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Great Barrington Voters Call On Legislature For Home Rule Over Horse Racing

A auditorium filled with seated people facing a stage with people on it
Josh Landes
The scene inside Monument Mountain Regional High School at Wednesday's Special Town Meeting in Great Barrington, Massachusetts

As the town debates how to approach the possible return of horse racing to the Berkshires, voters in Great Barrington, Massachusetts adopted a home rule petition at special town meeting Wednesday night.

After months of confusion and debate in the Southern Berkshire town over the efforts of Suffolk Downs to relocate its horse racing operations from Boston to Great Barrington’s derelict fairgrounds, voters responded with a call for self-determination.

Janel Munoa, a member of Citizens Concerned About GB Horse Racing, presented the home rule petition to the assembled townspeople at Monument Mountain Regional High School.

“We are here on this cold December night to vote about sending the home rule petition through to our legislators to insure that the Great Barrington citizens have a right to vote on whether commercial horse racing comes to our town,” said Munoa.

She said the petition emerged from months of fact finding, questioning, and legal counsel stretching back to July.

“During that time, countless citizens shared their concerns with us about commercial horse racing," Munoa said. "Those concerns include traffic and infrastructure, environmental and animal welfare, gambling and economics, and the democratic process being thwarted by the legislation in Boston.”

A pair of bills in the state legislature aimed at opening up Massachusetts gambling regulations – Senate bill 101 and House bill 13 – would lay the groundwork for Suffolk Downs to make the move west. In September, area State Senator Adam Hinds, a former cosponsor, removed his name from Senate bill 101, citing concerns from residents.

Barbara Kellogg, another member of Citizens Concerned About GB Horse Racing, told the audience Wednesday night that the bill contains a clause that threatens the autonomy of the community.

“There is pending legislation at the statehouse now that provides that if a commercial horse racing license was ever granted in a town, racing can be conducted in that town without any further local vote or approval," said Kellogg. "That directly affects Great Barrington because commercial racing licenses were issued for racing here in 1997 and ’98, although the license for 1999 was returned and any authority for commercial racing ended at that time.”

The home rule petition would require that town voters approve of horse racing at an annual town meeting by a majority vote ballot. Kellogg contends Great Barrington would have little control of the industry should it return.

“For horse racing, the state dictates when, where, and how racing can be conducted, and what local control is possible," she said. "The state controls the minimum number of racing days per year for each and every horse racing license.”

Advocates for the petition emphasized that it was not a vote on horse racing, but to bolster the town’s authority.

“The article gives the voters of Great Barrington local control over the question of whether commercial horse racing can come to this town," explained Kellogg. "Massachusetts towns have limited powers under state law. Home rule petitions such as this one are the process by which a town requests that the legislature give it certain powers that it does not otherwise have.”

Only two speakers voiced opposition to the petition.

“I live right next to the fairgrounds, and right now it’s a dump," said Laura Keefner. "Suffolk Downs wants to come in and spend up to $20 million to fix it up. I don’t see why you people have a problem with that.”

Keefner says she’s lived in Great Barrington for almost 50 years, and next to the fairgrounds for the last 25.

“Horse racing used to be a great thing in this town," she said. "The fair used to be a great thing. People would park cars on their lawns to put towards their exorbitant taxes that we now have. It’s business for motels, for stores, for contractors that are going to help fix up this fairgrounds.”

She also pushed back on another issue some locals have raised about the horse racing industry.

“As far as the animals that do die, how many of you go and protest at a kill shelter where the hundreds of thousands of animals are killed each year?" asked Keefner. "You don’t protest that, but you’re protesting horse racing, which – I know I’m going to get booed on this one – but a lot of these horses are better taken care of than you or I.”

The yes vote overwhelmingly carried, which sends the request for Great Barrington’s home rule forward to the state legislature.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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