Dual chairmanships of Great Barrington Select Board member stir tiff

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GREAT BARRINGTON — It didn't take long for the new Select Board to find itself facing an old controversy.

During a reorganizational meeting Wednesday in the wake of the town election, Stephen Bannon was chosen chairman, but not before some debate.

Bannon also is chairman of the School Committee of the Berkshire Hills Regional School District, and some board members are worried that his dual roles might be perceived as an imbalance of power by taxpayers in the three district towns of Great Barrington, Stockbridge and West Stockbridge, at a time of rising and unsustainable school budgets.

"I think it's a big mistake," said Ed Abrahams, who was picked as vice chairman. "It's nothing against you, Steve."

When he was first elected to the Select Board in 2010, Bannon faced similar concerns from people worried about him serving on it and the School Committee, which he had been elected to in 1997.

William Cooke, who retained his board seat in Tuesday's vote, also said he didn't think it was a good idea. He proposed that Abrahams be chairman, with Bannon as vice chairman, his previous role.

But board member Daniel Bailly explained that Bannon has no extra powers besides his one vote, but as chairman he also sets the agenda and runs the meetings.

"Steve has a little bit more experience," Bailly said of Bannon, who has been on the Select Board since 2010, when this controversy first arose. "But I'm willing to support whoever we decide on."

It was Abrahams, elected vice chairman, who said it wouldn't be good for the town or its relationship with the other towns in the district.

"There was some public pushback when he was elected to both," Abrahams said, noting that he had disagreed with that public sentiment at the time. "But I think chairing both would be too much ... we already have conflicts with the other two towns because of the school[s]."

Bannon said Abrahams' view was "disappointing," and that this year will be "pretty substantial" given that Town Manager Jennifer Tabakin just announced that she is leaving next June, before her contract expires.

And he said he looked forward to working with Abrahams. "I'm happy to do whatever the board asks me to do."

It was Kate Feuer Burke's first meeting, fresh from fending off four challengers in the election.

"You just got thrown into a pickle," Bailly said to her as the board awaited her decision.

But Burke's was the deciding vote in what turned out to be a 3-2 split in favor of Bannon as chairman.

"It would mean a lot to show that the town and school are willing to work together," she said, in support of Bannon. She said it might mean more cohesion and "less confrontation."

"I don't see the conflict of interest," she added.

After the meeting, Bannon told The Eagle he wanted to, like Mary Poppins, "accentuate the positive," and wouldn't do something that might harm the town.

"If I saw a problem, I wouldn't have taken it," he said of the chairmanship.

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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