WTH Happened in Pittsfield This Week?

BANDIDA STILL AT LARGE

The hunt continues in earnest for the city’s most recent serial armed robber.  A video released by Pittsfield Police of “La Mascara Bandida” (The Masked (female) Bandit, and by the way, it wouldn’t hurt you to learn a smidge of Spanish, Pittsfield) saw nearly 2000 views in the first 24 hours on youtube, or about 40 times the views vids of Pittsfield’s Mayoral Inauguration got in two months.  PPD says they’ve gotten numerous tips in response, but no arrests as yet.

A systematic stake out of local convenience stores Saturday night verified a  heavy police presence, with cruisers passing by or circling slowly at regular intervals at nearly a dozen surveyed locations.

MAN KILLED BY TRAIN HAD TROUBLED BACKGROUND

On Tuesday night, Pittsfield was shocked by the news that a man was struck by a CSX freight train on the tracks along Depot Street.  In a previous post the similarities between this and previous incidents in the same general area were explored.

Authorities on Wednesday released the name of the victim, John Castonguay of Pittsfield.  Whether his death was an accident or suicide remains undetermined, according to Pittsfield Police.

While no new information or obituary has yet appeared, a cursory check of public records outlines a troubled history dating back to the man’s youth.  Castonguay was a registered sex offender, dating back to a conviction for sexual abuse in 1985.  Local police twice sought him out for failing to register as such, most recently in 2006.  In 2008, Castonguay was arrested along with two other men for breaking into the Clock Tower building on South Church street in order to steal some scrap metal or tools.

THE CITY COUNCIL

….voted on several noteworthy issues Tuesday, including a move to expand the board of PEDA from 7 to 11 members, prohibition of non-essential heavy commercial vehicles on Melbourne Road, and a proposal by Councilor Clairmont that the city generate a list of desired but unfunded projects so that local businesses and philanthropists who may be so inclined to fund them.

BOLD STEP FOR INCLUSION

Also of real noteworthiness, in my opinion, is this story from earlier in the week about First Congregational Church’s bold move to symbolically and pragmatically support the LGBT community and help foster dialogue about inclusion.  This courageous stance by yet another mainstream Protestant church is yet another sign of changing attitudes across the social spheres.

While similar affirmations have been put forth by churches in Lenox, Williamstown, Stockbridge and Housatonic… we’re not any of those towns. In this somewhat more blue-collar, generally angrier, more reactionary little city, such an example by this iconic Park Square place of worship, Pittsfield’s oldest, is significant.

FISHY HIT AND RUN GETS FISHIER

In the ongoing sage of the most talked about local hit-and-run case in maybe ever, Meredith Nilan had not guilty pleas entered for her on her behalf at an arraignment at Central Berkshire Court on Wednesday.  The case will be prosecuted by Springfield DA Joseph Quinlan and heard by Northampton Judge Michael Mulcahy, who set a March 21 pre-trial hearing date.

Curiously, the following day a motion to dismiss was filed by Nilan’s attorney, Timothy Shugrue, on the grounds that the court seems to be missing key paperwork on this case, including copies of the initial January show-cause hearing and subsequent re-hearing under Judge William Hadley.  According to Shugrue, “No one appears to know where they went.”

Accusations have swirled for weeks that Ms. Nilan has received special treatment due to her father, Clifford Nilan, being a highly placed official within the court system – in this context, the revelation that documents are suddenly missing from this case is being viewed by many with extreme suspicion.

In other courthouse news, several individuals were sentenced this week on a variety of robbery, larceny, assault and drug charges.  See Superior Court  Briefs Feb. 27- Mar. 1 for the full lineup.

SUNS WILL REPLACE COLONIALS

Pittsfield’s new baseball team will be called the Suns, we were told this week. The Suns will have the same general manager as the failed Colonials team, but owners at the Goldklang Group assure us that a new business model, including “unconventional” promotional initiatives, will succeed where the previous franchise failed to hold water at Wahconah Park.

La Mascara Bandida Strikes, 10×10 Excites, GOBvsLOD Re-ignites, Peter Moore Unites (w musings on Economic Development and Losing Our Urban Fabric)

A string of armed robberies caused grave concern among Elm Street residents and workers, after a masked woman in black with a small handgun knocked over first Getty, than Angelina’s Sub Shop and Palmer’s Variety

Mayor Bianchi released a statement Thursday, saying the robberies were cause for concern and called for citizen vigilance and increased neighborhood coordination efforts.

Finally, changing tact, La Mascara Bandida struck a fourth time, at the LiptonMart on West Housatonic Street.  Police have released video footage from the store:

3 young men were arrested in fires set on Dalton Ave, after crashing both of the stolen cars they were using within a short time of the arson, in the kind of absurd, Darwin Award -style weirdness that seems to typify Pittsfield Crime. (See also Top 5 Absurd Pittsfield Crimes of the previous 2 years.)

