GB, South County Year in Review: Of mergers, bridges, cannabis and ‘blood money’
Great Barrington — Significant changes in town government and the business community, more downtown construction, bridges in distress, cannabis, horse racing and a possible merger with a neighboring school district were just some of the major issues Great Barringtonians grappled with in 2019.
In the spirit of reflection and self-examination, herein lies The Edge’s second annual Great Barrington year in review. It includes some select stories from other South County towns as well, along with embedded links to Edge stories for more information.
Our pick for No. 1 story of the year: the significant movement among officials at the Berkshire Hills and Southern Berkshire regional school districts toward a possible merger or consolidation. Experts believe it would be the first merger of two existing regional school districts in state history. In April, The Edge also weighed in with an editorial on the subject.
Let’s start at the beginning.
Anonymous complaints filed with the State Ethics Commission against selectboard members Ed Abrahams and Bill Cooke alleging conflicts of interest for their earlier controversial votes on awarding liquor licenses were dismissed as baseless.
The town’s first recreational marijuana retailer, Theory Wellness, opened to adult-use customers. Hundreds of cannabis seekers braved bitterly cold temperatures to purchase the coveted and now-legal product.
Plans were unveiled at the Southern Berkshire Regional School District for a new phase of the district’s global education program that will bring a limited number of tuition-paying students from abroad to study at Mount Everett for a year. Officials emphasized, however, that the program should not be viewed as a cash cow.
Meanwhile, onlookers were horrified as federal officials from Immigration and Customs Enforcement took a local worker into custody in front of the popular Fuel Coffee Shop on Main Street, prompting one resident to complain that the town’s so-called “trust policy” had been violated because of the Great Barrington police department’s limited cooperation with ICE during the arrest.
The Great Barrington Selectboard threw its collective hands up and temporarily backed away from enforcing the town’s controversial ban on smaller single-use plastic water bottles. The ban eventually went into effect Nov. 1, 2019.
As organizers of the transformation of the historic former Clinton A.M.E. Zion Church hired an architect to take the project to the next level, the now-iconic Great Barrington-based company Iredale Mineral Cosmetics was sold to a private equity firm in California. Thankfully, the company remains in Great Barrington.
Late in the month, Great Barringtonians experienced “sticker shock” as they learned of the first of many reports about the sorry condition of many of the town’s bridges and the multimillion-dollar liability staring Great Barrington in the face.
Elsewhere, the town began foreclosure proceedings on the polluted Ried Cleaners property; the venerable Baba Louie’s pizzeria moved to the Railroad Street location of the former Allium restaurant and a new exhibit on W.E.B. Du Bois as a “global citizen” opened at the Mason Library, having been put together by Du Bois devotee Randy Weinstein.
Speaking of Du Bois — or of the communist devil his detractors like to brand him as — a petition was circulated to put before voters at the annual town meeting a resolution to rename Monument Valley Regional Middle School after the legendary scholar and civil rights leader, who was born and raised in Great Barrington.
Then-Great Barrington town manager Jennifer Tabakin, who had announced the previous year that she would not seek to have her contract renewed, interviewed for a similar post in Adams but did not receive an offer. For the curious, Tabakin is now a program manager for the MBTA in the Boston area.
WBCR, the town’s community radio station, mounted a comeback effort after what seemed like years of dormancy. The station began a fundraising campaign and subsequently rented the former Hildi B’s space on Main Street for a high-profile studio.
A convicted drug dealer filed a federal lawsuit against the town of Great Barrington and Fairview Hospital seeking more than $750,000 in damages, as the selectboard grew frustrated by the glacial pace of a reuse proposal for the Housatonic School. And for once — and much to the relief of school officials — there was little opposition to the proposed budget of the Berkshire Hills Regional School District.
On the last day of the month, Jesus A. Santos, 19 of Lakeville, Connecticut, and a recent graduate of Mount Everett Regional High School, died in a single-car crash on Berkshire School Road. A makeshift memorial at the crash scene survives to this day.
The Edge broke the story that Deborah Ball, Great Barrington’s assistant treasurer and tax collector, was under criminal investigation. Though it was not clear at that time, it was subsequently learned that officials suspected Ball of embezzling money from the town. Details of the allegations subsequently surfaced during her arraignment in August.
The Southern Berkshire Shopper’s Guide, which was founded in 1968 by the Raifstanger family, was sold for an undisclosed amount to the Berkshire Eagle, as the lack of discord over the Berkshire Hills budget spread to the town. Meanwhile, the much-needed and much-delayed multimillion-dollar redo of Bentley, Bridge, School, Church, Railroad and Elm streets began.
