over 11 Roger Road, speaks to the special town meeting as Gary J. O’Brien and his wife, Kristen, listen, lower right behind the barrier. Photo: Terry Cowgill

After a call to vote, Wise announced that the article, which was the last on the warrant, would need to pass by a two-thirds majority. At 199–149, the article gathered a majority but failed to pass because the winning margin was insufficient.

That total was about 150 voters fewer than cast ballots for the plastic water bottle ban repeal. So lots people left after the first article and the fourth. There was some suspicion, most notably by Edge reader Craig Okerstrom-Lang, that the loss of voters cost the 11 Roger Road article a victory.

Say what you want, but the neighbors who have suffered as O’Brien has made a mockery of the town deserve better.


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25 Comments   Add Comment

  1. Marie says:

    “That total was about 150 voters fewer than cast ballots for the plastic water bottle ban repeal.” This saddens me. We have neighbors right here in our midst who are suffering right now, and it would have been compassionate to stay that extra hour after the marquee topic had been decided, and try to understand how we can help them.

  2. Steve Farina says:

    Terry, you wrongly state that Ann “rightly” states that China is no longer taking our recyclable plastics. I have proven this with the factual representation of the truth here in the comments on the Edge. If you don’t believe the information I have provided, then re-read the link you posted and follow the links in it. It is SO clear, that the women changed their presentation to NOT SAY ” China is refusing to take our recyclables” and instead used a fluff word by referring to it repeatedly as an EMBARGO.
    The FACTS are on the repeal side! The emotion is on the ban side. The emotinal arguments won out on this night.
    As for the situation with Matt Masiero, I was among those saying he was attempting to speak out of order.I was not shouting him down because I did not want to hear what he had to say.
    The moderator made it clear, as reported here on the Edge, prior to the meeting that residents would be allowed to speak first, then others who were given permission by him. He stated that procedure again at the beginning of the meeting. Given the ATM history it was my intention in pointing this out that he would be given a chance to speak in the proper place. The moderator also informed him of this again when he was told he could not speak at that time.
    Thankfully, that happened in an effort to keep order in the meeting. Unfortunately, even that did not allow all the residents, who wished to speak, have the opportunity to do so.

    1. Lawrence Davis-Hollander says:

      You’ve made this point previously about China. I don’t even know why any side is using this as an argument whether the facts are correct or not. Bottom line is the ban is at this point is a gesture. It will not diminish world wide plastic use and waste by much. But it does start a message of concern about what small communities can do to make a contribution. It may be partly emotional but it is a message of taking some little modicum of responsibility for what we are doing to our planet . Water, like everything else in our culture has been commodified and basically hijacked by business. And we have, most of us cooperated. We must continue to think bigger and out of the box. When I was growing up who heard of bottled water? You wanted water you got a glass or water or drank out of a fountain. Amazingly humanity lived without single serve bottled water for thousands of years.

  3. Steve Farina says:

    Additionally, I do not find your representation of this as being a politically conservative vs progressive stance to be accurate, either. This is not a political issue. While Andy Moro was against the ban, so were prominent progressive’s in town.
    Personally, I am an issues oriented independent. Clearly I am against the ban, yet that convertible out in the parking lot with the “Andrea Harrington DEMOCRAT for District Attorney” lawn sign sticking up, and the summary cards available for people to take on my windshield…that was ME!
    There is division in this town, fortunately it is not insurmountable if we all start talking WITH each other, listening to each other, finding our common ground, and unifying in making a real difference on the issues that have real impact on our community.

  4. Jonathan Hankin says:

    Thanks, Terry, for your reporting on the Special Town Meeting. While I agree with your last sentence about the O’Brien neighbors deserving better, it steps out of reporting and into Op/Ed land. This seems to bolster, if he could read, Trump’s outrageous claims about the media.

    1. Michelle Loubert says:

      Hi Jonathan: I thought the same but hesitated to post. Thank you for commenting. But while here, Terry, don’t HWW users deserve clean water? Don’t residents near the airport deserve to enjoy their property? Pointing to this one neighborhood seems odd to me. I’ve sat in meeting after meeting where citizens have spoken about circumstances in their neighborhoods that keep residents from enjoying their homes. I wonder why this neighborhood “deserves” more than others.

    2. Joseph Method says:

      When the Edge publishes articles under News Analysis I take that to mean that they include more opinion and judgment than normal articles. Also why do we have to buy into the president’s frame about fake news at all? That is his M.O., to put out a spurious notion and repeat it ad nauseum until people figure they have to treat it seriously.