10×10 in Review 

The “descendium” of new artistic offerings known as 10×10 came to a close today. See reactions from Megan Whilden, Mayor Bianchi, and others on its merits, successes and potential areas for future improvement in: 10×10 Fest A Mix of Success

Around City Hall

Following up on a concept he proposed frequently during his two mayoral
campaigns, Mayor Bianchi is calling for the establishment of a $500,000 development for providing loans and grants to develop small businesses.  The money would come from the millions allocated to the city by General Electric, of which there is currently about six million remaining.

The proposal will be examined at Tuesday’s City Council meeting.

-Some interesting discussion between City Councilors with regards to the heated disagreement over the appointment of Jeffrey Ferrin to the Ambulance Review Committee was shared on the PlanetValenti blog this week.

The challenge to the Mayor’s appointment to this volunteer came as a
surprise to some, and is politically significant because it seems to
highlight, for the first time since November’s close election, the
perceived split between Pittsfield’s two municipal “parties,” known by
their respective detractors as the GOB (Good Old Boys) and the LOD (Legion of Doom).The four councilors who specifically opposed Ferrin’s appointment, Paul Capitanio, Barry Clairmont, Jonathan Lothrop, and Christine Yon, were supporters and contributors to Peter Marchetti’s mayoral campaign, while Ferrin and the two councilors who voiced a strong negative reaction to his opposition, Melissa Mazzeo and Kevin Morandi, are seen as politically aligned with Mayor Bianchi and enjoyed mutually supportive campaigns.

Peter Moore Benefit
Sunday saw a fundraiser for Peter Moore, whose plight has drawn more
attention than perhaps any non-fatal vehicular injury in Pittsfield since
1902. Peter Moore was allegedly struck by Meredith Nilan in a Subaru SUV
on the night of December 8, though it was not initially reported that a
person was struck in the collision. Moore’s fate, and Sunday’s benefit
efforts, have received heightened attention due to the fact that Nilan’s
father, Clifford Nilan, is a Chief Probation Officer in the Pittsfield
court systems. Questions have arisen in recent weeks over whether Meridith, 24, may have received preferential treatment during an initial hearing.

Westfield Assistant Clerk Magistrate Nathan A. Byrnes had originally found
that there no probable cause to charge Nilan in the collision, but this
decision was reversed by Springfield District Court Judge William Hadley on February 10, following a redetermination request from the Pittsfield Police Department.

Hadley noted that “although much of what is alleged here is circumstancial
in nature,” he found the testimony presented sufficient to allow the
criminal complaint for negligent operation and leaving the scene of a
personal injury accident to be heard. Nilan is expected to be arraigned on
these charges February 29.

Preliminary estimates of more than 150 attendees at the matinee fundraising show, organized by Andy Poncherello, with help from Dan Valenti and various Pittsfield volunteers.

Losing What Urban Fabric We Have

A story in the Pittsfield Gazette from a couple of weeks ago, just recently
posted online, is very much worth taking a look at, as it reveals the plan
to demolish the historic Plunkett Building at the corner of First and Fenn
Street to accommodate the relocation of the First Street Dunkin Donuts.

Former city councilor turned valuable civilian community advocate Mike Ward, was kind enough to share his insightful take on this development with me, in which he presents a scathing view of what this symbolizes in the direction development in the community seems to be going:

“It’s the biggest waste of space I can imagine. We’re gradually losing our
urban fabric — it’s like a perverse suburbanization of our downtown. All
the old buildings that have fires are razed and not replaced. We lose the
density that makes it a walkable and contiguous downtown, and every change is more automobile-centric than what existed before.”

Finally, Monday saw a bit of President’s Day fun, as we collected (with a little help from the public) a comprehensive history of local Presidential visits. Some were funny, some quite dramatic.  Worth a look.

The Berkshire Eagle’s Mystifying Defensive Stance on Waterstone Development

I’m usually not one to blog on a lot about my occasional criticisms of our predominant local paper, The Berkshire Eagle. Not so much out of any deference or specific loyalty to it or its parent MediaNews Group, from whom I’ve gotten numerous checks for work in a couple of their publications- and wouldn’t necessarily shoot down the idea of doing so again in the future; but honestly, because that’s already pretty well covered in other local blogs- the daily raison d’etre in certain cases.  It’d just be redundant for me to plod along in those well worn tracks.