The town of Sheffield suffered the first of two terrible tragedies this month when Samya Stumo, 24, and a 2010 graduate of Mount Everett Regional School, died as a result of the crash of Ethiopian Airlines Flight 302 near the town of Bishoftu, Ethiopia. Stumo was the niece of consumer activist Ralph Nader, who is a native of nearby Winsted, Connecticut.
Only two days later, Sheffielders learned the devastating news that a family of five was found dead after a fire ignited in their house on Home Road. The office of Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington later said the incident was presumed to be a murder-suicide with the father Luke Karpinski named as the attacker.
Two days later, a fire destroyed a home in the Southfield section of New Marlborough. Fortunately, there were no deaths or injuries because the house owned by Jeremy Stanton and Emily Newman was unoccupied at the time.
Meanwhile in Sheffield, grieving residents gathered in the Old Parish Church to mourn the violent deaths of the previous week. See video below of the interfaith prayer service:
Soon thereafter, the Berkshire Hills Regional School District reached out to Southern Berkshire faculty and staff, sending them trays of goodies as a sign of support during that difficult time.
As three finalists were named in the search to replace the outgoing Tabakin as town manager, the zoning board of appeals put the brakes — temporarily, it turns out — on the CDC’s plans to redevelop the polluted 100 Bridge Street site. The ZBA later issued its stamp of approval.
Three months after the town’s first recreational cannabis retailer opened, a mysterious “Boozemobile” was spotted around town. Activists rallied in Berkshire County demanding that federal officials release the full Mueller Report.
The family of Samya Stumo filed a lawsuit against aircraft manufacturer Boeing, as the Monument Next Steps panel failed to reach a consensus on what form a new Monument Mountain Regional High School would take.
A boil order for water customers of the Great Barrington Fire District was lifted. The Berkshire DA announced that autopsy results in the Karpinksi deaths in Sheffield were “expected soon.” As of Dec. 23, those results still have not been released.
Meanwhile, plans for a statue honoring Du Bois were delayed by serious questions raised by the Historic District Commission. And Theory Wellness joined a so-called “social equity” program to help others enter the cannabis business.
Chrystal Mahida and her husband, Vijay, told The Edge that, contrary to rumors, plans to redevelop the former Searles Middle School into a hotel had been delayed but were far from dead.
A defiant Great Barrington cop, Daniel Bartini, was nabbed for operating under the influence on the Massachusetts Turnpike, refused a breathalyzer test, and “became angry and punched the booking room wall,” according to a police report.
Monument Principal Douglas Wine announced that he was resigning after only one year as principal. Wine had replaced Amy Rex, who also left after one year. Former Monument math teacher and Berkshire Hills director of learning and teaching Kristi Farina was subsequently hired to replace Wine.
The editorial board of The Edge published an editorial stating in no uncertain terms that “South County schools should act on consolidation before it’s forced on them.”
There was some bad news on the transportation front, as Great Barringtonians learned that the Cottage Street bridge would be closed for as many as five years. A few blocks to the south, area high school students rallied at Town Hall to protest inaction in combating climate change.
Back at Monument, Great Barrington voters overwhelmingly approved a motion to endorse the renaming of the regional middle school after Du Bois, and the town’s contribution to the operations of the Berkshire Hills Regional School District passed by a similar margin.
It was after 10 p.m. when the final agenda item, a second attempt to repeal the town’s plastic water bottle ban, came up. So the decision was made to continue the meeting to the following night when, after a lengthy debate, the repeal effort failed overwhelmingly.
In Sheffield, financial consultant Martin Mitsoff defeated local businessman Jim Collingwood for a seat on the board of selectmen. The following day in Great Barrington, Leigh Davis attracted enough votes to force two-term incumbent Dan Bailly off the selectboard. Meanwhile, longtime finance committee member Walter “Buddy” Atwood III lost his seat to newcomer Meredith O’Connor and a Proposition 2½ override passed that would allow the town to raise the tax levy enough to address building improvements to the former Housatonic School, the transfer station, the Housatonic fire station, the police station and Town Hall.
Meanwhile, the selectboard put the kibosh on plans for a so-called “mini Woodstock” hot-air balloon festival at Great Barrington Airport, as the Eagle Mill project received crucial federal tax credits for a mixed-use project in downtown Lee.
High-speed fiber-optic broadband expanded into downtown Great Barrington, prompting officials to tout its economic impact. Right around the corner, a farewell party was held at the now-closed 20 Railroad Public House restaurant and bar for Tabakin and honoring her for her six years of service to the town.
