Mayor, commission seek common ground on decision-making power over North Adams public art

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NORTH ADAMS — Can the Public Arts Commission and Mayor's Office share responsibility for public art?

That was the question Tuesday night as the Public Arts Commission and General Government Committee looked for common ground on a proposed ordinance revision that would rescind the commission's decision-making authority and grant it to the mayor's office.

The proposal, submitted by Mayor Thomas Bernard earlier this month, has sparked outcry from the Public Arts Commission and fear that placing the authority over public art in a single office could lead to censorship.

The issue continues to be vetted by the City Council, which has the final say on ordinance changes.

"It's about preserving a democratic process. Right now there will be seven individuals that review public art proposals," said Julia Dixon, chairwoman of the Public Arts Commission.

But Bernard has insisted his proposal is not about weighing in on the subject matter of art proposed on public spaces. Instead, he argues, it is about clarifying the mayor's authority when it comes to signing city contracts — such as those the Public Arts Commission plans to strike with artists.

"The mayor has a really valid concern that if a commission is entering the city into a contract ... these things should be done with consideration to the effect it's going to have on the city," said Councilor Eric Buddington, chair of the General Government Committee.

Bernard said the administration has reached out to the city's municipal law firm for guidance on the matter.

"It boils down to the basic answer is that the contract should be signed by both the commission and the administration," Bernard said.

The Public Arts Commission was formed in 2015 to give structure to the public art proposal process, which had previously amounted to a handshake with the mayor's office.

"It was drafted so the mayor could have control over the canvas and the Public Arts Commission would have control over process. That's very simply put," Dixon said.

The mayor is involved by having a say in the canvas — the city-owned site the public art is installed — and by appointing members to the Public Arts Commission, Dixon argued. "My personal opinion is that that's a great process," she said.

But Bernard argued that the current ordinance does not support the intent of the previous administration to approve the "canvas."

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"I do think it is important that this language be clarified so there is no doubt about what is the role of the Public Arts Commission — to solicit, to work with artists, to have public input. Then, the role of the city and administration, which is to be the contracting authority of the gift accepter," Bernard said.

Public Arts Commission member Bryan Sapienza said he could envision shared responsibility with the administration. "The mayor has the control over the canvas, but the PAC, representing the public, would have control over the content," Sapienza said.

Bernard acknowledged concerns that the proposal would limit public involvement in the process.

"[The proposal] is a final check because the Public Arts Commission process is public — it is an open, posted meeting that the public is welcome to attend like any other board or commission public meeting," Bernard said. "The opportunities for public input exist, this is really a procedural issue at the end."

Bernard maintained his past position that clarifying the role of the Public Arts Commission as a recommending body — not as a decision-making body — would not be out of line with other boards and commissions in the city.

"If the police director or fire director applies for a grant, they don't sign on behalf of the city, the mayor signs on behalf of the city," Bernard said. "Even given the broad [authority] of the Airport Commission, grant assurances, which do have liability and clear legal obligations that are placed upon the city, are signed by the administration."

Given the Public Arts Commission's process, Councilor Wayne Wilkinson, who is not on the General Government Committee, suggested the mayor "would have to think hard and deep on turning that down after all the work that you've done."

"He's an elected official, he's not going to say `no' if half the town says `yes,'" Wilkinson said.

The Public Arts Commission also failed to win much sympathy from Councilor Jason LaForest, who is not on the General Government Committee.

"I just don't know how we're continuing to obfuscate a process that really needs to be clarified for the benefit of the city, and I find this absurd to be so negative about something we all would benefit from," LaForest said.

After the proposal received opposition from several members of the public at a City Council meeting earlier this month, Tuesday's follow-up discussion drew a crowd of only two city residents.

The Public Arts Commission did not reach a quorum on Tuesday, but the meeting proceeded anyway. The Public Arts Commission had met last week and voted to approve a statement in opposition to the proposal.

The General Government Committee is expected to meet again to discuss the finer details of the proposal and make a final recommendation to the full City Council.

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


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