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North Adams Mayor Reflects On First Year, Looks Ahead

A white man with glasses and a blue shirt, suit, and tie stands in front of a leafy green backdrop
North Adams Mayor Tom Bernard

The mayor of North Adams is beginning the second year of his term.

Mayor Tom Bernard was first elected in November 2017 and sworn in on January 1st, 2018. He says issues of public safety loomed large in the first half of the term leading the second-largest community in the Berkshires. On an administrative level, the need to hire a new police chief after Michael Cozzaglio steps down in early February and the need to repair or replace its aging public safety building are high on Bernard’s list.

Public safety issues emerged just days into Bernard’s term when Christa Leigh Steele-Knudslien was murdered by her husband Mark in their North Adams home.

“It prompted some very necessary important and ongoing conversations about how the community responds to the issue of domestic violence, which is related to the opioid epidemic, it’s related to issues of addiction, of mental health, of economics,” the mayor told WAMC.

Steele-Knudslien, 42, was the founder of the Miss Trans America pageant. It was the first reported murder of a transgender person in the country in 2018, as well as the first alleged domestic violence-related death in Massachusetts in 2018. Bernard said the conversations the killing raised were hard.

“These issues are – they affect us all, but they effect survivors and victims most of all and how we listen and how we respond to the needs and the experiences that they tell us about is incredibly important,” he said.

Bernard said his major takeaway from the year was that his job is all about communication.

“How do you communicate clearly, how do you bring people into conversations, how do you have the appropriate level of engagement,” he explained.

Bernard says his move to shutter the city’s gun range due to concerns around insurance coverage – the announcement of which in June was criticized as abrupt by city council members and gun range users – was a learning moment.

“I moved maybe a little more quickly than I would have, and I think I let the council’s communication process dictate and drive mine," said Mayor Bernard. "And that was a judgement on my part that I probably would have looked at differently.”

Citing productive conversations with the aggrieved parties since, Bernard has moved to leave the range open past the original closing date of January 1st to July 1st as the city explores more insurance options.

Bernard touted the purchase of the city’s first hybrid vehicle, the signing of two host community agreements with proposed marijuana retailers, increased investment and job creation in the city, and the development of the Norad Mill as the highlights of 2018 in North Adams.

As 2019 unfolds, Bernard says beyond public safety, he’s looking forward to finishing the consolidation the school department offices into city hall, the sale of three city properties, a completed zoning ordinance update – the first, he says, since 1956 – and more.

“I’m going to have to work with the North Adams Redevelopment Authority to renegotiate an option agreement with Heritage Park and the related parcels that the Extreme Model Railroad is looking at,” said Bernard.

He says one goal from his 2018 state of this city address is still on his list: “How do we really kick start some housing and mixed use development on Main Street to bring some increased energy and vitality.”

Bernard said the major question the city faces is how to keep its momentum moving forward.

“How do we leverage everything we have – whether it’s a world class museum, a new hotel that’s getting great press, a fantastic public university at MCLA, a strong business community, a nonprofit and human services community that has decades of track record in supporting folks,” he told WAMC.

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