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Wood misses her old job, squares off against Petersen for Sheffield selectboard

Incumbent Andrew Petersen replaced Rene Wood, who, in 2015, opted not to run for re-election. Now Wood has decided to try to get back on the Selectboard again.
Support appeared strong for Sheffield Board of Selectmen incumbent Petersen on Berkshire School Road. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Sheffield — With only one exception, this year’s election season is as quiet as a mouse. After all, a quick look at the ballot in Sheffield reveals that uncontested races are the order of the day. One race for two seats on the planning board has attracted only one candidate, an incumbent.

But the race for the a seat on the board of selectmen could be a lively and interesting one. Incumbent Andrew G. “Andy” Petersen is completing his first term and is looking for a second.

Petersen replaced Rene Wood, who, in 2015, opted not to run for re-election. Now Wood has the itch again. She’s running for her old seat and couldn’t be happier.

Rene Wood

“I have missed the job over the last year especially,” Wood said in an interview. “People have approached me about it and told me they needed someone to run and finally I decided maybe I should try.”

Wood served two consecutive three-year terms, as she had pledged to when she mounted her first campaign for selectman in 2009. As Wood explained it, that promise essentially meant that she had term-limited herself.

Former selectman Rene Wood is running to return to the Sheffield board. Photo courtesy Rene Wood

“In those intervening three years, I was able to do things for the town but it was not at the same intensity,” Wood said.

In announcing her campaign last month, Wood highlighted four areas she’d like to focus on if her quest to sit again on the board is successful: strengthening the town’s finances, more effectively dealing with personnel issues, advocating with state and regional organizations for town funding, and increasing citizen involvement and transparency in town government. 

Wood said Sheffield is probably in a stronger position financially than many other towns in Berkshire County, but back taxes are not alway being collected and sometimes the books are not closed in time for the fiscal year. 

“If you don’t close the books, you don’t have free cash,” she said, using a term, evidently unique to Massachusetts, describing a town’s surplus fund. 

She also cited a state audit released in January 2015, the recommendations of which have not all been implemented. In addition to the aforementioned lack of attention to collecting back taxes, one of those recommendations was that the selectmen become more involved in the budgetary process.

Currently the selectmen sit with the finance committee, which is an appointed body, and make recommendations. Wood would rather the selectmen review the budget as drafted by the town administrator a week or two before the finance committee deliberates. That way, an elected body would have a more formal role in the budgetary process. 

“They can speak but I don’t feel there is a formal role for them,” Wood said. “The Department of Revenue felt the selectboard should have a formal role in this.”

Wood would like to see the town become more aggressive in pursuing grants. She pointed to her strong connections with state and regional officials. In addition to serving other town boards, Wood is Sheffield’s representative on both the Five Town Cable Advisory Committee and the Rest of River working group, is an alternate delegate to Berkshire Regional Planning Commission and has served on the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Wind Turbine Noise Advisory Committee.

As for personnel, Wood isn’t convinced that the current trend of having more employees report to the town administrator rather than to the selectmen is the way to go. The former is more along the lines of the town manager system utilized in larger towns like Great Barrington.

As her work on the cable advisory committee clearly illustrates, Wood is a stickler for openness in government. And she’d like to see more of it in town hall. As an example, she cites the untelevised but duly noticed “working meetings” of the board of selectmen that are often held during the day when few residents can attend.

As Linda Miller listens during a meeting in December of the Five Town Cable Advisory Committee in Great Barrington, Rene Wood, right, explains why she thinks an executive session would be ‘illegal’ and ‘a violation’ of the state’s Open Meeting Law. Photo: Terry Cowgill

By comparison, the formal televised evening meetings of the selectmen are brief—perhaps because important deliberations have occurred earlier. The formal meetings are noticed online; the working meetings are noticed only on the outside bulletin board at the entrance to Town Hall.

Wood served on the planning board for six years, four of them as chair. As a policy nerd and wordsmith, she enjoys crafting documents.

“My private-sector training makes me pay attention to words,” she said. “I love writing bylaws.”

Wood, a Democrat and now retired at 71, worked in marketing and in executive education in the private sector, including at IBM, where she met her husband Dennis Sears, who chairs the town’s historical commission. They live on Boardman Street. 

Andrew G. Petersen

For his part, Petersen said serving on the board of selectmen has been an eye-opening experience, especially considering that it’s the first town board or commission on which he has served.

