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North Adams City Council President Outlines Path Forward After Four Resignations

A blonde white woman with blue eyes and a pearl necklace smiles into the camera in front of an American flag.
City Of North Adams, Massachusetts
Lisa Hall Blackmer.

Since the term began in 2020, four of nine North Adams, Massachusetts city councilors have resigned. Paul Hopkins moved out of the city and Robert Moulton was facing censure over comments related to the Black Lives Matter movement and the COVID-19 pandemic. But more recently, Jason LaForest and Marie Harpin resigned back to back in August with harsh words for the council. LaForest decried “shameful dirty back-door politics” and “the absurd grand-standing and conspiracy theories of other councilors and candidates” on social media. Harpin said the council had become “increasingly toxic.”

Now, Lisa Hall Blackmer has become the third person to hold the council presidency this term. She spoke with WAMC about how she intends to lead the body through the remainder of the term, which concludes at the end of the year. In the interview, Blackmer refers to a Freedom Of Information Act Request WAMC filed for communications between Harpin and other city officials after LaForest’s comments. WAMC has not yet received the results of the request.

BLACKMER: I feel like you make a commitment to do it and you should do it as long as you possibly can. I know- Obviously, the situation with Councilor Moulton was a unique situation. And it's not the first time that has happened. We've had councilors move in the middle of the term. So, it seems like this term has had a confluence of several people leaving. Obviously, it's disappointing, but we still have work to do, and we will continue to do it. We don't have time for the drama and the speculation, and I'm disappointed that folks couldn't meet their two year commitment. And I will say that the rest of us are staying focused on the work that has to be done on behalf of the residents of the city of North Adams.

WAMC: Two of the resigning councilors – first Mr. LaForest, and most recently, Marie Harpin – have referred to the culture of the council in very negative terms while making their exits. As the head of that body, how do you respond to comments like that? Marie Harpin specifically called it a “toxic” council environment.

Well, I think it's interesting that her resignation came shortly after you put in a public records request for communication between councilors.

Why do you think there's a connection between those two things?

Well, the timing.

Right. Well-

I haven't seen what the communications have been, what you've- the only thing I know is the communications between she and I, but I don't know what other councilors might have submitted. And I think you'll have a better answer to that when you get those files.

Can you speak to your experience in communicating with Councilor Harpin if it sheds any light on her comments about the toxicity of the council?

I know she's complained about people having access to the solicitor, that'll be in there. And then wanting, saying something about how the council was not consulted when it was a reference to counsel – C-O-U-N-S-E-L and C-O-U-N-C-I-L – and the difference in those communications were sent to me and to President Jason LaForest. So there were ongoing emails, which you will see when you get the results of your public records request.

Now, as far as the claims of a toxic environment, can you speak to that at all? In your experience, is that is that a true claim about the council?

I think it's all perception. And I know that I have been attacked sometimes for things that I have or haven't said or done. So I think that social media has created a less cooperative way of working together that you didn't see 10 years ago or seven years ago.

What does it say about the council that it's sort of been whittled down to just seven at this point? Do you do you feel like that's still enough of a quorum and that there’s enough political goodwill behind this body to get things done before the coming election?

I think so. I think we've done our work, we've done our homework, we've got committees that are functioning and doing the things they need to do.

How do you step forward as a leader after two consecutive resignations that have such harsh words for the body in question?

We move forward, we write the agendas for the council meetings. We put forward the things that we want to work on or responses to things that our committees have been tasked with, we respond to grant requests and approve paperwork as needed. And we continue to move forward.

Do you think there's any way to maybe set some kind of precedent in the wake of all these resignations for the council before a new crop of politicians come in? I'm thinking measures to maybe find a way to reduce the amount of turnover midterm that we've seen over the last two years.

I think we have council rules, we have expectations of professionalism. And we ask that everybody act in that manner.

Now, at this point, are you considering running for reelection? And if so, would you want to once again seek the council presidency?

I'm on the ballot. I've had to have those papers and at the end of July to be on the, to be on, to run for city council. And as far as seeking the presidency, I will wait until we have nine elected members of the new council and go from there.

What do you think would be a good way to sort of safeguard the council from this kind of back and forth between councilors moving forward? Do you think there's like a strategy or rules of decorum that can be put in place to find a way to avoid these accusations of toxicity in what seems like a very emotional time?

We have rules. I mean, we have rules of what we're supposed to follow. I think sometimes people get emotional about issues. And just because you can be, you can disagree with someone without being disagreeable. And I think in this day and age, people seem to take affront if you disagree with them.

In this final stretch of this term, what do you see as the most important issues the council has to tackle?

Well, we still have left on the agenda the Smart Growth, final approval of the Smart Growth zoning changes. We have short term rental on the on the agenda. We have some things that are open in public safety. We have some things that are open for looking at the fees for both the public safety committee and public services. And just in general, looking at the fees, city wide. We also have a sidewalks slash snow clearing ordinance that was kind of put off during budget season. So those are all things that we’ll hopefully finish up by the end of the year.

So lastly, do you have a message to the folks of North Adams who might be looking at this council saying, wow, there's been a lot of turnover and what seems like a lot of ill will over the course of this past term?

Well, the rest of us that are left are going to continue to do the work that needs to be done. And they have our emails and our phone numbers, and if they have questions, to please contact us all, ask questions and we will try to get them the best information we can.

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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