PITTSFIELD — Newcomers to the race for City Council seats At Large said there needed to be greater transparency and responsiveness to City Hall residents during a debate Wednesday night.
Retired Pittsfield police officer and 2019 mayoral candidate Karen Kalinowsky and Hot Dog Ranch owner Craig Benoit — the only candidates not incumbent in the At Large city council race — used part of their time to call on the city to seek independent verification and increase the amount of financial information regularly shared with council and residents. The candidates forum was organized by the Berkshire County branch of the NAACP.
“We need to know where our money went and where it’s going,” Benoit said. “If we don’t have a well-controlled budget and the budget gets out of hand, we won’t have anything.”
The incumbents said they were proud of the work they were able to accomplish during the pandemic and stressed that their experiences made them the best options to lead the city through what many called a pivotal moment.
“Pittsfield is at a point where we can rebuild Pittsfield and build Pittsfield better,” said candidate and city council chairman Peter Marchetti.
The forum, held just under a month before the election, brought together the six people vying for the four council seats: Kalinowsky, Benoit and incumbents Yuki Cohen, Earl Persip III, Peter White and Marchetti.
Former NAACP Chapter President Will Singleton moderated the event, asking the candidates about their thoughts on a variety of issues including cannabis revenue, government accountability and the candidates’ plans for North Street.
At least one question from Singleton about what the city should do to address climate change seemed to confuse some of the candidates. Marchetti and Kalinowsky said they would need to do more research before suggesting initiatives.
Benoit recommended updating the city’s zoning ordinances to be more conducive to climate-focused developments, like electric car chargers or solar power projects. Both Persip and White highlighted the city’s increasing recycling rate and finding green options for the city’s aging infrastructure.
Cohen said the city should seek consultants to recommend specific actions.
By far, most of the discussion focused on schools and economic development.
Several candidates described a culture problem in Pittsfield public schools, but disagreed on the root cause. Persip said he has long worried about the district’s ability to retain teachers with the salaries it offers staff and said it’s time to hold district officials “accountable.”
“When I went to school, all the teachers around me had been there for 15, 20 years – we’re losing that,” Persip said. “We are losing the sense of community within our schools and that’s where you see problems.”
Kalinowsky said she thinks it’s “turmoil” in schools, not low regional salaries, that’s causing teachers to leave.
“Unfortunately the teachers are now working in a condition where the school is not – they are out of control,” Kalinowsky said. “They can’t teach a classroom without it being disrupted, there’s unrest.”
Kalinowsky said he heard from parents who thought their children would not be safe in local schools.
Kalinowsky supported calls for more school resource officers in schools and was joined by Cohen on that call Wednesday night. White also emphasized the importance of SROs in establishing formative and lifelong bonds between the community and the police service.
The candidates said that when it comes to ensuring Pittsfield’s future economic success, the city must do more to support and encourage the success of existing businesses.
White said he supports city-level actions like providing more tax-raising funding for businesses to give “businesses some breathing room to grow” as well as city-level actions. residents like local shopping.
For Benoit, a big step toward increasing the number of vibrant small businesses in the city would come with a review of laws and zoning ordinances. He said the current ordinances make it difficult for local entrepreneurs to start a small business.