“I think everyone should be involved in town government at some point in their lives,” Petersen said in an interview. “It’s a learning experience. I have to say I’ve had more good days than bad.” 

Sheffield Selectman Andy Petersen pauses to talk politics with a reporter this week. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Petersen is an auto technician at Gulotta’s, the gas station and convenience store just around the corner from Town Hall. Indeed, its central location practically makes Gulotta’s the nerve center of the town. And Petersen ought to know. He’s worked there for 36 years. 

Petersen, 56, is never short on opinions, so one day when Selectman David Smith Jr. stopped by Gulotta’s for coffee about three years ago, Petersen gave him an earful. 

“I was squawking at him and he said, ‘Why don’t you run for selectman?'” Petersen recalled. Petersen, who is an unaffiliated voter, consulted his family, thought long and hard about it, and ultimately decided it was time he jump in.

One of the issues he has worked hardest on is trying to come up with a solution for the shortfall in revenue the town experiences as a result of property under nonprofit ownership being off the tax rolls.

In his second year in office, Petersen discovered that approximately 25 percent of the land in Sheffield is owned by nonprofits and is therefore untaxable. Indeed, the total assessed value of land owned by nonprofits is more than $146 million out of almost $584 million townwide. He said a large property on Silver Street was recently sold to Mass Audubon, pulling it off the tax rolls.

Petersen and others have set the wheels in motion to get more of the nonprofits to make payments-in-lieu-of-taxes.

“We’ve talked to Smitty and the Berkshire Natural Resources Council to see what can be done and we’re approaching the nonprofits about PILOTs,” Petersen said, referring to Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox. “I’m all for conserving land, but we need to take a look at what can be done about PILOTs.”

Petersen is also concerned about how regional school districts are funded and the greater burden born by Sheffield taxpayers than those in the other four member towns.

Sheffield Selectman Andy Petersen at work in his garage at Gulotta’s. Photo: Terry Cowgill

Two years ago, he joined fellow selectmen Smith and Nadine Hawver in signing a strongly worded letter to the regional school committee, whose members include Wood’s husband, Dennis Sears.

The letter was harshly critical of the committee’s handling of a crucial member-town assessment error and other budgetary matters. The letter also blasted the committee’s treatment of Pignatelli and its disciplining and subsequent firing of business administrator Bruce Turner for his role in the assessment fiasco.

“Our tax rate is $16 and change, and $10 of it goes to the school district,” Petersen said. “Great Barrington has a similar problem.”

Petersen says he is not opposed to the two marijuana facilities planned for the town, including a combination retail and cultivation facility under construction on Route 7 north of town.

He personally knows people, including relatives, who have been helped by medical marijuana. As for the recreational variety, Petersen says he is not a huge fan but is realistic enough to know that if those facilities are not sited in Sheffield, then customers will travel to other towns that will be happy to collect the revenue from sales.

“It could really help our bottom line, too,” Petersen added. “My feeling is it’s going to happen regardless of where you live.”

But for all the past controversy, Petersen said he is happy to be part of a team. One of his favorite sayings is “It not me, it’s we.”

Petersen declined to say much about his opponent beyond “I think I’m more frugal than she is.” As for the future, Petersen thinks he is well prepared to serve another term: “The first three years were a learning curve. I’d like to do another three.” 

This election appears to be an attempt by Sheffield’s progressive wing to regain influence in Town Hall. As recently as 2013, progressives controlled the board with Wood, Julie Hannum and Ted Dobson, who, that spring, had mounted a successful semi-secret write-in campaign to defeat conservative-leaning David Smith Jr.

But Dobson resigned after only six months, triggering a special election. Smith decided to run to regain his seat on the board and was opposed by financial consultant Martin Mitsoff. Smith won narrowly. 

The following year, the conservative Hawver ran for selectman and won, replacing the retiring Hannum. Then in 2015, Petersen ran unopposed. The conservatives now control the board of selectmen. 

That gave comfort to Republicans in Great Barrington, who told this reporter privately they felt inspired because conservatives in Sheffield have “taken back their town.” However, the good fortunes of conservatives in Sheffield have not created coattails for their neighbors to the north. The Great Barrington GOP has not fielded a candidate for selectboard since John Beebe was thrashed by Ed Abrahams in 2014. 

The annual town election is Monday, May 14. Polls are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. at the Sheffield Senior Center, 25 Cook Road.

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