PITTSFIELD — The six candidates for the City Council’s at-large seats rounded out a three-debate series hosted by Pittsfield Community Television and iBerkshires.com Tuesday night at the Berkshire Athenaeum.
In the 90-minute debate, the four incumbents and two challengers responded to a series of 12 questions on housing, policing, economic development and hot button topics like the North Street bike lanes, the Verizon Wireless cell tower and the city’s trash system.
Residents will have the chance to select four at-large councilors in the municipal election on Nov. 2.
Over the course of the night incumbents Yuki Cohen, Earl Persip III, Council Vice President Pete White and President Peter Marchetti struck similar tunes on several issues.
The incumbents defended the city’s creation of the new office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, said they were largely happy with the work of the “Red Carpet” team and that the city should be working with North Street business owners who feel short-changed by the bike lanes on the street.
Challenging the councilors for their seats are Craig Benoit and Karen Kalinowsky, who pushed back on the transparency of the city’s budget and use of available housing stock, respectively.
Benoit repeated his call from an earlier debate for an independent audit of the city’s finances and Kalinowsky asked why more hasn’t been done to rehabilitate or sell dilapidated and empty housing in Pittsfield.
Housing and homelessness were persistent points of discussion during the debate, with all candidates recognizing that there is a great — and for many currently unmet — need for additional housing options in Pittsfield.
Persip, Marchetti, White and Kalinowsky all advocated for transitional housing options — temporary housing options that often come with supportive services to help tenants bridge the gap between homelessness and more permanent living arrangements.
Cohen said she is focused on increasing access to affordable housing so residents aren’t forced into a choice of “survival versus achievement.” She said she was interested in adding requirements for affordable housing development — similar to requirements the city has for market rate housing — into agreements with developers.
Persip also said that the city should do more to hold current landlords accountable for the condition of their properties.
“Our housing stock is terrible in everything: market rate, low income, transitional, affordable,” Persip said. “We have to hold landlords in the city accountable for the way their properties are looking these days.
“There are some properties out there that just don’t get addressed. It’s a quality of life issue and that’s what’s important to people.”
The candidates said that violence — particularly gun violence — is increasing residents and business owners feelings of insecurity.
When it came to questions of policing, Kalinowsky, Benoit, Persip, White said specifically that they support increasing the number of officers on staff with the Pittsfield Police Department and — along with Marchetti — that they support new headquarters for the department.
All of the candidates said that they supported the presence of school resource officers in school. Persip and Cohen emphasized that the experiences of students of color need to be taken into account if the district is to continue or expand the SRO program.
The candidates were also asked what they would do to retain the city’s younger residents and increase the number of 18- to 55-year-olds moving to Pittsfield.
For Benoit, keeping young people in the city will be “a chore” unless the city returns to its economic roots.
“I’m not going to say go back to the old [General Electric Company], but that’s how the city was built,” Benoit said. “We were built on manufacturing and we need to get the manufacturing in the city again.”
Kalinowsky said the key to showing young residents a future in Pittsfield also lies in job opportunities, but she recommended strengthening the relationships between Pittsfield employers and students through more internship and job training programs in the city’s school district.
White said that while greater housing and job opportunities will definitely sweeten the deal, he thinks that Pittsfield is already close to the winning combination to draw young people to the city.
He said that he’d like to see Pittsfield invest in a mid-size concert venue to round out the entertainment offerings already available in the city’s “beautiful lakes and ski areas.”
“I think we offer a lot, I think we don’t advertise what we have,” White said.