Board delays proposal to limit authority of North Adams Public Arts Commission

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NORTH ADAMS — Another meeting, more questions.

A proposal to limit the contracting authority of the Public Arts Commission in city ordinance was again delayed on Monday.

The City Council's General Government Committee held another round of discussion on a proposal by Mayor Thomas Bernard to rewrite the Public Arts Commission's governing ordinance, changing it from a deciding body to one that makes recommendations to the mayor.

The committee agreed to schedule a second joint public meeting with the Public Arts Commission for Nov. 19.

Bernard first made the proposal to revise the commission's governing ordinances in August, arguing that the mayor is the city's "contracting authority" and thus must ink any contracts signed between the city and artists. That authority is laid out in the city's charter and thus, the argument is, the commission's ordinance should be revised accordingly.

But Julia Dixon, chair of the Public Arts Commission, said that Bernard's original proposal both limited the commission's contracting authority and its control over public art proposals.

Monday's meeting was the latest in a series of four General Government Committee discussions on the proposal, which have covered the larger questions about its implications but also delved into the nuances of its language.

Heading into Monday evening, the committee had yet to answer the central question: Should the ordinance language be changed in order to make the Public Arts Commission a recommending body? And, given the city's charter, is there any choice?

The current working draft pieced together by the committee would explicitly give the commission sole authority to approve for installation, or have removed, art on public property. But the written contract between the artist and city would be "made by the Public Arts Commission, acting by a majority of its members and approved by the mayor."

The mayor's specific legal role under rules established under the City Charter — which requires the mayor sign any contracts valued at $2,000 or more, and approval of City Council and the mayor for any gifts to the city — remained a question on Monday. The committee expressed a desire to contact the city solicitor for further input.

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"The existing ordinance, although it was adopted by the council, may not be legally binding, so that is a reason the committee needs access to the city solicitor," said Councilor Jason LaForest, who is not on the committee but was present at the meeting.

Council President Keith Bona presented an opinion he received from the city solicitor stating that "pursuant to applicable state statute and City Ordinance, the agreement should be signed by both the Public Arts Commission and the Mayor."

The current ordinance does not conflict with the city charter, according to the solicitor's message — which was forwarded by email to Bona by Bernard.

"They merely create distinct requirements, which are both satisfied by having the mayor and PAC sign on the City's behalf," the opinion stated.

Dixon noted that the mayor already has input when he appoints new members to commission. Reiterating a point she's made in previous public discussion, Dixon also noted that the current process has allowed the mayor to decide what public property is open to public art — in other words, he has final say on the "canvas," but not the content of the art.

Authority over public art has come into the spotlight as an ongoing controversy over the rights to the pillars beneath Veterans Memorial Bridge. That dispute was alluded to on Monday, but Committee Chair Eric Buddington began the meeting by asking the public to refrain from diving into it and instead stick to the question of authority over public art.

The Public Arts Commission was founded in 2015 to provide a formal procedure for public art proposals on city-owned property, replacing the handshake-agreement between artist and mayor with a seven-member body's vote.

Erica Manville, who helped craft the founding ordinance, spoke in opposition to Bernard's changes.

"To change where the ultimate decision lies is like a slap in the face for me because we spent so long trying to make this make sense for any mayor," Manville said. "When Tom Bernard's not the mayor anymore, what kind of mayor will we have? We don't know."

Adam Shanks can be reached at ashanks@berkshireeagle.com, at @EagleAdamShanks on Twitter, or 413-629-4517.


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