  5. John Lynn Jones says:

    I do not intend to pick a fight with the author’s conclusion, but there were several very subtly nuanced comments made about the Roger Rd property that deserve to be considered carefully.

    The town’s attorney was as evasive as possible in speaking about the outcome of the O’Brien litigation. Yes, one can never be certain of an outcome, but neither he nor any selectmen said they were “confident” in the town’s defenses—let alone “highly” or even “reasonably” confident that the law and facts are on the town’s side.

    Michael Wise was most circumspect when he spoke as ZBA member. He said–I’m paraphrasing–that decisions and actions were made that at the time he believed were correct, although he did not unequivocally state that the law and the facts are in the town’s favor.

    As another member of the ZBA privately confided to me, the town is likely to lose the O’Brien case and indeed will be in a worse position than if the purchase authority had passed. However, the voters were never directly told that the town is “between a rock and a hard place” and that, as bad as this choice might have been, it was the better alternative.

    Finally, Michael was spot-on when he observed that in matters like this, usually the two parties simply work out a financial accommodation and one side moves on. As O’Brien really has no reason (nor perhaps the means) to buy out dozens of home owners, it’s up to them. Michael remarked that this group has not been willing or able to coalesce. Hint to neighbors: invite Michael Wise over for tea and cookies and get yourselves together. (From my observations, the value of autos parked in the abutters’ driveways indicate they aren’t destitute). You know the purchase price acceptable to Mr. O’Brien. My first job in real estate was as commercial loan officer 45 years ago. I know this to be doable.

    1. Peter Collins says:

      In my opinion the cars in anyone’s driveway is as immaterial as the money in their bank accounts, or any other mutually exclusive item one can make. So at best that point is lazy. What is material is accountability and responsibility. This isn’t a political matter. It’s a right and wrong matter.

      While NEWER residents there may certainly be responsible for knowing or not knowing what lurked up the hill, and now living with is one thing – what the Business is doing, legally, ethically allowed to do is more the point, as is what the Town has done & not done over 20+ years effectively bastardizing this population of their residents and a decent tax base of voters.

      What should be said to the dozens of neighbors who have lived there for decades going back to the 50s, 60s and 70s – who by factual account – the Business there was a family property that at it’s earliest point had 1 pickup truck! That one pickup truck over the years has turned into the Industrial Siege we’ve all read about. This is wrong! It’s illegal! And let’s all hope that the Town finally puts their back into resolving a problem they are complicit in creating from years gone by of neglect.

      I am embarrassed to live in this Town.

    2. Paul says:

      I highly object to the notion that the answer to failures by others (e.g. Town and Business) in the Roger Road status quo is to have the local citizens pay to solve a problem THEY DID NOT CREATE.

      The Town doesn’t want it’s body of residents to know the inconvenient truth of the matter: that the Town created this problem and the Business is an unconscionable scofflaw who does whatever they want and routinely thumbs their nose at the Town and residents.

      The characterization of and hypocrisy in this matter astounds me to no end.

      1. Frank Bolson says:

        EXACTLY Paul! The town and board should be held accountable. O’brien Laughs all the way to the bank with all the people who still use his services here. Shame on them.

      2. Paul says:

        @Frank I think we may be saying different things. I don’t think the local people (~30 homes) in that neighborhood should have to pay for something they did not create. Blame the most recent people for making a mistake in moving there if you want, but that has nothing to do with ethical/moral/legal use of Business property, and what do you say to the LONG time neighbors that have been there since 50s, 60s, 70s when there was a family “business” there with 1 pickup truck?? What do you say to them? Too bad, suck it up! That’s not right or productive. These people are entitled to living life in their homes without toxic diesel fumes and industrial noise each day. It is a residential zoned neighborhood.

        Is it right to say hold the Town responsible at the cost to these families/residents? No! Town has screwed this up long ago. They are trying to resolve now with highest degree of predictability in the outcome and cost and timeline. I believe some re-tweaking of the warrant and solution (as some suggested) this can pass voters, so that after > than 20 years, this matter can be resolved once and for all.

