It’s shaping up to be an interesting election season in southern Berkshire County. While Selectman Ed Abrahams is running unopposed in Great Barrington, there are other towns featuring competitive races for the Board of Selectmen in which the “old guard” is being challenged. To top it off, there might even be a phantom candidacy in Sheffield but no one seems to know for sure.
In Egremont, where town elections will be held May 9, longtime incumbent Selectman Charlie Flynn is facing a challenge from George W. McGurn, an expert in entrepreneurship in transitional economies who worked in the State Department and is the former dean of the Boston University School of Management. McGurn and his wife have been part-time residents for 40 years.
“We’ve owned here since ’77 and I love this place,” McGurn said. “But there are lots of recurring issues that I think really should be brought to some conclusion.”
As one might expect, economic development is at the top of McGurn’s list of issues he wants to work on. He cites the loss of eight businesses in downtown South Egremont over the last two years.
McGurn describes Main Street in South Egremont as “a major gateway to the Berkshires,” but the loss of businesses must be addressed. A major issue is broadband Internet, which McGurn raised as an issue four years ago and which the town currently does not have. Recently, the town Technology Committee Committee and the Board of Selectmen made the decision to embrace Charter-Spectrum, the cable television giant, over a local start-up, Fiber Connect. McGurn thinks that was a mistake, in part because he thinks cable technology, with its slower coaxial-to-home speeds, will soon be antiquated. Flynn voted for the Charter proposal.
But McGurn, 72, is equally passionate about education. Currently, the most contentious educational issue in Egremont is whether to fight the Southern Berkshire Regional School District’s decision to essentially close the two-room South Egremont School. The town is taking legal action against the school district, contributing to what McGurn called “bad blood” among district towns and the district.
“It’s only going to get worse because of this lawsuit,” McGurn said.
Unlike Flynn, who has led the charge to keep the tiny school open, McGurn thinks it is far more important to preserve the historic building than to save it as a functioning school.
“I’ve always thought it was a charming school,” McGurn said. “But we’re going to lose about 30 percent of our students [in SBRSD] by 2020. Addressing that should be the priority — more than saving a charming school.”
For his part, Flynn told The Edge he is proud of what he and his team have accomplished since he was first elected to the board six years ago and since he became chairman last year.
Flynn said the town has a high bond rating , a low tax rate of $9.30 per thousand, a “strong cash reserve and stabilization fund of $400,000.” The formerly troubled police department has improved and reformed, a new personnel director hired and the water company, which was embroiled in a billing scandal three years ago, “has been turned around.”
“People in town hall are really working together,” Flynn said. “We’re taking care of the people and town.”
As for broadband, Flynn said the selectmen took the recommendation of the town Technology Committee, which voted 5-2 to endorse the Charter proposal, which was partially funded by the Massachusetts Broadband Institute and which will wire approximately 96 percent of the town with broadband, phone and cable TV. The Internet-only proposal of Fiber Connect, which did not receive MBI funding but would offer higher broadband speeds than Charter, would only have wired about 75 percent of the town — with the rest at town expense.
In his 20 years in the Navy, Flynn spent 11 and half years at sea as a lieutenant commander of two different destroyers. Until retiring for good two years ago, he worked in education as a special education teacher and technology coordinator, most recently in the Lee Public Schools.
In Sheffield, incumbent Nadine Hawver, who chairs the Board of Selectmen, is ostensibly running unopposed. She and others in town have heard a rumor that someone is mounting a write-in campaign to unseat her.
The theory has resonance because in 2013, everyone thought the conservative-leaning David Smith Jr. was running unopposed — that is until voters showed up in droves to pencil in the name of progressive-leaning Ted Dobson, who edged Smith 401-344.
Smith supporters were lulled into a false sense of security, the theory goes, while Dobson supporters mobilized behind the scenes, using social media, and overcame the odds in organizing a successful write-in campaign. Dobson became embroiled in the Dollar General controversy, made some controversial comments about those who supported the store’s permit applications, and eventually resigned six months later.
The name that has surfaced most often as this season’s write-in candidate is that of Rene Wood, who served two three-year terms on the Sheffield Board of Selectmen, ending in 2015.
But Wood unequivocally denied any knowledge or involvement in any write-in candidacy, including her own. She said her husband Dennis Sears, who sits on the Southern Berkshire Regional School Committee, told her he had also heard there was a write-in campaign but no one knew who it was. (See the text of her disavowal of a write-in campaign below.)
“If I was ever going to run, I believe in letting voters know in advance,” Wood said, adding that she was “not aware of anyone running” a write-in campaign. “It’s getting more and more bizarre … As if there isn’t enough fake news.”
As for Hawver, she is bracing for the possibility of a mystery candidate. She is advertising on the radio, campaigning every morning in front of Gulotta’s and installing lawn signs — some as large as 4-by-6 feet.
