Sunday January 6, 2013

PITTSFIELD -- Daniel L. Bianchi says he felt comfortable immediately after being sworn in as mayor a year ago.

Bianchi said his nearly five-year stint as Pittsfield's finance director and treasurer, followed by 10 years as the Ward 6 councilor, prepared him well for the corner office at City Hall.

"I knew what I was getting into," Bianchi, 61, said in a recent interview with The Eagle's editorial board. "But it's a lot more hectic than I thought it might be."

Bianchi cited the hundreds of community, school and governmental functions he's attended. He also spent 2012 implementing -- with City Council approval -- several of his campaign promises, including the creation of a Small Business Fund, the expansion of the Pittsfield Economic Development Authority (PEDA), and the establishment of an open-door policy for those who wanted time with him.

As for the controversial issues -- dominated by the furor over Spectrum Healthcare Systems establishing a methadone clinic in the city -- Bianchi said he successfully tackled them head-on.

"I think everything that was put in front of us, we handled quite well," he said.

But Bianchi's critics -- led by several city councilors -- say the mayor fell short with the business fund, didn't communicate well with the council overall, and mishandled the Spectrum case.


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Councilor at large Barry Clairmont called the Bianchi administration a "huge disappointment."

"It seems to me [that] all we are doing on the council is making appointments to boards or accepting grants," said Clairmont, who also is in his first term. "I'm really waiting to see what the mayor's vision is [for Pittsfield.]"

A new relationship typically has growing pains. After eight years of James M. Ruberto and Gerald Lee leading the city as mayor and council president, respectively, Pittsfield began 2012 with the tandem of Bianchi and Council President Kevin Sherman.

In addition, the 11-member council sworn into office included five first-timers.

In Bianchi's first three months on the job, the political honeymoon remained intact with such high points as the council on March 27 fully supporting the mayor's Small Business Fund. And a month earlier, the council unanimously backed Bianchi's plan to expand, from seven to 11 members, the PEDA board, which oversees the development of the William Stanley Business Park of the Berkshires.

In the Small Business Fund, the city has awarded two firms -- out of seven that applied -- a total of $70,000 from the $500,000 fund, which is designed to help promote the growth of small businesses through grants and forgivable loans.

Bianchi says it's too early to measure the fund's success, but Clairmont said he believes the mayor's initiative has fallen short of its expectations.

"While the fund is a good idea, it has been poorly marketed," Clairmont said. "There hasn't been any further publicity of the fund since its inception."

As for an expanded PEDA board, Bianchi said that adding new members has allowed the panel to create several subcommittees, such as finance and marketing, to help attract more tenants.

Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi greeted supporters during his inauguration last January but has drawn some criticism since then. Councilor Barry Clairmont says the
Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi greeted supporters during his inauguration last January but has drawn some criticism since then. Councilor Barry Clairmont says the mayor’s administration has been ‘a huge disappointment.’ (Ben Garver / Berkshire Eagle Staff)
The four additional board members, appointed by the mayor, took office in September.

"Within 90 days, we talked with Nuclea [Biomarkers] about a computing center," the mayor said. "They now have a facility with 350 servers all tied together."

In November, Nuclea, which develops diagnostic tests for several types of cancer, relocated its datacenter from South Street to the PEDA administration building on Kellogg Street. Currently, Nuclea, Mountain One Financial and the Western Massachusetts Electric Co. are the business park's tenants.

Mountain One's headquarters are there; WMECO's presence is a solar array project that was activated in October 2010.

Councilor at large Melissa Mazzeo said she believes the larger PEDA board will jump-start further development in the business park.

"I could really see [the expansion] working, as I have watched the interaction of the veteran members and the new members," Mazzeo said. "Subcommittees are where all the grunt work gets done."

Bianchi's mayoral successes in 2012 extended into his management of the city budget, particularly in spending on public education. Most importantly, he brokered deals that settled contract talks with city teachers and resulted in a compromise school budget that took effect in July.