  6. joe t says:

    with so many comments from attorneys time to ask a few questions 1) What does Town Manager Mrs Tabakin mean when set states on the Edge, that “under Mass General Law the Town could sell the Property to a third party” Is That Mass General Law Chapter 111 section 150a from Section 7.11 of Great Barr Zoning bylaw Municipal Landfills which states can be under Town Supervision? 2) When Chairman Steve Bannon stated the plans to move the Building Inspector/Board of Health in to the Town Hall has been postponed, a situation he would disclose in 3 months, could he mean the Building Inspector/Board of Health could be relocated to the Obrain Property. The table of use shows Municipal Buildings + Facilities By Right in all Zones

  7. W.C. says:

    I object to being put in a box, “solidly progressive community” . We can have and should have progress, but not at losing our town. The new left elites in town should think before they try to destroy are culture. I travel around the country and sad but Ma is the laughing stock of the them all. After 8 generations here Make Great Barrington Great again.

  8. Carl Stewart says:

    Because The Edge labels this nonsense, “News Analysis,” it believes that the title gives it and the author license to wildly speculate as to facts and more. Some of the more egregious ideas contained in this piece:

    1. How did Mr. Cowgill ascertain that the people who opposed the plastic bottle ban were Great Barrington natives and/or long-time residents? And doesn’t this unwarranted conclusion also suggest that proponents of the ban are mostly carpetbaggers or “liberal” city transplants? The simple fact is that only Great Barrington registered voters voted on the repeal motion and that motion lost overwhelmingly. Does Mr. Cowgill believe that someone who has lived here for 40 years should have 2 votes for 1 vote from residents who moved here from Boston or New York?

    2. How is the bottle issue a conservative vs. a liberal issue? It is an environmental issue. Does Cowgill believe that conservatives favor destroying the environment and it is only liberals who are in favor of protecting it?

    3. Ditto to the above on the issue of repairing or rebuilding the high school. On what basis does Mr. Cowgill conclude that a “conservative resurgence” twice defeated raising the necessary funds to remediate the conditions at Monument? Where is the evidence for this claim? And if conservatives opposed correcting the basically unhealthy condition at the high school, isn’t it a fair conclusion that conservatives oppose spending money on public education?

    4. Ms. Fahey doesn’t want the Town telling her what to do, that is, what container she must drink water from. Of course, it (the Town) is not telling her that; all that is being done is ending the sale of single-use plastic water bottles starting next year. But Great Barrington will still have no control over what holds the water she drinks and water consumed from a pig’s bladder will still be allowed after the sales ban takes effect. The truly worrying part of this is that there are some people who get their knickers in a knot over some rules because they deem them intrusive but then consider other rules that regulate personal behavior to be acceptable. I wonder if Ms. Fahey also objects to the Town telling her where and when she can park her car, what hours she can conduct business at Town Hall, where she can smoke a cigarette or how old a person must be to purchase tobacco, when she must come to a stop at the end of a street, how much noise she can make on the town streets, etc. Although recent events on a national scale would tend to question the concept, we are basically a nation of laws and that brings with it a fair amount of restriction to our freedom of choice.

    1. Frank Bolson says:

      Oh Carl I usually agree with most of what you say. But leave Ms. Fahey alone. She was upset and spoke out of emotion. Not all of us are as calm and cool as you. And if we really want to talk water. Let’s discuss the white elephant in the room. Housatonic water. The town of GB should take it over and apply for grants to fix this mess. Our supposed town leaders drop the ball on many important matters here in town. Maybe some legal advice Carl? I’m sure you’re concerned for your fellow neighbors.

      1. Carl Stewart says:

        Frank—

        I intended my criticisms to be focused on the irresponsible journalism, not on Emily Fahey’s argument that she did not want Great Barrington to infantilize her by telling her she couldn’t drink from a single-use plastic bottle. But I recognize your criticism of my comment as a fair one.

        I completely agree with you (and apparently many others) who believe that the problems with the water supply in Housatonic should be remedied by either the Town or by HWW. As I said in a comment a few days ago, there is an implied contract between HWW and those residents of Housatonic that it supplies with water. HWW has clearly breached that contract and anyone who lives in Housatonic is entitled to have the situation remedied. If this means installing water treatment systems in each household that gets rusty water, then the cost must be borne by someone other than the householder. Just because Jane Doe doesn’t have the funds to “fix” her water does not mean that she has to live with the inconvenience and possible health hazards of bad water. There are some relatively simple answers to the water issue and the only impediment is that HWW doesn’t want to spend the money necessary for the fix. I say BS; it is a cost of doing business and it is unfortunate that they had the bad luck (or lack of foresight) to be saddled with a system that is woefully outdated.

