Fighting crime tops new mayor's to-do list

Posted

Sunday February 12, 2012

PITTSFIELD -- Three weeks after being sworn into office on Jan. 2, Mayor Daniel L. Bianchi met with Police Chief Michael Wynn to discuss expanding the city’s neighborhood watch program.

Bianchi had vowed in his inaugural address to get more residents and business owners involved in helping local law enforcement fight a recent increase in crime.

Since June, Pittsfield has been plagued by armed robberies, burglaries and in December a deadly shooting in the middle of a street.

"It’s very important that each citizen have a vested interest in fighting crime," Bianchi said in a recent interview with The Eagle. "And it’s important the mayor’s office take the lead."

After the Jan. 24 meeting with Wynn, Bianchi assigned his director of administrative services, Donna B. Mattoon, to work with police to establish more neighborhood watch committees. The mayor’s office, through the seven ward councilors in Pittsfield, is seeking names of potential committee volunteers who would receive training and instruction in how to manage a neighborhood watch program.

Wynn said he’s thrilled with the new-found collaboration between police and City Hall.

"To have someone from the mayor’s staff work with us directly is great," he said. "We’ve never had non-police personnel work with us on this."

Stronger crime-fighting measures are among several major issues Bianchi planned to address during his first month as Pittsfield’s new mayor.

The former veteran city councilor, 60, succeeded James M. Ruberto, who opted against a re-election bid last fall, ending an eight-year run as the chief executive.

Bianchi defeated Peter M. Marchetti by 106 votes in November in one of the closest mayoral races in the city’s history.

Since settling into the corner office at City Hall, Bianchi has completed or started to move forward on several promises he made in his inauguration speech and on the campaign trail last fall.

In January, he made two crucial appointments that were unanimously confirmed by the City Council: Kathleen Degnan as city solicitor, and himself to the Pittsfield Economic Development Authority, a quasi-public agency charged with the development of the William Stanley Business Park of the Berkshires.

Degnan filled a position technically vacant for seven years, as Ruberto said area attorneys were unwilling to take a pay cut to join the public sector. He instead outsourced the city’s legal services to North Adams-based law firm DeRosa Dohoney LLP, a contract that expired Dec. 31.

The timing allowed Bianchi to bring Degnan on board. She served as Pittsfield’s assistant city solicitor from 2003 to 2006 before going to Westfield, where she held the same job for more than five years until this past June.

As for joining PEDA, Bianchi continues a tradition established by Ruberto. The former mayor appointed himself to the seven-member panel shortly after he took office for his first term in 2004.

Eight years ago, current PEDA board chair Gary Grunin wasn’t keen on having the person responsible for appointing members also being on the board, but he quickly found the self-appointment made sense.

"If we’re going to have an active mayor with PEDA anyway, we might as well have him at the table knowing what’s going on," Grunin said. "It also helps to have the chief executive there when we are courting prospective tenants."

Despite some early successes, Bianchi has fallen short on his plans to formally propose a small-business fund and establish a city charter review committee. The mayor’s inauguration agenda included both proposals being formally presented to the City Council during his first 30 days on the job.

The two initiatives remain in the planning stages, but Bianchi said he expects the council to consider both by March. He said he needed to hire a city solicitor first in order to help him determine the most efficient legal option of setting up the charter review board.

Meanwhile, the small-business program would be established using a portion of the Pittsfield Economic Development Fund, formerly known as the GE Economic Development Fund. That account has $6.1 million left of the original $10 million General Electric set aside as part of its reparations for cleaning up pollution in the Housatonic River.

Bianchi said he wants to ensure the proposed fund has a solid foundation before the council acts on it.

"We have to make sure we have a good set of criteria on how to use the fund," he said. "I want to send something that is well developed."

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While the councilors await the proposal, the concept likely will have the backing of the Berkshire Chamber of Commerce.

"One of the biggest obstacles for small business is obtaining capital," said Michael Supranowicz, the chamber’s president and CEO. "If they can get working capital, they will produce more jobs."

Grunin said he isn’t surprised his former City Council colleague hasn’t rushed forward with the small-business proposal. The two served on the council from 2000-2002.

"He’s consistent in his approach to issues, which is very methodical, just as he did while on the council," said Grunin, Bianchi’s longtime friend and a former classmate at Pittsfield High School.

Ward 4 Councilor Christopher J. Connell said he doesn’t expect Bianchi to immediately address his entire agenda.

"It wouldn’t be to anyone’s advantage to do everything at once," Connell said. "You can’t go 10 different directions at once."

Several councilors said it’s too early to assess Bianchi’s performance after less than six weeks as mayor.

"To paraphrase James Taylor: We’ve got 10 miles behind us and 10,000 more to go," said Council President Kevin J. Sherman.

Nevertheless, Sherman, several fellow councilors and others pointed out that Bianchi has succeeded in keeping his promise of having open communication with all who arrive at the mayor’s doorstep.

The mayor truly has an "open door" policy, according to
Ward 1 Councilor Christine Yon.

"At every meeting I’ve attended in his office, when anyone asks if the door should be closed, [Bianchi] states, ‘No, leave it open,’ " Yon said.

Connell added: "I’ve been to the mayor’s office twice to set up an appointment, and he took me in right away. He wanted to hear what I said."

Besides his to-do list, Bianchi has dealt with two unanticipated issues that required immediate attention.

As he settled in at City Hall, he and several councilors began to hear from dozens of residents who own vacant lots and complained they were being overtaxed. Realizing a public explanation was necessary, Bianchi had Board of Assessors Chairwoman Paula King appear at the council’s Jan. 24 meeting.

"That was a big surprise and not a good one," Bianchi said.

King said the real-estate tax bills mailed out by Dec. 31 reflected new information gathered during the 2011 state-mandated revaluation of city property, a process that takes place every three years. The Massachusetts Department of Revenue determined the city hadn’t been taxing the empty parcels at "the best and highest" use, primarily as buildable lots.

Bianchi, along with the council, urged the affected property owners to file abatement requests with the Assessors by the Feb. 1 deadline. The board received 750 applications -- 350 from owners of vacant lots.

Bianchi’s first month in office also included an emergency meeting Jan. 23 with Manos Unidas (Hands United), whose former, burned-out community center was slated for demolition that day.

Representatives of the community organization asked for more time to find someone willing to renovate the two-story building, which had been boarded up and condemned since a fire gutted it in 2007.

While the group was grateful Bianchi granted them a one-week reprieve, it couldn’t secure a savior, and the building was demolished Jan. 30.

Bianchi said he’ll eventually establish formal weekly office hours to ensure city residents have his ear.

"This job is about recognizing everyone’s issues," Bianchi said. "They may be minor to you, but they are important to them."

To reach Dick Lindsay:
rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6233.


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