Warning that it was “a dangerous time to tell the truth in America,” celebrity journalist Jim Acosta lectured at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center. Meanwhile, residents were alarmed when they heard that a developer wanted to build a cannabis manufacturing facility on VanDeusenville Road.
Great Barrington town clerk Marie Ryan announced she was resigning to become town administrator in West Stockbridge, while Berkshire Hills announced that it wanted to form a panel to explore a possible merger or consolidation with Southern Berkshire.
In Sheffield, a town crew hauled away a so-called UFO monument that officials insisted had been placed illegally on town property, prompting howls of outrage and the threat of a lawsuit from monument owner Thom Reed, who claimed to have been taken aboard a UFO in the vicinity of the covered bridge in the 1960s. The selectmen later claimed responsibility for the monument’s removal.
Also in Sheffield, shocking court documents were unsealed, revealing new details about the five deaths in the March murder-suicide of the Karpinski family. Bruised feelings also were evident in Sheffield over the handling of a letter from Berkshire Hills about the possible merger of the two districts.
Meanwhile back in Great Barrington, it was out with the old and in with the new. The rebranded Berkshire Food Co-op opened in new digs at Powerhouse Square while the selectboard voted to temporarily close Lake Mansfield Road.
There was lots of news on the marijuana front. In a ‘joint’ meeting, the Great Barrington planning and select boards called for a public info session on setting limits on retail pot shops, the town snagged almost $1 million in pot revenues from the first six months of the year and South County’s second retailer, Canna Provisions, opened in Lee.
In Egremont, baseball legend and author Jim Bouton died of natural causes at his home. In Pittsfield, a crowd that included dozens of South County residents protested the Trump administration’s immigration policies.
On Stockbridge Road, the former Marty & Jim’s sandwich shop building was demolished to make way for additional parking for the adjacent Goodwill store, which opened earlier in the space formerly occupied by the Sears appliance store.
The first of many concerns were heard on the subject of bringing horse racing back to the fairgrounds, as Botanica, a daytime cafe on Railroad Street that offered an upscale urban atmosphere, closed its doors. It has since reopened with limited hours and a smaller menu.
Great Barrington’s newly formed economic development committee started to tackle housing, the high cost of living and incentives for smart commercial development and possible redevelopment of the town’s so-called “toxic assets.” Finally, longtime town employee Jennifer Messina was appointed Great Barrington’s new town clerk, succeeding the aforementioned Marie Ryan.
A Sheffield man was found guilty in Berkshire Superior Court of motor vehicle homicide in the shocking death of beloved resident Gillian Seidl. The Eagle Mill project in Lee went briefly back to the drawing board in the wake of a change of plans that included a larger hotel across the street.
Great Barrington officials sought assurances from state lawmakers that even if proposed legislation passed, the town would still have local control over whether the owners of Suffolk Downs could bring horse racing back to town.
Two days later, the aforementioned Deborah Ball, the former assistant treasurer-collector in Great Barrington, pleaded not guilty to charges that she stole more than $100,000 from town coffers over several years. A pre-trial hearing has been scheduled for Jan. 8, 2020.
Meanwhile, a possible buyer surfaced for the old Castle Street firehouse, and in West Stockbridge, fire chief Peter Skorput and selectman Eric Shimelonis squared off in an emotionally charged meeting over the chief’s performance. Only four weeks later, the State Ethics Commission would blast Skorput for “multiple conflict of interest violations.”
Shimelonis happened to be driving through downtown Great Barrington and was witness to an accident in which a teen skateboarder was struck and injured by a car on Main Street. Great Barrington police later opted not to file charges against the Rockland County, New York, woman who struck the skateboarder.
VIPs descended on Eagle Mill in Lee to announce the awarding of crucial state historic rehabilitation tax credit funds. In what was described as an “historic night,” officials from the Southern Berkshire Regional School District traveled to Berkshire Hills and agreed to form joint panels to explore consolidation.
Fulcrum Enterprises, the aforementioned developer that wants to build a cannabis production facility on VanDeusenville Road, found itself immersed in further controversy. In reviewing the proposal, the town board of health declined to endorse a special permit for the project. A public hearing and site visit by the selectboard a few days later attracted a crowd of angry opponents.
At a meeting of the Great Barrington Selectboard, police Chief Bill Walsh touted his department’s crackdown on road scofflaws, including speeders and skateboarders. Shortly thereafter, town officials announced that, for various reasons, a temporary repair to the closed Cottage Street bridge was out of the question.
A youth climate strike in front of the Mason Library attracted about 300 people. Two Simon’s Rock students were arrested after a couple dozen young people took to the streets and blocked all vehicles for half an hour, backing up traffic to the north all the way to the WSBS radio studios and south beyond the traffic light at the intersection of routes 7, 23 and 41 near the police station.