  9. Frank Bolson says:

    Thank you Carl. I did see that you wrote that the other day. Maybe most people aren’t sure how to proceed. I’m seeing posts of numbers and people for them to contact. the owner of HWW (who I won’t name) and his “posse” have made quite a bit of money off of their privately owned company. But now that a problem has arisen. It’s all hands up in the air. Yet another so called community person NOT being nice to his neighbors or customers. It’s a small town. Most people know each other. His and their (HHW) behavior is disgusting.
    I don’t understand what the board here is doing or what they’re being payed for? Don’t they work for “us”?
    Someone needs to be held accountable.

  10. I, Puplius says:

    The same thing is happening at the Stockbridge Bowl/Swamp. The “Carriage Trade” wants the rest of the town to shore up their declining property values.

  11. Cindy Turner says:

    As a resident of Housatonic for 34 + years I have been dealing with the Housatonic water situation. I have had to buy a refrigerator with a filter so my ice could be clean. I’ve had to rewash my clothes because when I wash them they come out dirtier than they are when they go in. Yet I pay $90 plus a month for my water from Housatonic water company. Yes i own a duplex so my wayrr bill is higher then s single family. when I moved in here all those years ago my water for the whole house was around $30 and we were billed quarterly . I have paid the increases and yet the water quality has not changed or improved. I feel taken advantage of, I feel like great Barrington doesn’t care about Housatonic because this water issue has been going on for years and they keep ignoring it. I understand the residents who have to deal with Gary O’Brien and his traffic and noise in his irresponsibleness. Because in a way Housatonic has been dealing with great Barrington ignoring us for Years also.
    housing you can hardly afford an apartment here let alone buying a house if you’re young family starting out. I have owned my house or should I say the bank and I have owned my house for all these years. I am a widow now and my taxes have gone up. And I’m still getting Brown water , and I don’t want to leave here but it’s getting harder and harder to survive in great Barrington for a normal person who works one job.

    1. Frank Bolson says:

      Agreed Cindy. Meanwhile in north Adams there’s a resurgence. Let’s all sell up and go north. Let’s see how the “elite” manage with no workers in restaurants, stores and services. When I read the real estate transactions on Friday’s I almost spit my coffee out. And builders and such using phrases like “fair market value” for their developments. Disheartening…

    2. Art says:

      Perhaps GB as a whole has ignored or minimized issues in Housie. Sadly, when it comes to water and the problem the neighborhood has had with water for years, it’s too easy to blame the town ad. More important, the anger is misdirected. An antiquated system of responsibility and control is to blame. There’s a separate fire/water district that handles the rest of GB and the actual town government has nothing to do with it, to the detriment of all. Housie uses even a different company, and GB town governmental has no jurisdiction there either. Sadly.

      If you want change…and damned if change isn’t deserved and warranted,…then it’s time to dissolve the system , have the town of GB take over responsibility for town water in its entirety, and turn it into a town department. That’s probably even more important now, because in order to fix the issue in Housie, the cost is going to likely have to be taken up by the entire town to make any hope of that expenditure a realistic one.

      1. Frank Bolson says:

        It has ignored Housatonic, it’s convenient for realtors when having a listing to call it Great Barrington, but when something goes wrong GB treats it like the illegitimate child. IT IS time to deprivatize the water their and have GB take over. Then it will be run as a not for profit and grants can be applied for. This has gone on long enough. The owner of HHW is putting bandaids on it.

  12. Art says:

    This article was specifically and Leary labeled “news analysis”, and even shouted it out with big, bold capital letters. News reporting…stating the facts in a narrative. News analysis…taking the facts and drawing measurable conclusions for the edification of the reader. News opinion…just that, giving the writer the freedom to express his/her view. When newspapers and the editors who make decisions can’t or won’t keep these straight, it’s a disservice to all, lends false credence to attacks on journalism and cries of “fake news” and continues to erode public trust. Whether I agree or not with the last sentiment in this article, to wit…”say what you want, but the neighbors who have suffered as O’Brien has made a mockery of the town, deserve better”… it’s a journalistic affront that it was included and not edited from the piece.

    I truly want to support Berkshire Edge and everyone’s efforts to bring news and opinion to the community, but sometimes you make it really hard to do so.

  13. Paul says:

    It was great to see current/former members of ZBA helping the recent Town meeting with administrative support/tasks. Seems to be about the level of responsibility they’re competent to be trusted with by residents, especially those in the BHR neighborhood. Way to go!

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