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Great Barrington Residents Reject Bid To Defund Police At Drive-In Town Meeting

A man stands on a podium below an American flag before a parking lot full of cars with seated people on a grassy strip behind him
Josh Landes
The Great Barrington, Massachusetts town meeting on June 22nd, 2020 in the parking lot of Monument Mountain Regional High School

The town of Great Barrington, Massachusetts voted to approve its proposed 2021 budget Monday night despite efforts to cut the police department.

It was a town meeting the likes of which Great Barrington had never seen before.

“We’re meeting outdoors tonight rather than in the auditorium to reduce the risk of coronavirus contagion," said Town moderator Michael Wise. He addressed a fleet of cars and town residents on blankets and chairs in the parking lot of Monument Mountain Regional High School from a podium, surrounded by town officials.

“Voting is going to be by show of hands, that is, show of cars, just like we usually do," explained Wise. "If you are seated in your car, please hold your card out your window and wave it so I can see it and so the tellers can see it.”

The venerable New England ritual of direct democracy in the pandemic era saw the meeting transmitted to the cars via FM radio. Cutting Edge AV of Lee ran the audio and broadcast from a generator-powered van.

During the four-hour meeting, Great Barrington approved the proposed $12.2 million general operating fund budget – up 5% over 2020 – as well as $4.3 million in capital expenditures on infrastructure projects and the $17.6 million Berkshire Hills Regional School District budget.

Multiple residents scrutinized the town’s $1.7 million police budget.

“We live in unprecedented times. In the midst of a pandemic and a deepening economic crisis, we are also bearing witness to widespread police brutality against the black community in this country and grappling with the systemic injustice that has existed within our criminal justice system for decades,” said Mae Whaley. The 19-year-old read a letter she wrote with Jake Borden, Jessica Wright, and Sam Laiz.

“This is an enormous portion of the general operating fund, 14%, and represents a significant increase of $34,000 from last year’s budget," said Whaley. "It seems their commitment to traditional policing is growing, not shrinking. In comparison, the town clerk slash elections line item has been allocated a mere $131,000. The board of health has been allocated just $118,000, a 3% drop from last year, and the historic district commission has been defunded entirely.”

The letter questioned the need for increased police spending in a community of around 7,000 with a crime rate below the national average.

“Must we spend $20,000 on vehicular supplies, a line item that was increased 43% in this year’s budget, or over $4,000 on additional equipment, another ill-defined line term that was increased by 37%?" Whaley asked. "Do we need all of our current salaried on-duty officers for a town of a population well below 20,000 at its height, and do those officers need to carry military grade assault weapons to police our streets? The answer to all those questions must be an unequivocal ‘no.’”

Great Barrington employs 17 full-time police officers. Chief William Walsh is stepping down on Christmas Eve.

A motion made by Mika Mintz, 28, to cut the police budget by $200,000 was rejected, with 132 no votes to 74 yes votes. A subsequent bid to cut it by $36,000 also failed.

“I just want to say that over the next year the selectboard will look at how funding is governed to the police force, that we look at all of our budgets every year," said selectboard chair Steve Bannon. "But this year, being very timely, we definitely will look at the way the money is spent. We have an excellent police force whose policies and procedures are head of the curve. We do have a social worker on staff through grant, but there’s always time to look at better ways of doing things, and we will be looking at that this year.”

Later, former selectboard member Dan Bailey led an effort to table a spending plan on land for an affordable housing project so that it could be reassessed.

“We are being asked to appropriate $185,000," said Bailey. "What the affordable housing trust failed to put on their handout sheet is the town has that property, that’s been for sale for 16 years, for $98,000.”

Selectboard member Leigh Davis defended the plan, prompting a heated reaction from Bailey.

“The lack of affordable housing in Great Barrington and South County in the Berkshires is the number one most pressing issue that we face," said Davis. "The lack of affordable housing. From what I hear, this is a smokescreen for NIMBYism.”

“NIMBYism? Oh my lord!” exclaimed Bailey.

“We need affordable housing," continued Davis. "This is people like you, this is people like me.”

The meeting only covered 21 of the warrant’s 30 articles. It was continued to Thursday night in the same format to handle zoning issues and citizen petitions.

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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