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North Adams Mayor Tom Bernard says he views phone call from state Rep. John Barrett III as 'clear, if nonspecific, threat'

Wigwam sign pays homage to Berkshires being seen as ‘America’s Switzerland’ (copy)

North Adams Mayor Thomas Bernard, left, and state Rep. John Barrett III help unveil a new sign in 2019 at the Wigwam Western Summit in North Adams. On Monday, Bernard accused Barrett of speaking to him in a threatening manner during a Nov. 9 phone call. Barrett says he was trying to offer advice and his message was misconstrued.

The mayor of North Adams is calling on the speaker of the Massachusetts House to order an ethics review of what he describes as recent bullying remarks to him by state Rep. John Barrett III.

Mayor Thomas W. Bernard also suggests that Barrett’s status as a trustee of the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts be reviewed, in light of a telephone conversation with Barrett that the mayor saw as threatening, and which he has memorialized in several emails.

Barrett says he tried to provide friendly, if pointed, advice to Bernard, only to see it backfire.

Bernard released the emails Monday. Bernard says that on Nov. 9, Barrett, the city’s former mayor, called him to comment on an item coming up on that night’s City Council agenda.

According to Bernard, Barrett expressed opposition to the city’s current plan to seek a new owner for the long-closed Mohawk Theater. The next morning, Bernard used an email message to the representative to register a complaint, indicating that he took offense to Barrett's tone and message.

“In our conversation you indicated that presenting this update and strategy to the Council and the community would be ‘bad’ for my livelihood, professional standing, and family, which I reasonably infer and construe as a clear, if nonspecific, threat on your part toward me,” Bernard wrote.

On Monday, Bernard revisited that conversation yet again and said, in an email to Barrett that he copied to media outlets around the state, that he viewed Barrett’s comments as hostile and unacceptable, repeating his earlier denunciation.

“I perceived your statement … as an unmistakable, if nonspecific, threat on your part toward me,” the mayor wrote.

Barrett said Monday that he had called Bernard that day to get an update on how the mayor planned to handle the Mohawk reuse issue. He said Bernard had no reason to take offense, but acknowledges that he sought to provide some advice about how Bernard was conducting himself — comments he said the mayor appears to have taken in a way Barrett says he did not intend.

In that exchange, Barrett said he called some actions by Bernard “erratic” and said it was that behavior he was referring to, and that alone could have consequences for the mayor's professional life.

“It was not a heated discussion at all,” Barrett said of the call before the council meeting. “There were not raised voices.” He said Bernard greeted him warmly at a Veterans Day gathering later that week. 

In an interview Monday, Bernard agreed that while the two men were not shouting, he found the exchange to be "contentious" and insulting, particularly when Barrett referred to Bernard's livelihood, standing and family. 

"The last word in there is why we are having this conversation," Bernard said, referring to "family." "Otherwise, I would have chalked it up as the price of the state rep being the state rep. That for me was over the line."

Bernard said he felt he needed, in the final weeks of his term as mayor, to speak out about the behavior of a fellow elected official. "This is not something I take lightly," he said. “I was and remain very angry at the choice of words but I’m not acting from a place of anger."

Bernard is completing his second term in office. He did not seek reelection this year and the city’s next mayor will be Jennifer Macksey.

Barrett said he called Bernard because the Mohawk project is "near and dear to me." In the call Nov. 9, Barrett said he reminded Bernard that given the low bid received by a Mohawk Theater bidder, the project would need to be reviewed by the state. Bernard told him his legal counsel disagrees with that.

In Bernard's view, the tenor of the call changed when he made it clear to Barrett that he planned to push ahead on the theater plan. At that point, he said, Barrett told him he would be asking the state inspector general to look into the transaction.

Earlier email

Last Wednesday, Bernard wrote to House Speaker Ronald Mariano and five other officials to request that his phone conversation with Barrett be referred to the House Committee on Ethics “for further examination.”

In making that request, Bernard quotes from House rules that say, in part, that “members, officers, and employees should exercise prudence in any and all such endeavors and make every reasonable effort to avoid, transactions, activities, or obligations, which are in substantial conflict with or will substantially impair their independence of judgment.”

Barrett said Monday he has not received any calls or inquiries from House leadership about Bernard’s requests.

In Monday’s widely distributed email, Bernard offers examples of what he frames as aggressive behavior by Barrett in the past, including a run-in with a former aide to Gov. Mitt Romney, when Barrett was mayor, and an anecdote that Barrett himself shared when Gov. Charlie Baker visited Adams in July to celebrate funding for the Greylock Glen project.

Baker recalled, in good humor, that Barrett had been lobbying hard for money to build an outdoor recreation center at Greylock, and joked that “he basically bit my head off over Greylock Glen."

When it was his turn to speak, Barrett said, “Governor, if I was on the other end of that phone call, I would have hung up on me.”

“We were joshing,” Barrett said Monday of that exchange. He said he has a framed letter from the former Romney aide, Eric Fehrnstrom, apologizing for his own behavior. 

Bernard said Monday that he did not interpret Barrett's call as an effort to lend counsel.

“Had it been couched as advice, I would have come away feeling differently," he said. “I believe firmly that was not the case."

Larry Parnass can be reached at lparnass@berkshireeagle.com and 413-588-8341.

Investigations editor

Larry Parnass joined The Eagle in 2016 from the Daily Hampshire Gazette, where he was editor in chief. His freelance work has appeared in the Washington Post, Boston Globe, Hartford Courant, CommonWealth Magazine and with the Reuters news service.

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