A divided Great Barrington Selectboard voted to keep the reopened Lake Mansfield Road open to one-way traffic temporarily, disagreeing publicly with the lake improvement task force’s recommendation. The decision laid bare some sore feelings between selectmen themselves and members of the town Conservation Commission.
After a dramatic presentation from Native American Steven Good Man, the selectboard also voted to recognize the second Monday of October, the day on which Columbus Day is traditionally observed, as Indigenous Peoples Day.
The Edge reported that “Animal cruelty, local control doomed Hinds’ sponsorship of horse racing bill.” State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, had been a co-sponsor of the legislation that would have permitted Sterling Suffolk Racecourse to hold racing at the fairgrounds, but later withdrew his support after a public outcry.
The Edge solved the mystery of the whereabouts of David Magadini, Great Barrington’s most famous homeless person. Later, Magadini’s former landlord Jack Musgrove clarified, after reading a letter to the editor from Magadini, why he evicted Magadini from his rental house.
In New Marlborough, an appearance by Garrison Keillor, the legendary former host of “A Prairie Home Companion,” stirred intense emotions. Keillor was fired from Minnesota Public Radio after multiple allegations of inappropriate behavior toward women.
At the Southern Berkshire Regional School District, a longtime dean filed what The Edge called “a stinging lawsuit” alleging workplace retaliation and breach of contract after he drafted a complaint that his son, a student in the district, was not receiving the services he was entitled to. Meanwhile, the school committee got caught up in a series of allegations involving open meeting law violations.
The Berkshire DA’s office determined that it had dropped its investigation into an alleged attack on a Simon’s Rock student on the wooded campus, in part because key elements of the student’s story simply do not line up.
Meanwhile, a second whistleblower surfaced at Southern Berkshire, prompting a pair of highly critical editorials, one from The Edge (A district in disarray: Parents and students at SBRSD deserve better) and another from the Bold Eagle student newspaper at Mount Everett (What’s Going On?).
The Walter J. Koladza Airport in Great Barrington revived its plans for expansion in front of a sometimes skeptical audience at the Fairfield Inn. A little farther south at a selectboard meeting, Great Barrington residents vented about speeding and “scandalous” bridge closures.
At a working session, officials from SBRSD and BHRSD were briefed by regional experts on the nuts and bolts of consolidation. The widely misunderstood headline was intended to be tongue-in-cheek. Meanwhile, Jane Burke was reelected chair of the Southern Berkshire school committee, which also voted to begin negotiations on the possible contract renewal of controversial superintendent Beth Regulbuto.
At a later school committee meeting, the atmosphere was tense enough that two Sheffield police officers were asked to be there and attendees were treated to the extraordinary spectacle of the former school committee chair vowing to file an open meeting law violation if the committee went into executive session that night to discuss a previous open meeting law filed by someone else.
Activists filed a home rule petition on horse racing, as questions were raised about selectboard policy changes that may or may not have been related to Leigh Davis broaching the subject of horse racing earlier this year.
As Lake Mansfield Road got a fresh coat of asphalt, The Edge learned that a federal grand jury in Boston had issued subpoenas to several Massachusetts towns seeking information about so-called host community agreements between cannabis businesses and the towns in which they are located.
The local cable access television channel, Community Television for the Southern Berkshires, is looking to reinvent itself as the likelihood increases that diminishing financial support from cable companies will threaten the viability of such stations.
At a Great Barrington Selectboard meeting, residents and business owners complained about “ailing bridges, traffic nightmares and other tales of woe.” Meanwhile, a continuing internal policies debate exposed a rift on the board.
A wetlands expert came to Great Barrington Town Hall to urge a ban on the use of the controversial active ingredient in the weed killer Roundup. That same week, it was learned that the price tag for the cleanup of the polluted Ried Cleaners site could be a whopper.
A special investigator hired by Southern Berkshire cleared the superintendent and the special education director of charges made by the second whistleblower complainant.
In an explainer piece, The Edge attempted to clear up misinformation on what the town can and cannot do with revenue from the sale of marijuana. The Edge also checked with other municipalities to see how they were spending the money.
A promising new pub opened on Main Street in the old Froyo space and a rumored “threat” at Monument Valley Regional Middle School and at the high school were deemed by school officials to be unfounded.
In a special town meeting, Great Barringtonians overwhelmingly approved the home rule petition on horse racing. One resident deemed any revenues derived from the sport as “blood money.” The petition was officially filed as legislation on Beacon Hill by South County’s legislative delegation of Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox, and Sen. Adam Hinds.