PITTSFIELD — The city's mayoral candidates warred over words at times during a Wednesday debate, but in the end, still smiled and shook each other's hands.
Mayor Linda Tyer and her challenger, Councilor at Large Melissa Mazzeo, are less than two weeks away from the Nov. 5 election, during which voters will make their selection.
The debate was sponsored by the Berkshire County branch of the NAACP and moderated by its past president, Will Singleton. About 200 people packed the gymnasium of Conte Community School for the event.
From race to restorative justice, crime and economic development, the candidates hit a number of hot-button issues throughout the evening.
In her opening remarks, Tyer recalled a story that ran in CommonWealth Magazine focusing on a lack of racial diversity in Pittsfield leadership. In the 2014 story, she said Mazzeo defended former mayor Dan Bianchi's slow action.
The "embarrassing" article said four percent of the city's workforce was black, Hispanic or Asian, Tyer said, and that proportion has more than doubled under her leadership.
Tyer also knocked her opponent for not supporting a petition that would have mandated cultural competency training for city councilors.
Mazzeo harked back to her childhood during her own opening remarks, telling the audience that she was raised by a single mother who struggled to make ends meet. Still, "... everyone around me, especially my mom, said I had potential," she said.
Now, she said, she sees her role in Pittsfield as paying that faith forward.
In response to a question about crime, Tyer said "we need to hire more police officers and we're making great strides in that area." She also said the city recently completed a grant application that would draw federal resources into Pittsfield to address crime.
But Mazzeo said the city is heading in the wrong direction on this issue, citing recently released statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation that rank Pittsfield among the top five in violent crime rate.
"What is it that we're doing that's not working?" she asked, suggesting the city place more law enforcement officials in the neighborhoods with the most crime.
The candidates also went toe-to-toe on the issue of restorative justice. Singleton asked Mazzeo to elaborate on a comment she'd made during the previous mayoral debate, during which she said restorative justice reforms in the city have contributed to a "culture of leniency."
She said she understands the need for this reform, but "at the same time, when you do restorative justice, there's unintended consequences."
She said she doesn't want to see kids getting into trouble and their missteps "continually let go."
"They need comfort, they need guidance, but they also need to know that there's an expectation of them to be citizens," she continued.
Tyer said it seems to her that Mazzeo doesn't understand the tenets of these reforms.
"Restorative justice doesn't mean you get a pass," she said.
Under the model, she said children who wrong their peers are taught to listen to the victims of their actions. These new practices are coming to light because old models of discipline and punishment are not resulting in improvements, especially for students of color.
"This is the only way they're going to build resilience," she said.
Rising taxes are a concern for seniors on a fixed income, Singleton said. He asked what the candidates would do to address this issue.
Tyer's administration inherited a financial crisis, she said, and so she has worked to better manage the city's debt and save dollars through modernization, as with the city's conversion to LED streetlights.
Mazzeo said being a sound fiscal steward means accountability.
"Accountability is when you're taking the hard-earned dollars of your residents and you're using them for the items that they know that they need," she said.
It's not in allowing the sand and salt budget to go over by $2 million, Mazzeo said. And it's not forgiving $2.55 million in loans paid to Beacon Cinema.
Taking the issues downtown
Later in the debate, Mazzeo again referred to the Beacon Cinema issue, saying the fact that the city wrote off the private company's debt while other business owners are left to squirm leaves "a sour taste in their mouth."
To that, Tyer said "job creation is a competitive sport" and the city has to come to the table ready to negotiate. Seeing the cinema close would have dealt a blow to the downtown economy, she said.
"We could not afford to have that theater go dark," she said. "People love the Beacon Cinema; I'm glad we saved it."
They sparred, too, over the issue of small business and how friendly or unfriendly the city is with them.
Mazzeo said she would immediately convene a roundtable discussion with small-business owners. "We are not business-friendly," she said, citing one business, but not by name, that recently left North Street because the city wouldn't allow it to accept on-street deliveries.
"We have to stop holding them to these archaic ordinances that are outdated," she said.
But Tyer said the city has doled out grants and provided business coaching and mentoring.
Still, she said, "not every business can be saved."
And the downtown parking issue again reared its head, with Mazzeo saying she would immediately pause paid parking downtown and undergo a review of the plan's successes and failures. Tyer reminded the audience that Mazzeo voted for the plan in place and she approved spending for the kiosks.
"We haven't even finished paying off the kiosks that Councilor Mazzeo said we needed," Tyer said, though she does plan to reconvene the minds behind the original plan to review it.
Singleton trained a spotlight on the North Street of yore, calling the modern-day version a"ghost town."
"I'm wondering: Is there something that can be done that will increase the foot traffic on North Street?" he asked. "During the day."
Tyer said the city has to keep nurturing what it started downtown. She pointed to efforts like saving the Beacon, and to lines out the door at downtown eateries, Third Thursday events and First Friday Art Walks. "Our theaters are thriving," she added.
"I don't really think you answered the question," Mazzeo said when it was her turn.
She said the city has to loosen regulations downtown in order to get a diversity of shops, and it needs to help them thrive. She said the city has to stop thwarting the downtown economy like it did with outdoor dining. "We need to stop doing this to ourselves," she said.
Mazzeo made crime a pillar of her campaign, Tyer noted, yet she was not present during a neighborhood meeting last year following a rash of violent crime in the city's West Side.
"Where was your outrage a year ago?" she asked her opponent.
Mazzeo said that just because she wasn't able to attend that particular meeting doesn't mean she wasn't taking calls from constituents and having conversations about it at the time. She might not have shown up for the cameras, she said as an obvious slight against Tyer, but she was working on it.
Mazzeo said that Tyer had also made crime a pillar of her own campaign four years ago.
"You went crime, crime, crime. Every question that was asked of you, you went back to crime," Mazzeo said. "You deflect that I didn't come to one meting. I've been to many, many meetings."
She in turn asked Tyer why she hasn't shown up for any of the recent meetings about helping the local homeless population. Tyer said she can't know about them unless someone tells her.
Though sparks flew between them, they acknowledged everyone is passionate about moving the city forward.
Before they nodded, smiled and shook hands, Tyer said the debate successfully made clear the differences between them, and Mazzeo said the fiery debate stems from the passion they share for Pittsfield.
Amanda Drane can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.