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Pittsfield city council gets grim COVID-19 update, votes to bring Healey into ongoing cell tower controversy

A stone building with a colonnade.
Josh Landes

The Pittsfield, Massachusetts city council received a COVID-19 update and voted to send a letter to the state Attorney General at its meeting Tuesday night.

Interim public health director Andy Cambi presented the body with the latest COVID-19 information.

“For the past 14 days, we have begun to see an upward trend," said Cambi. "With the COVID cases, with last 14 days, the positivity rate of the daily cases was at 2.13. As of today, we are at 3.21. Cases have been averaging around below 20 but above 14. As you see these past couple of days, we've seen some high higher numbers than usual for what we have been seeing before.”

As of October 26th, the city is reporting over 100 actively contagious cases in the community of around 44,000. The daily case rate per 100,000 over the past 14 days is over 32, the highest since mid-April. 67% of residents are fully vaccinated, with 76% of the city with at least one dose in their arm.

“The vaccination, we've seen a 1% increase in the one-shot as well as the fully vaccinated," continued Cambi. "We are going to be working with the Berkshire Collaborative to offer vaccines to our, the children that are aged five to 11. So we're on the works for that once we get that approval from the FDA. The BMC data, we have seen a drop from that. We have been remaining below the number 10. And we have had two deaths in the past 14 days. Active cases, as I mentioned, we have seen that rise in numbers. Same with the sewer testing. Again, you can see the virus concentration has spiked up, consistent with what we're seeing in the daily cases.”

With the latest deaths, Pittsfield has now lost 80 residents to COVID-19.

The city council heard a petition from Ward 7 city councilor Anthony Maffuccio calling on state Attorney General Maura Healey to investigative the permitting process around a controversial Verizon cell tower.

“I think that because we were in a pandemic, that there was not proper public participation for the cell tower," said Maffuccio. "I think that something went wrong to place it within 100 feet of a neighborhood. And I think that we as a council should do some investigating and figure out, did the pandemic plays a role in this, and that's why people didn't have as much participation as they should have. Are we lacking that? Or did somebody take advantage of it and push the permits through and not have that public participation? I'm not pointing fingers. I’d rather have somebody look into it, and the only person that I could come up with is the attorney general. And I think the neighborhood deserves it.”

Neighbors of the cell tower at 877 South Street have led months of protest against the structure, ascribing medical maladies to its emissions.

Maffuccio’s fellow councilors fell in behind the petition, after making some amendments to its original language for accuracy.

“This goes back to 2017, that’s why I’m a little confused by the wording of a ‘global pandemic,’" said Ward 2 city councilor Kevin Morandi. "This started long before the pandemic. People weren't notified. They had no clue this was going on and until they showed up in 2019, I believe. So as far as I’m concerned, this definitely needs to be investigated. And so I will certainly support this going to the Attorney General.”

A lawsuit from cell tower abutters against Pittsfield and Verizon is ongoing.

“It was litigated in Superior Court. And the neighbors lost in the Superior Court and appealed it to the appeals court. Briefs have been filed, and argument will be heard in December. A decision should come probably sometime next time next spring," said city attorney Stephen Pagnotta. “It's unlikely that they will take any action on this while the case is pending, because the issue before the appeals court is in fact whether the abutter notifications followed Pittsfield’s zoning bylaws and state regulation, state law. And I think my assumption is that the AG’s office will wait until the appeals court weighs in before it does anything in this matter.”

City council president and at-large councilor Peter Marchetti read off the amended version of the petition after debate concluded:

“The petition would be, honorable members of the city council and colleagues submitted as a petition to the city council sent a letter to the attorney general for an investigation on the permitting process for the cell tower at 877 South Street.”

The measure was approved on a 9-1 vote with only Ward 3 councilor Nick Caccamo in opposition.

“I'm not inclined to vote to send a letter to the attorney general for a matter that's actually being litigated with the parties involved,” he explained.

The normally 11-strong body was one short with at-large councilor Yuki Cohen absent.

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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