PITTSFIELD — Newcomers to the race for At Large City Council seats said that there needs to be greater transparency and responsiveness to residents from City Hall during a debate Wednesday night.
Retired Pittsfield Police officer and 2019 mayoral candidate Karen Kalinowsky and Hot Dog Ranch owner Craig Benoit — the only candidates who aren’t incumbents in the At Large City Council race — used a portion of their time to call on the city to seek out an independent audit and increase the amount of financial information regularly shared with the council and residents. The candidate forum was hosted by the Berkshire County branch of the NAACP.
“We need to know where our money went and where it’s going,” Benoit said. “If we don’t have a well controlled budget and the budget gets out of hand we’re not going to have anything.”
Incumbent candidates said they’re proud of the work they’ve been able to accomplish during the pandemic and emphasized that their experiences made them the best options to steer the city through what many called a pivotal moment.
“Pittsfield is at a point where we can build Pittsfield back and build Pittsfield better,” candidate and City Council President Peter Marchetti said.
The forum, held just under a month before the election, brought together the six people vying for the council’s four at large seats: Kalinowsky, Benoit and incumbents Yuki Cohen, Earl Persip III, Peter White and Marchetti.
Former NAACP chapter President Will Singleton moderated the event, querying candidates on their thoughts on a variety of issues from cannabis revenue, government accountability and candidate’s plans for North Street.
At least one question by Singleton on what the city should do to address climate change appeared to stump some of the candidates. Marchetti and Kalinowsky said they’d need to do more research before suggesting initiatives.
Benoit recommended updating the city’s zoning ordinances to be more conducive to climate focused developments like electric car chargers or solar power projects. Persip and White both pointed to increasing the city’s recycling rate and pursuing green options for the city’s aging infrastructure.
Cohen said the city should seek out consultants to recommend specific actions.
By far most of the discussion centered around schools and economic development.
Several candidates described a culture problem in the Pittsfield Public Schools, but disagreed on the root cause. Persip said he’s had a longstanding concern with the district’s ability to retain teachers with the salaries it’s offering staff and said that it’s time to hold district officials “accountable.”
“When I went to school all the teachers around me were there 15, 20 years — we’re losing that,” Persip said. “We’re losing the sense of community within our schools and that’s where you see problems.”
Kalinowsky said the she thinks it’s “turmoil” in the schools, not regionally low salaries that are causing teachers to leave.
“Unfortunately the teachers are now working in a condition where the school is not — they’re out of control,” Kalinowsky said. “They can’t teach a classroom without it being disrupted, there’s turmoil.”
Kalinowsky said she’s heard from parents that feel their children won’t be safe in local schools.
Kalinowsky has supported calls for increasing the number of School Resourse Officers in schools and was joined by Cohen in that call on Wednesday night. White also emphasized the importance of SROs in establishing formative and last connections between the community and police department.
Candidates said that when it comes to insuring future economic success for Pittsfield, the city needs to do more to support and incentivize the success of existing businesses.
White said he supports city-level actions like offering more tax increment financing for businesses to give them “a little bit of breathing room to businesses to allow them to expand” as well as resident-level actions like shopping local.
For Benoit, a big step towards increasing the number of vibrant small businesses in the city would come with a revision of the zoning laws and ordinances. He said current ordinances make it tough for local entrepreneurs to start a small business.