As a School Committee member, the mayor persuaded the teachers union and the committee to ratify a new three-year contract after a series of one-year agreements. Bianchi convinced both sides that teacher pay increases should be based on the amount of state aid the city receives during each year of the agreement.

The previous four, one-year deals had little or no across-the-board salary increases because of the uncertainty of state funding.

School Committee Chairman Alfred E. "Alf" Barbalunga praised Bianchi for his outside-the-box approach to settling the negotiations.

"The contract has paid dividends, and it has worked," Barbalunga said.

He also lauded the mayor for helping to reach a compromise on a $54.5 million school budget that educators and taxpayers could afford in fiscal 2013, which began July 1, 2012. The school spending is part of an overall $133.1 million city budget the council approved June 26.

"He knows the numbers, and he's not afraid to take his budget plan for a vote," Barbalunga said.

Bianchi said the most frustrating issue for his administration in 2012 was the lack of progress toward building a new or renovated Taconic High School.

For more than two years, the Massachusetts School Building Authority has been conducting a preliminary study to lay the groundwork for an SBA/city collaboration that will determine the type and cost of a high school project. The SBA would fund up to 80 percent of the project, with Pittsfield handling the remaining 20 percent.

Bianchi says it's time to move forward on the required feasibility study with the help of state Rep. Tricia Farley-Bouvier, D-Pittsfield, and the rest of the Berkshires' state legislative delegation.

"We want to make sure our state representative knows her way to the state Treasurer's office -- and she does," Bianchi said. "We need to look at a team approach, and our state delegation has been very good [on this matter.]"

Bianchi's biggest political black eye last year -- at least according to four councilors -- was his handling of the city's battle with Spectrum over where it would place a methadone clinic.

Clairmont, Christine Yon, Jonathan Lothrop and John Krol Jr. maintain the mayor, along with City Solicitor Kathleen Degnan, misled the council into approving $100,000 as part of Pittsfield's settlement with Spectrum. The Worcester-based company had filed a federal lawsuit in 2011, claiming the Ruberto administration illegally denied them a building permit to renovate space on Summer Street, where the clinic eventually opened in October as part of the settlement.

The deal, announced in mid-August, came two months after the council agreed to a $100,000 separate line item in the solicitor's account. The four councilors say Bianchi and Degnan should have been more forthcoming about the intent of the funds.

"Only well after all the key decisions had been made were the council and citizens informed of the settlement," Lothrop said. "There was a huge lack of transparency from the mayor's office."

Bianchi defends his handling of the case, pointing out that he inherited the lawsuit and the confidentiality agreement attached to the legal proceedings leading up to the settlement.

"I think we did as good of a job as we possibly could," he said. "It was a situation that had to be managed, and we managed it well."

Overall, the mayor's ability to communicate with city councilors and the public has received mixed grades.

"We have a standing meeting every other Tuesday, and he's always open to my suggestions," Sherman said. "It's been a completely collaborative effort."

Bianchi's ability to be a team player was most evident when he worked with the City Council to establish the city's Charter Review Study Committee and help a local florist remain in business.

Bridget Brown, owner of the Berkshire Flower Co. on South Street, found Bianchi willing to listen to her plight. Brown was due to close Dec. 31 because of a conservation restriction established by the Pittsfield Conservation Commission 15 years ago, but Bianchi in November persuaded the commission to extend the restriction deadline another 10 years, allowing Brown's 25-year-old business to remain open.

"He seems like a regular working man, a common guy," Brown said.

Krol, however, is among the councilors who think Bianchi lacks the transparency to effectively communicate with the city and its citizens. Krol said transparency was more evident under Ruberto.

"In the past, the mayor sought out and worked on having a good relationship with councilors," said Krol, the Ward 6 councilor. "The communication isn't the same as before; can't say if that's right or wrong."

To reach Dick Lindsay:
rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6233.