“We’ve accomplished a lot,” said Hawver, who is finishing her first term on the board. “We got the lawsuit with Dollar General settled. It dragged on and we settled it within three months of me being elected”
Hawver also cited as accomplishments the hiring of a full-time senior center director, a new solar-power tax deal with the company that owns the project across from Berkshire School, careful stewardship of taxpayer dollars and the fact that she has “done lots of work to shed light on the budget.”
Last year, Hawver and the other two members of the board, including Smith, who ran and was elected again, wrote a letter opposing the Southern Berkshire School District budget.
In West Stockbridge, a challenge is being mounted to the old guard. Selectman Earl Moffatt, who has been on the Board of Selectmen since 2009 and on the Board of Health for more than 30 years, is facing a strong challenge for selectmen from Bernie Fallon.
Fallon is hardly a newcomer to town. His family owned the popular West Stockbridge Public Market (his grandfather started it in 1930 and it was known in the 1950s as Fallon’s Public Market). Fallon himself eventually bought the place and owned and managed it from 2003 to 2010. He still owns the building and rents out the store space to Timothy Walsh.
Fallon has also been a motivational author, speaker and manager, working most recently in New York City. He writes about personal wellness, offers online courses and manages a writer’s group.
“I know the town well and I’m very well liked — the nice guy,” Fallon said in an interview. “I was encouraged to run by many people. It’s always been something I thought I would do. Lots of people told me it’s time to do it.”
Fallon, 54, prefers not to attack Moffatt on the issues but emphasizes that his election to the Board of Selectmen would mark a change in tone and inclusiveness. His business is teaching clients the power of positive thinking.
“There are personalities on the board that don’t get along,” Fallon said. “I want people to get along. It can happen, especially in a place like this … We don’t need anger and intimidation or being treated with sarcasm. That’s what defines me.”
Moffatt, who is also facing a challenger for his Board of Health seat (Michael Skorput), issued a statement to The Edge: “People have asked me why I am doing this and the answer is simple — I enjoy the jobs and have more work to do. On the Selectboard, I am working to encourage additional shared services with Richmond, develop a structure to address future alternative energy projects with an eye toward harmony with our Town landscape, assemble a long term plan to address some aging infrastructure issues, rejuvenate our emergency services and address our education needs.
“On the Board of Health, I am exploring options for local regulation of tobacco sales, plastic/styrofoam use, and acupuncture/body art which are on the horizon as I continue to pursue education relative to a Health Professional’s responsibilities.”
Moffatt is also a former town highway superintendent and, with his wife Jackie owns Baldwin Extracts, a manufacturer of vanilla extract and table syrup in West Stockbridge. He is also the great-great grandson of Henry M. Baldwin, who founded the Baldwin’s hardware store in 1888.
In Monterey, first-term Selectman Kenn Basler is in the unusual position of being challenged by town police Sgt. Michael Johnson. Attempts to reach Johnson were unsuccessful but in an interview, Basler, who chairs the Select Board and used to own the Monterey General Store, cited several accomplishments.
Basler said the town went outside normal state procedures and replaced two failing bridges in six months at a fraction of the cost, saving taxpayers a total of about $1.5 million and three years waiting time.
“We didn’t want to wait for three years,” Basler said. “It took us out of an emergency situation with emergency vehicles not having access … With the state, it would have taken three to five years.”
In addition, Basler cited a new transfer station on Gould Road. The new station is far better equipped to deal with recycling. Increased recycling rates will drive down the costs of running the station because there will be less solid waste to dispose of, he explained.
Dates for town elections in select South County towns. Click on the links to see specimen ballots, where available:
Sheffield – May 8 http://www.sheffieldma.gov/Pages/SheffieldMA_News/05A4744A-000F8513
West Stockbridge – May 8 https://drive.google.com/file/d/0BwHiJrd_j0eRQnFwemIwMU92WVE/view?usp=sharing
Great Barrington – May 9 http://www.townofgb.org/Pages/GBarringtonMA_Clerk/SAMPLE%20BALLOT.pdf
Egremont – May 9 http://www.egremont-ma.gov/2017specimenonly.pdf
Stockbridge – May 16 http://townofstockbridge.com/wp/wp-content/uploads/2017/03/ballot.jpg
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The following is an email Rene Wood sent to her supporters concerning the rumors of a write-in campaign for selectman:
From: Rene Wood
Sent: Sat, May 6, 2017 7:52 pm
Subject: FALSE ELECTION RUMOR
Quick note to let you know I AM NOT RUNNING FOR SELECTMAN.
Don’t know where this started but it’s not my doing. I’m not on Facebook or social media so out of those loops.
On Monday when you vote, you don’t have to check any boxes – leave them blank if you’re not pleased with the candidates
Please do me a favor and bcc this email to your friends, put a note on your Facebook page if you wish, and alert those voters you think may be taken in by this false rumor.
As if there isn’t enough fake news.