Nonetheless, I was a bit blown away when I saw the brief, terse editorial Sunday chastising Pittsfield’s City Council for its admittedly lengthy quizzing of Pitts. Economic Development Authority about its past and present activities as they relate to the current hot-button issue of a potential retail development at the PEDA-administered former G.E. industrial property known as William Stanley Business Park.

The first somewhat surprising thing is that, unless I’m missing something in a search of their site, Sunday’s four sentence blast of the council constitutes the paper’s sole reportage on the otherwise intensely scrutinized two and a half hour Q&A they had with PEDA director Cory Thurston last Tuesday. Everyone else in the attending press corp covered it – first PCTV obviously, then lengthy articles in iBerkshires and Pittsfield Gazette; YNN’s Brandon Walker presented a visually instructive recap on the issue last week for the benefit of our NY neighbors to the west. Even The Planet, who I was disappointed yet again not to meet in the flesh last week, weighed in for a paragraph of coverage more informative than anything one can gather from the Eagle’s dismissive Sunday editorial, which reads as follows:

PEDA ISSUE IS PHILOSOPHICAL
“The Pittsfield City Council asked a lot of PEDA head Cory Thurston Tuesday night. Mr. Thurston stood before the microphone for about two hours, which is no way to treat a guest, and the questions alternated among the incisive, redundant and irrelevant — the latter when they applied to the years before Mr. Thurston took over. (Good-natured Council President Kevin Sherman needs to ride herd on his flock, as well as on open mike pontificators who are bringing back the long-winded pre-Gerald Lee days). Verbiage aside, the PEDA question comes down to whether the William Stanley Business Park should be open to a major retail outlet, a shift from the park’s original mission, or whether PEDA should pursue a manufacturing opportunity that may not emerge any time soon. Or ever.” -Berkshire Eagle 2/19/12

I am flabbergasted by the scolding tone of this editorial and some of the flawed assumptions that seem to be built into it. Regardless of whether you’re for or against the retail project and its placement, it is hard to comprehend how anyone could take the position that the council’s questions about the events which ultimately led to what all parties involved acknowledge is a “shift” in direction on one of the city’s core development assets were somehow “irrelevant”. And while there may have been some repetition, it is worth noting that many of these questions inevitably came from many concerned consituents- the number and passion of which the Eagle has barely breezed upon over the past two months.

The City Council was unanimous and quite clear at its January 10 meeting, about its intention to ask for a lot of information from the quasi-public economic development authority. A lot of questions were to be expected. As the primary governing body of this city, there were not only within their rights but in my view obligated by responsibility to spend some serious time in illuminating for the public what has become an issue of extreme importance and divisive views for residents, on par with some of the biggest city issues in recent memory. The level of interest in this subject can not only be measured in the length of last Tuesday’s council meeting, but in the sheer volume of locals I saw actually Facebooking and Tweeting about the meeting as they watched from home.

That the councilors would have so many questions about the Waterstone deal and the seemingly abrupt redirection of the PEDA site’s planning efforts is pretty understandable, given the fact that most if not all were made aware of it about the same time as the general public, when they got the same press release we got back in December.

To be perfectly honest, I’m still very surprised that our former mayor, who sat on PEDA’s board throughout all the earliest negotiations of the deal, at no point saw fit to mention, even in passing, to our elected council that such a thing was in the works.

Councilor John Krol and former Councilor Mike Ward, who has been the point man activist against this proposed development, have already expressed disappointment, via Facebook. Ward commented, “Research assignment for the Berkshire Eagle. Why does the state offer tax incentives for R&D but not for big box retail? This is not a philosophical issue, it’s actually pretty black and white.”

BUT, WHY???

Cory Thurston, to his great credit, several times reiterated that he was plenty willing to answer the Council’s questions, and looking to be as transparent as possible, even if- for reasons not entirely his fault- he didn’t always have a satisfactory answer.  If PEDA is fine with being grilled on this, WHY is the Eagle editorial board so upset about it, with its huffy “that’s no way to treat a guest” tone?

Since the Eagle first put forth its initial pro-retail-at-PEDA editorial at the first sign of resistance in the community, it has become increasingly hard to understand the extent of bias in coverage on this issue, given the course and dimension the discussion has taken in the community, and according significance given it in every other media outlet, the hours of discussion that have taken place on every major local radio show, etc etc ETC. Only when the clamor reached unignorable levels did the publication once pay slight lip service to the position opposed to its own.

With the reasoning behind this rigid defensive position so unclear, one almost has to speculate and question motivation. Is this recent finger wag at the city council about consistency? Saving face? Loyalty to a previous administration? Certainly it couldn’t possibly be that chain retail operations, especially newly opened ones, are a plentiful teat of advertising dollars for the primary local paper in any locality.

Because I know things like that never, ever influence news and editorial viewpoints.  Nope, not in this sainted business.