Berkshires may lose rural voice with Olver's retirement


Faced with the distinct possibility that the rural congressional district represented by John Olver will be joined with either Springfield or Worcester, local leaders worry that the needs of Western Massachusetts’ small cities and towns will no longer be heard in Washington.

"It would squash the voices of all of the smaller cities along the 1st Massachusetts’ corridor," said Pittsfield Mayor James M. Ruberto. "Good God, Worcester? What connection does Pittsfield, Massachusetts have to Worcester?"

Olver, 75, announced Wednesday that he plans to retire at the end of his term in 2012.

Members of the state’s Joint Committee on Redistricting are currently in the process of finalizing plans to merge the state’s 10 congressional districts into nine. The new maps are expected to be released next week.

The Senate chairman of the committee, Stanley Roesenberg, referred to the news as a "dramatic change" that is causing committee members to re-evaluate their plans, making it appear increasingly likely that Olver’s 1st Massachusetts Congressional District, which stretches from the Berkshires to northern Worcester County, will bear the brunt of the redistricting ax.

Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, a member of the state’s redistricting panel, confirmed that Olver’s retirement definitely "opens for consideration" the possibility of merging his district with either Worcester or Springfield.

While officials in the Berkshires praised Olver for being a dedicated representative of the distinctly rural priorities of his district, they wonder how a congressman representing one of the largest cities in the state could simultaneously pursue the sometimes dueling interests of small and large municipalities.

"I don’t want to use the word devastating, but it just doesn’t feel good," said North Adams Mayor Richard J. Alcombright. "Throwing us in with a district that large and a constituency so tightly populated as in those metropolitan areas, personally I think it’s kind of scary what could end up happening to the representation of Berkshire County."

Alcombright offered a laundry list of projects championed by Olver over his 20 years in office, from pushing efforts to build a bike path through the Berkshires to launching a transportation program in the northern reaches of the county.

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"These programs are funded every year through the good graces of Congressman Olver," he said. "I’m afraid of those monies getting recommitted."

Lenox Town Manager Gregory Federspiel concurred, saying small towns in the Berkshires require a dedicated representative.

"We tend not to [get much attention]; it will be all that much harder if we are merged or blended into a newly configured district," he said.

Local lawmakers vowed to lobby for the Berkshires as the redistricting process progresses, but some admitted the outlook is bleak.

"I think the redistricting committee was hoping to have one of the [10 Massachusetts congressional incumbents] not opt for re-election," said state Rep. William "Smitty" Pignatelli, D-Lenox. "John Olver has now given them that easy option."

Pignatelli said he would vote against any plan putting the Berkshires in a district with Worcester -- a scenario that has been widely floated as the most likely.

State Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield, said he’s holding out hope that the redistricting committee will maintain two distinct congressional districts west of Worcester, but he acknowledges it will be a challenge.

He said that, although a congressman representing both the Berkshires and a major city could conceivably cover both adequately, they’d be hard pressed to give smaller cities and towns the attention they need.

"With a massive population center being in that district, the priorities of those communities would be front and center for that representative, whereas priorities of small towns and cities have been the priorities of John Olver for the past 20 years in Congress and we’re better for it," said Downing.


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