Great Barrington — The two Democratic candidates for Selectboard, Sharon Gregory and Ben Elliott, met at a candidates forum held at the Claire Teague Senior Center on Tuesday, April 25. Gregory and Elliott are running against each other for a three-year Great Barrington Selectboard seat being vacated by Ed Abrahams.
The forum was sponsored by the Democratic and Republican Town Committees, along with the local publication The NEWSletter. More than 60 residents were in the audience and the forum featured discussions from many of the candidates who are on this year’s annual town election ballot.
The moderator of the forum was Ken Knox, an associate dean of studies and assistant professor of mathematics for Bard College at Simon’s Rock. Knox clarified at the beginning of the event, “I live in West Stockbridge, so I don’t have a dog in the fight for this forum.”
Both Gregory and Elliott were called up to discuss issues towards the end of the nearly two-hour forum. Gregory is a community activist who previously served on the Finance Committee from 2011 to 2014, while Elliott is a first-time candidate. “I guess people say that complex problem solving is my middle name,” Gregory said in her opening statement. “I have been active in civic affairs and I know the issues very well. Solutions are quite complex and I hope my experience will be applied to that in a very positive way.”
“I don’t want to say that I have all of the answers because I don’t,” Elliott said in his opening statement. “But what I do have is the ability to talk to people, listen, and help create policies that I think people in this town will want, which is what being a member of the Selectboard is all about. I also can be a collaborator with the public with your fellow board members to bring those policies to life.”
There were no “fireworks” per se between the two Selectboard candidates, with both Gregory and Elliott mostly agreeable when it came to issues facing the town, including the various poor water quality situations Housatonic Water Works customers are dealing with. “I know firsthand what it is like to live with this,” Elliott, a HWW customer, said. “We can’t live like this. I think that it is the town’s job to step in. I think the only way forward is to make sure we have a sustainable solution to this that doesn’t put the cost onto ratepayers. The best option for taxpayers of Housatonic and Great Barrington is to create a public utility. That way we can get grant money and federal funding to do the infrastructure work that will give safe water to people.”
“I don’t live in Housatonic, but I’ve been an advocate because I think it’s wrong,” Gregory said. “I’ve talked to MassDEP for a long time asking them why they don’t extend themselves to enforce the violations. They said ‘Well, we don’t have the enforcement capabilities.’ I think my expertise, gathered through this process, will help find solutions. We would seek grants, and U.S. Rep. Richard Neal (D) has published some of the grants that the town would qualify for [for] lower interest rates and longer terms for the loans. It’s a matter of how much and who can pay for this solution. It’s not going to be free.”
Moderator Knox asked both candidates whether or not affordable child care is an issue in town, and whether or not it is as important as affordable housing in the area. “I believe 100 percent that it is,” Elliott said. “Massachusetts has some of the most expensive rents in the country, as well as some of the most expensive child-care costs. I can tell you, it is a barrier to entering the workforce and getting your career off the ground. Kids take a lot of work. I think it’s a critical part of our economy, and of our just general social infrastructure, to make sure that we are doing everything we can to bring child care to this town. I think that involves creating tax incentives for people to open up new child-care businesses in this town, and for expanding grant access to make sure tuition is affordable for residents of this town.”
“Studies have shown that the lack of Housatonic child care is much more severe than Great Barrington and central [part of town],” Gregory said in response. “I was hoping that the Housatonic School would have been a possible place for a child-care facility. But let’s look at some of the town buildings [for a child-care facility], but there are not too many left. Ramsdell [public library] is one, which could be a community center, but I don’t know if it can be a child-care facility. We could have a town-funded facility that would attract people and would be able to provide services.”
Knox proceeded to ask the candidates, “What would you say to a second homeowner who says ‘Why should my tax dollars go to fund child care for the town? Isn’t that supposed to be a state issue or a federal issue?’”
“Don’t think of it as a child-care tax, think of it as a labor tax,” Elliott said in response. “All of the work that we need to do to make this town affordable for families is to make sure that the bedrock of our economy is sound. We need to make sure that the families who are working in this town can afford to live and work here. Look at the labor force that we have here in this town because it’s mostly teenagers. If we don’t appreciate the ability of families to raise those kids in our town, we’re going to lose that labor force.”
“I say it’s an economic development expenditure,” Gregory said. “If we have a problem with child care, which we do, it’s an economic development issue because people are constrained from working. I think economic development should be a major priority for Great Barrington. I advocate for a new Master Plan for the town, and things like housing and child care should be a part of it. All of these things cost money, but we are looking to lose a great deal if you don’t take matters into our own hands.”
When asked about the controversies surrounding the Walter J. Koladza Airport, including the Selectboard’s recent approval of a special permit, both candidates said that they supported the airport’s operation.
“My original issues had to do with the safety of the town’s water supply,” Gregory said. “I’m happy to see that the Board of Health wants to have regular testing to ensure that it is safe. The litigants [of the state Land Court lawsuit against the Zoning Board of Appeals and the airport] wanted me to write a letter of support because of my concerns with water [quality in town]. I said ‘No, I think you should compromise.’ I never heard back from them again. I do think the Selectboard has done a good job to sort through the issues. It’s not perfect, but I hope that all these issues that are raised will have a positive resolution. But I do feel we should have some limitations on the noise and the number of flights and so forth.”
“The airport is an incredibly important institution that is part of this town,” Elliott said. “I’m glad we went through the special permit hearing process because I think it’s important to make sure that it’s following the same rules that we set out for every business in this town, and that it is a good neighbor to the people in the community. I know [the controversies] are not over, but I think the Selectboard did what needed to be done on this issue.”
Resident John Breasted asked several follow-up questions concerning the airport to both Gregory and Elliott. “It mystifies me why [Selectboard member Ed Abrahams] was the only one who voted against the special permit,” Breasted said. “It seems like the Selectboard members chose to ignore the town attorney’s caution bypassing the restrictions of the past, which they basically learned were unenforceable.” Breasted asked if the two candidates read Abrahams’s statement, what they thought about it, and if the town was “giving away important legal room” by approving the special permit.
“I read Ed’s statement, and I agree with a lot of what he said,” Gregory said. “But I also think there’s not a perfect solution. You know, there are a lot of things that aren’t enforceable. We don’t have a police force that will be able to monitor absolutely everything. On the Division Street bridge, we have a lot of trucks going through all of the time that are going over the speed limit. There has to be some amount of trust. I think that both sides, including the town and the airport, have come to a place where they respect each other.
“I agree with a lot of that,” Elliott said. “Unfortunately, I have not had a chance to read Ed’s letter. But I think I know where he’s coming from, and I also think I understand where the other four members of the Selectboard are coming from. It’s complicated and there’s no perfect solution to this. I imagine they knew that as they voted on this. Whether or not [the conditions of the special permit] are enforceable, we’ll find out. This is a process and we are going to work through it.”