Saying Hello to Pittsfield’s New Government: Thoughts & Observations On the 2012 City Inauguration

January 2, 2012

You can’t go to an inauguration looking for big surprises or shocking policy announcements; at best, one hopes to discern slight clues and indicators about the tone of an upcoming administration, maybe just a little glimpse at what some of its actual first policy priorities might be.

This in mind, I offer some summary analysis of today’s swearing in for the City Council and Pittsfield’s 35th Mayor Daniel Bianchi, specifically supplemental to our coverage earlier today on iBerkshires.

First came the swearing in, seat assignments and election of a Council President, which went smoothly, rapidly and unaminously, with Paul Capitanio nominating Kevin Sherman, motion seconded by Churchill Cotton, and with no other nominations Sherman was elected by an 11-0 vote. After swearing in, Sherman appointed Ward 5 Councilor Jonathan Lothrop. None of this was terribly surprising. Both Sherman and Lothrop had been discussed long before the election as the two most likely possible successors to retiring Council President Lee. Since the election, where Sherman placed 2nd out of a field of 8 popular contenders for at large seats, and Lothrop saw reelection by a razor thin margin in a Ward 5 race ending in a recount, general sentiment seemed to be pointing to the former. Both Sherman and Lothrop are charismatic, organized and skilled public servants who will no doubt be more than able to carry out the responsibilities involved, at least to the extent that I understand them.

After taking the oath (clip here) , Mr. Bianchi took the podium, working through the obligatory thank yous and olive branches, into the substantive gist of his message, some of which I’ll now deal with, in no particular order.

The inevitable subject of impending charter review was briefly run through, a subject that arose out of the controversial circumstances of Ruberto’s mayoral appointment style but which in and of itself has proved a thoroughly popular idea in theory. Everyone knows Pittsfield’s charter is frightfully out of date, everyone can agree amiably on that. Now, if only the process of how to and what to change and update was going to be that easy. Magic 8-Ball says: Don’t count on it.

"In Pittsfield, the William Stanley Business Park represents one of the greatest opportunities to secure the future."

Regarding economic development, Bianchi talked attracting new industry and supporting small businesses. Specifically, he talked about creating a fund for supporting the latter out of the G.E. allocation money in the city’s coffers. I am interested to hear more specifics on that in the near future.

He also discussed PEDA, in what my colleague Andy McKeever correctly points out  as a possible shot across the bow at the economic board and their recent controversial deal to lease to Waterstone Retail Development for the creation of a shopping plaza at the William Stanley Business Park. While on the City Council, Bianchi opposed a TIF tax incentive package for the Shops at Unkamet Brook (the former Bradlees plaza). Throughout the campaign and again today, the new mayor has stressed his desire to see specifically industrial tenants brought to this site.

“We shouldn’t settle for second best or ‘well, we can’t do any better. There is no other choice.’ We shouldn’t settle for that,” said Mayor Bianchi, “If it takes more time, more work, more research then we should commit the time and the resources to get to where we have to go.”

Bianchi, who has already indicated opposition to the Waterstone deal,  confirmed today his intention to be appointed to the board of PEDA, and I think it’s safe to say that the new mayor will look at the proposal with great skepticism as it goes forward.

As throughout the campaign, crime was one of Mr. Bianchi’s strong focal points. He called on citizen involvement in this arena, commended recent efforts at increased neighborhood interface and initiatives, and called upon his colleagues and the public to feel “outrage” at “rampant” crime. As during the campaign, the implication seems pretty clear: “It is broke, and needs fixing.”

While a mayor’s role in addressing crime can be looked at from a number of angles, from encouraging and helping facilitate citizen action in various forms (initiatives, groups) to pushing other programs and expenditures, the most direct way in which the mayor’s office deals with crime in the city is via his employee, the Chief of Police. In what ways will the new mayor’s management of the department and directives to its chief be different over the next two years?

On the heels of that, a question that is on the minds of a number of people: will Bianchi replace Chief Wynn, and if so, with who? Some say Tom Bowler is a good prospect. We shall see.  Personally I think Wynn has done a good job under the circumstances, played the hand dealt.  I know there are others who disagree.  That’s all far too complicated to get into here.

…But sort of leads to the subject of staffing changes in general, which has been mentioned more than a few times since November.

“Because, there will be some,” as Larry Kratka put it sagely as we waited for the inauguration to begin.

I’ve heard a plethora of possibilities considered by would-be pundits and the general rumor mill of speculation. In most cases such talk is too flimsy to even consider, but let’s examine a couple of names that keep coming up repeatedly.

-Deanna Ruffer, Director of the Office of Community Development, has been one of the most maligned department heads in the Ruberto tenure. To say that projects such as the Streetscape construction, which entailed major ongoing construction of a substantial amount of North Street for most of 2011 and cost some downtown retailers as much as 50-70% of their summer business, and the Common redevelopment plan, have not met with universal enthusiasm is a dramatic understatement. Streetscape, in fact, has elicited more broad-based ire from residentss of all political (and apolitical) dispositions. Bianchi supporters, Marchetti supporters, even Fillio supporters all have raised concerns with these projects. On top of this, Ruffer was strong and vocal supporter of both Marchetti and Ruberto. It certainly doesn’t seem to be out of the realm of possibility that there could be a change in this department.

-Megan Whilden, Director of Cultural Development. The cultural revitalization of the downtown area in recent years was a hot-button issue this campaign season, with a lot of effort put forth by the Marchetti campaign to portray Mr. Bianchi as being at odds with this renaissance, due to his initial votes against creating the Cultural Development department and against the $1 million allocation to the Colonial Theatre. While a candidate, however, the mayor did present a plausible alternate explanation for his initial votes against establishing the department, which I personally do believe had less to do with the idea itself than with the way in which the former mayor handled the transition with regards to the former Lichtenstein director, Daniel O’Connell (who, it’s worth mentioning, was a fellow Crusader with Dan at St. Joseph’s Central High). However, during the campaign, and to me personally during our interview, Mr. Bianchi said that he is “thrilled” about the new cultural offerings and that Megan (I quote) “is doing a fantastic job.”

—>All of the above, mind you, is pure speculation based on my own observations from the front of local online journalism, mixed with tips and gossip and conversations around town with people who at any given time may or may not know what they’re talking about. I think it’s good when blogging about important matters to make that abundantly clear.

The only way to know what happens next is to stay in the loop. Bookmark iBerkshires.com, Pittsfield.com to keep up with fair, balanced local reporting and this blog for supplemental insights, anecdotes, and sometimes possibly reaching speculation as events unfold before us.

Happy 2012! Strap yourself in, it could get interesting.

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