Finalists for Stockbridge administrator outline vision for town leadership

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STOCKBRIDGE — The Select Board is expected to choose its next administrator in the next two weeks following interviews with the two finalists.

During televised interviews last week, the candidates — Michael Canales, the administrative officer and No. 2 executive in North Adams, and Thomas Banisch, the former top executive of Madison, a shorefront resort town southeast of Hartford, Conn. — outlined their vision for leading the community.

Banisch explained that in Connecticut, the elected first selectman is chief executive officer, with hiring and firing power subject to Select Board approval. During his term, several retirements and resignations of town employees followed what he called "progressive discipline."

He stressed fiscal conservatism and responsibility through close scrutiny of town budgets "with a fine-tooth comb," describing Madison as a town of 18,000, up to 30,000 in summer. "It's a very quaint resort community on Long Island Sound, similar in many respects to Stockbridge, with a beautiful little downtown area," he said.

Maintaining the town's character while exploring economic development and keeping spending under control were Banisch's priorities during his four years as Madison's first selectman, ending last year when he lost a race for reelection after pushing unsuccessfully for a 10-year strategic plan that became a political hot potato.

"I learned not to be a first selectman anymore," he said, and to maintain a nonpolitical approach to leading town government. Banisch noted that he had resigned as head of Madison's Republican Town Committee after his election there, and if chosen in Stockbridge, he would remain unaffiliated.

He described Stockbridge as "fiscally conservative" and stressed his goal of maintaining a strong credit rating for the town.

As a frequent visitor to the Stockbridge area since his high school and college years, he called it "a great place to be, a quaint little town and it feels good. It's a place we love to come to."

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"The state of Connecticut is a disaster, financially, politically, every way you can imagine," Banisch said. "We were having tremendous problems as a state before COVID. That kind of fuels my reason for wanting to find something else, to be very honest. If I left Connecticut, I'd be very happy."

He confirmed that, if chosen, he would relocate to Stockbridge, where his wife is already scoping out the housing market.

He emphasized direct communication with residents as well as sorting out facts from rumors. "You've got to bring people together," Banisch said.

Canales is a 20-year veteran of municipal government — North Adams city administrator for the past eight years preceded by 12 years as Clarksburg town administrator.

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He has been seeking a change for the past year, but decided to limit his search to Berkshire County for family reasons.

The challenges of coping with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic "will be driving a lot of things," he noted.

"Part of the difficulty for select boards and town administrators is going through the rules and regulations placed on us from the governor's office and the Department of Public Health," Canales said. "Sometimes it seems contradictory, sometimes straightforward, other times you just look at it and go, 'huh?' "

He cited his hands-on experience, involvement and familiarity with state government as helping him guide a local community through a "very unique" year ahead dealing with the complexities of the pandemic.

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Describing himself as a "jack of all trades," Canales said "he likes the small-town feeling" as a reason for seeking a position in a community much smaller than the city of North Adams.

"Part of me would like to step back a bit," he acknowledged. "North Adams is facing some economic challenges, and part of me questions whether there will be a position of administrative officer in three or four years" as the population declines to under 10,000.

"I'm not in a rush to look elsewhere, but I have a desire to look elsewhere," Canales said.

He touted the benefits of regional collaboration with surrounding towns. "I've always been a believer that regional is where we're all going to have to go, it's going to need to happen," he said.

"Everything that we do needs to be constantly changing," Canales said. "Government is slow to change, I think it's good that we're slow to change, but we can't not change. The biggest one will be regionalization, and the other one will be an aging population. Do we have the resources to allow people to comfortably live out the rest of their lives in an aging community, and what services do we need?"

In employer-employee relationships, "nine-tenths of the problems involve communication," he said. "You need to make sure everybody's on the same page, can we work together first in order to cooperatively solve what the issue is. Then, you deal with getting into discipline, but first let's work together, so everybody can fee that together, we can make it work."

As for working with the Select Board, Canales acknowledged that "if there's a difference of opinion, obviously my job is to carry out the role of the selectmen. Ultimately, I understand it's not always my decision on the direction a community is going to go in. I'm not going to be insulted or take it personally, I'll go the way a community wants to go."

Clarence Fanto can be reached at cfanto@yahoo.com, on Twitter @BE_cfanto or at 413-637-2551.


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