PITTSFIELD -- In their final joint campaign appearance before next Thursday's Democratic primary, the three candidates vying for the $90,000-a-year Middle Berkshire register of deeds seat traded gentle barbs during a one-hour debate aired on WBEC radio on Wednesday.
They tangled over the pecking order in the deeds office, where Sharon Henault is listed as the first assistant register of deeds, with 27 years of employment.
Candidate Patsy Harris, the second assistant by seniority who was hired 11 years ago after 17 years working with attorneys on title searches and similar registry documents, de scribed herself "as already a manager in the office decisions have to be based on your knowledge of the documents."
But Scott Pignatelli, who owns Pignatelli Electric in Lenox and has 12 years of service on the town's Board of Assessors, said that, if elected, he would rely on guidance from Henault prior to being sworn in on Jan. 2.
"I'm a player-coach, very hands-on," said Pignatelli. "I understand the complexity and importance of this office. A great work ethic and ability do not always translate into great leadership skills. I've got a track record for it."
Harris countered that she would be ready to assume the position of register from day one: "I know how to do the job and I would be the best person for the taxpayers."
Harris took issue with candidate Jody Phillips's assertion, citing the need to help create a budget, that "there's a different dynamic to becoming a manager of an entire office and being responsible for it."
"I have been instrumental in dealing with the budget," Harris responded. "I don't know how people from outside the office can say that they know what goes on and what the office needs. I'm there and I'm part of everything that goes on. I don't report to the first assistant, I report to Andrea Nuciforo, who's the register."
Nuciforo is vacating the office in his bid for the U.S. House of Representatives.
Harris, answering a query from Pignatelli, asserted that all three assistant registers in the Pittsfield office are on an equal footing, according to the Secretary of State's office.
"I'm sorry that seems to be disappointing people, but that's the way it is and it doesn't take away from any of my experience," Harris added.
But Phillips, the former Pittsfield city clerk and current General Dynamics employee, countered that "there is kind of an order of things there. I can't imagine that you would circumvent the decision or the opinion of the first assistant."
Harris asked "what does it matter if we have a first assistant? Why are we talking about it so much? We have several employees who are very qualified, no matter what their titles may be. So what is the point of tryng to determine who's the first assistant, who's the second?"
Pignatelli responded that "maybe you've been just a little misleading to the voters saying that you are the current assistant register when there are other assistants. It makes it seem that you are singularly the first assistant."
The genteel mini-flap developed on the same day that 59 Berkshire County attorneys endorsed Harris, saying she has the "technical training and experience" and is "the most qualified candidate."
Questioned on whether registers should be appointed rather than elected, Harris declared that although the state's general laws require the position to come before voters every six years, "if I had to choose, I would say it should be an appointed position because then we would make sure we had very qualified people doing the job."
Phillips said "there's no guarantee of who you would get in there, or if the person had the qualifications, if it were an appointed position. As an elected position, at least the voters who will be using the services get a choice and a voice on who they get in there."
Phillips also stressed the requirements of the position, describing her management style as "very hands-on. I believe in a cooperative teamwork environment."