Berkshire County in 2018: A Year In Review
It was a busy year in Berkshire County — from infrastructure projects to unprecedented political turnover, and from the conclusion of a controversial art sale to standoffs between workers and employers.
In the first half of 2018, officials in the county’s largest community – Pittsfield – had a long and bruising debate over first-term Mayor Linda Tyer’s plan to allocate around $74 million for the construction of a new wastewater plant.
“If the city chooses not to, EPA’s prepared to take necessary enforcement to insure compliance,” said the mayor.
Tyer’s argument to the city council was that continued inaction on a decade-old ultimatum from the government agency would result in expensive punitive measures.
“It’s worth asking the EPA for a do-over, essentially sit down at the table with us again, listen to our arguments from nine years ago, why we felt what you were asking was — not that it was just so financially strapping — but some of the things that were being requested seemed unobtainable and possibly unnecessary," said councilor-at-large Melissa Mazzeo in February. She was one of the most vocal opponents of the plan.
"And to find out that all those appeals were actually just because we didn’t put in the right paperwork in the right format was frustrating to me," said Mazzeo. "And so until I can get that straightened out and have another shot at actually talking with the EPA, I don’t think that we should move forward with this project.”
She and a bloc of councilors prevented the required supermajority vote at the plan’s first hearing in February. But when it was re-introduced in April, Ward 5 councilor Donna Todd Rivers broke with the group to join the 8-3 majority that passed Tyer’s plan.
“My ‘no’ vote was about slowing down the process to allow some more conversation, to allow some more research, and to request of the mayor that she meet with the EPA," said Rivers. "I am pleased to say she honored that request.”
The winter was also marked by a surprise.
“I’m announcing today that I’m stepping down as the Berkshire District Attorney, effective March 15th," said David Capeless on March 1st. "I’m retiring.”
Capeless, after 14 years as the county’s top prosecutor, set off the hardest fought battle for the seat in decades. First Assistant DA Paul Caccaviello was installed into the seat in advance of the fall election.
“The only head start I have in the campaign is my 28 years of service to the county,” Caccaviello.
Later revelations about months of communication between Capeless and the office of Governor Charlie Baker leading up to his resignation would ultimately plague Caccaviello’s campaign – and fuel that of his major rival, Andrea Harrington. Before March was over, she was running to succeed Capeless.
“The way that the system is currently run isn’t working well," said Harrington. "We pour a tremendous amount of resources into prosecuting and locking up people for low-level nonviolent criminal offenses. And those resources could be better spent being reallocated to programs that are actually going to help people, stop people getting from involved in the criminal justice system, stop people from reoffending.”
Harrington wound up winning the crucial Democratic primary and the general.
Another story that resonated throughout the county was the realization from community members in North Adams that a convicted rapist and registered sex offender with an international profile had set up shop at the city’s public airport. WAMC aired a story in May about the man behind Berkshire Skydiving – Alex Kelly. Dubbed the “preppy rapist” in the late 1980s, his flight to Europe to avoid justice attracted headlines and led to his arrest and decade-long imprisonment beginning in the late 1990s.
“People can always use that as a tool to try to condemn me whenever they want," Kelly told WAMC. "It’s really not pertinent to this. If they want to continue to bring that up, I’ve done my time. I don’t know what they want from me, what I am supposed to do, go climb under a rock? I mean, I’m an upstanding businessman, law-abiding citizen, doing what I can to increase economic activity, live my life, and even hire people.”
Kelly’s attempts to establish a sky diving business in the county were short-lived, ultimately stymied by a combative relationship with the city and fellow airport users. After WAMC reported that his lease at the Bennington Airport had been terminated by the state of Vermont for safety violations, Berkshire Skydiving closed shop before the end of the year.
For the Berkshire Museum, 2017 was a trial. After announcing a plan to sell pieces of its collection to bolster its endowment and overhaul its facilities, controversy overtook the institution right into 2018.
“The ramifications of this are not just on Berkshire County. We will lose some of our most historic and priceless treasures," said Great Barrington resident Carol Diehl, with the citizens group Save The Art – Save The Museum. It protested the sale both at the museum in Pittsfield and at the Sotheby’s auction house in New York where some of the pieces were sold.
"It has national implications in that it is precedent-setting and means that a non-for-profit institution, the board for a non-for-profit institution, can use its assets for cash,” Diehl told WAMC.
“I know it’s still an agreement and a result that is upsetting to many people. I personally did not want to see any art sold, but I have to do my job as attorney general and follow charities law, and based on that, we arrived at the decision we arrived at and the deal that we arrived at,” said Maura Healey.
The Massachusetts Attorney General spoke to reporters in Pittsfield in October about the outcome of a settlement between the state and the Berkshire Museum released early in 2018 that set up parameters for the museum’s ability to sell the art.
“We’re going to continue to monitor this," Healey continued. "My focus now — I want to be clear, given the art that has been sold to date — I think that after these next two paintings are sold, sales need to stop, and the board needs to focus on hiring an executive director so that the institution can move on, and hopefully flourish.”
One of the architects of the plan, former Executive Director Van Shields, resigned from the museum in June. The Museum said in November that it had accomplished those goals.
“This announcement is about the fact that we have raised a substantial amount of money – $53.25 million – securing the future of the Berkshire Museum," said Ethan Klepetar, Vice President of the museum’s Board Of Trustees.
Board president Elizabeth “Buzz” McGraw said the museum will carry out its search for a new leader in 2019.
“We are looking for someone who can now begin to implement what we want with making our facility a 21st century museum where we are relevant, that we can continue to educate our community in a more streamlined and productive way,” she told WAMC.
Elsewhere, Berkshire County experienced some labor strife in 2018.
At Berkshire Medical Center, a nurses strike was narrowly averted twice in the first half of the year as the Massachusetts Nurses Association negotiated a contract with the hospital – one of the region’s largest employers. After demonstrations and the threat of strikes in February and June – following a strike and lockout the previous October – the union accepted a new contract, capping almost two years of negotiations.
The Berkshire Regional Transit Authority did not fare as well, and was unable to avoid a strike. Fifteen of its union paratransit drivers went on strike, forcing limited schedules for the county public transit system for two weeks in December. Increased wages in the drivers’ three-year contracts brought full service back.