Clarence Fanto | The Bottom Line: The 'aha' in a municipal partnership
LENOX >> Once in a while, there's an "aha moment," also known as a wakeup call or reality check that clarifies a murky, complicated issue, making the case for venturing into uncharted territory despite potential risks.
Just before last Christmas, Gov. Charlie Baker and Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito held a signing ceremony with state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox, in Great Barrington for an agreement setting the stage for potential collaborations among the 17 towns and six school systems in Pignatelli's South Berkshire and beyond district.
The state leaders called it an historic occasion, noting that more than 100 of the state's 351 cities and towns have entered a Community Compact aimed at exploring efficiency through shared services.
Of course, walking the talk is the challenge, and so far efforts between the Lee and Lenox school districts to share a superintendent have not borne fruit, though some lower-level partnerships and purchasing agreements have emerged.
Right now, the potential for shared town management between Lenox and Stockbridge, and perhaps Lee later on, is a priority for exploration. That is, if selectmen and townspeople in both communities are on board with the idea.
Lee and Lenox already have a combined buildings and inspection department, very capably helmed by Don Fitzgerald since last Jan. 1, and now by newly named commissioner B.J. Church since Fitzgerald is moving to Houston. From all evidence, this example of regionalization has been a notable success.
But attention now shifts to the town administrator vacancy in Stockbridge following the retirement on July 15 of the esteemed Jorja-Ann Marsden, who spent two decades in the job, following 11 years of service at Town Hall in a variety of roles.
For me, the wake-up call came this past week over a kerfuffle at a Stockbridge Select Board meeting.
After plenty of advance notice to his counterparts in Stockbridge, Richmond and West Stockbridge, Lenox DPW Superintendent Sean VanDeusen unveiled a schedule for replacing an ancient (1890s vintage) but crucial water line that runs alongside Richmond Mountain Road.
The nearly $4 million project requires various weekday shutdowns of the heavily traveled short cut up and over Olivia's Overlook that connects motorists to West Stockbridge, Richmond and points beyond — and vice versa, of course.
Lenox Selectman Edward Lane noted that the construction schedule, from Aug. 29 to Dec. 23, was set up to avoid interfering with the Tanglewood season, since many concert-goers use the road as one of the back ways to the BSO's summer home.
But the Stockbridge board members and the Highway Department chief seem to have been caught off-guard by the project timetable, especially the road closing plans, and questioned how Lenox could shut down traffic "since it's our road, absolutely."
It was surprising that they didn't know that Richmond Mountain Road weaves in and out of Lenox, Stockbridge and Richmond on a 2-mile stretch between the Kripalu entrance and Lenox Branch Road, the connector to West Stockbridge.
VanDeusen told me in detail how he had notified the other towns by phone and in writing about the project. Lane attributed the misunderstanding to a breakdown in communications, though the plan had been publicized recently in The Eagle so no one would be caught unawares.
Seems like a perfect example of how shared services, specifically a town administrator, is not only an idea whose time has come, but is also a matter of urgency.
As a committee of Lenox, Lee and Stockbridge representatives, including Select Board members, continues to meet more or less monthly to hash out the complex details, state Rep. Pignatelli and state Sen. Ben Downing are pushing for passage of special legislation they co-sponsored exempting the three towns from any conflict of interest complications.
The State Ethics Commission is on board with the language in the bill, which would eliminate any legal roadblocks to a shared services arrangement. Chris Ketchen, the Lenox town manager, is a finalist for the top job in Stockbridge, but only if it's a joint setup.
Next, for any agreement to succeed there needs to be enthusiastic buy-in from leaders of Stockbridge and Lenox, department heads and, most of all, consensus among residents.
Given the fractious atmosphere on the Stockbridge Select Board, reflecting some deep divisions among townspeople, the outcome is far from certain. Nevertheless, it would be a sad, missed opportunity for the two towns if "what we have here is a failure to communicate" the benefits and efficiency of shared leadership.
Contact Clarence Fanto at firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of The Berkshire Eagle.