Pittsfield residents mingle with candidates during Working Cities mixer

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PITTSFIELD — A 10-year-old walked up to mayoral candidate Melissa Mazzeo with a list of questions.

"Why are you running?" asked the girl, whose name tag read Markiara. "What do you want to do to help?"

Mazzeo said she's running to help children like her feel safer in their neighborhoods.

The line of questioning stood out among many during a candidate mixer on Monday at the Berkshire Athenaeum. About 100 people showed for the event, during which volunteers for opposing campaigns brushed elbows as they helped themselves to plates of pizza, pasta and salad.

Alisa Costa, program director for Working Cities Pittsfield, which organized the mixer, said the goal was to give residents a low-pressure way to meet with candidates and learn about them.

"This is the least intimidating way for someone to get to know a candidate," she said.

Gaylamar Artis told Mayor Linda Tyer about how she fears for her grandchildren living on Francis Avenue.

"It's terrible over there," she said, citing recent violence in the city's West Side.

Tyer said she understands that there are a lot of good people in the neighborhood who, because of the actions of a few, are living in fear.

Artis said she doesn't want to see her family in the news before something gets done about it.

"Can't say, `never me,'" she said. "You never know."

To another woman who asked about the city's West Side, Tyer said "there are some things I want to finish up."

"I want to keep working with the West Side," she said. "We're not in denial about it."

Kathy Austin, too, said crime in Pittsfield is her No. 1 concern, as well as police accountability. She said police officers are sometimes dismissive about issues she raises in the community. She would also like to see more programs in place to address the local opioid crisis.

"Those are some big issues — tough issues," she said. "And they gotta be addressed."

Dawn Schober flitted around to each of the dozens of candidates, stressing the importance of giving young people something to stay in Pittsfield for. Schober, who is gay, said she would also like to see the city grow more racially and sexually diverse.

The city's population needs to evolve with the times, she said.

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"You can have a city full of old people," she said, telling this reporter she is "old enough to be your mother." "It's not going to help us."

Shonda Evette, an organizer with Tyler Street Lab, said she came to ask candidates about event permitting. She said it can feel at times that she's getting "the runaround."

Another resident, Barbara Bizzi, had another issue in mind.

"I want to know what they are immediately going to do about homelessness," she said. "I don't want any more excuses."

Helen Austin wanted to know more about the new Riverway Park on Dewey Avenue. She had grown up in a home near the location of the new park, formerly occupied by homes and mill buildings that have since been torn down.

"I just wonder if there could have been a better purpose to those properties," she said.

For Drew Herzig, the night was about putting a face to the names he's been seeing on lawn signs. He said the event's format made it easier to zero in on the candidates he wanted to get to know better.

"I think it makes it easier to target the candidates you want," he said.

At Melissa Mazzeo's table, a button with the phrase "but we've always done it this way" had a red line through it.

Mark Brazeau, a School Committee candidate, said vocational education was front and center with residents who approached him.

Jay Hamling, a candidate for councilor at large, said residents flagged concerns about everything from public safety and trash to the brightness of streetlights and the future of the Berkshire Innovation Center.

Through their concerns, Hamling said he was impressed to hear an overtone of hope.

"Folks are seeing the positives in the city," he said.

Earl Persip, an incumbent councilor at large running for reelection, said he'd like to see more events like this one.

"I think it's important to go where people are," he said.

Persip and fellow Councilor at Large Pete White said they found themselves answering questions from people in joint fashion.

"We work so well together on the council," White said to Persip, smiling.

Amanda Drane can be contacted at adrane@berkshireeagle.com, @amandadrane on Twitter, and 413-496-6296.


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