North Adams Public Art Commission's chief wants more public comment on move to limit its authority

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NORTH ADAMS — The chairwoman of the Public Arts Commission has taken the City Council to task for making it "extraordinarily and unnecessarily difficult" to participate in discussions on a proposal that could limit the commission's authority.

In an email Wednesday to the City Council, Julia Dixon accused the council's General Government Committee of failing to encourage public participation ahead of its three meetings on a proposal to change the ordinance that govern the Public Arts Commission.

"I urge you to think through better ways to disseminate meeting notices proactively instead of passively as well as ways to allow members of the public to participate, even if that means purchasing a conference call and speaker system," Dixon wrote.

Councilor Eric Buddington, who chairs the committee, told The Eagle on Thursday that he is "sympathetic," and that Dixon was "right to complain."

"I don't think we've done as well as we should have on that," Buddington said.

Councilor Rebbecca Cohen said she would raise the concerns at the committee meeting scheduled for Monday.

"I will most certainly bring up these very valid points to discuss in an environment that can be constructive and render possible solutions to ensure transparency and consistency as it pertains to the public having access to information for and from our meetings," Cohen wrote.

The City Council has been forced to explore whether final decisions regarding the installation or removal of public art should be left solely to a seven-member committee or the mayor.

In August, Mayor Thomas Bernard proposed revisions to the city ordinance governing the Public Arts Commission. The new language would strip the commission of its decision-making authority, instead leaving it to make recommendations on public art proposals to the mayor's office.

In defending the proposal, Bernard has argued that the mayor is the city's "contracting authority" would have to sign off on any contracts between the commission and any artist or organization — and that the ordinance should be changed to reflect that procedure.

But the proposal was immediately met with pushback from the Public Arts Commission and its members, who viewed the change as undermining the very purpose for the commission's creation in 2015.

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In her email this week, Dixon stated that she received notice of Bernard's proposal six days before it was presented to the City Council.

The City Council referred the matter to its General Government Committee, which held a joint meeting with the Public Arts Commission and three subsequent solo meetings on the topic.

Dixon wrote that she was notified of the committee's Sept. 10 meeting just one hour before it was held. She later emailed Buddington and asked to be kept abreast of upcoming meetings.

But Dixon received only 5 1/2 hours of notice prior to the next meeting on Oct. 3, she said. She received no notice of a meeting Oct. 15.

Though meetings are posted to the city's website, Dixon said it was "unreliable," noting that the commission's most recent agenda was not added to the site prior to the meeting.

"Beyond the burden of driving to city hall to read the meeting board once a day, I would have hoped it would be a courtesy for the chair of a city body to be notified of other city meetings that pertain expressly to them," Dixon wrote.

Buddington acknowledged that there is not a good process for getting information online quickly, and that the legal notice requirements — 48 hours, posted on paper in City Hall — "is not very good."

"It's not realistic to expect people to check that," she said.

Still, Buddington noted that the committee has received substantial input from Dixon and fellow commissioner Bryan Sapienza, and that while their input is "very important," it's ultimately a recommendation that will come from the committee itself.

Buddington said he hopes the committee will make a final recommendation to the full council at Monday's meeting, which begins at 5 p.m. in City Hall.

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


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