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Bernard explains why he’s pursuing ethics investigation against Barrett after “beyond the pale” interaction

 North Adams Mayor Tom Bernard speaks with WAMC inside his city hall office.
Josh Landes
North Adams Mayor Tom Bernard speaks with WAMC.

Monday night, North Adams, Massachusetts Mayor Tom Bernard announced he has requested an ethics investigation from the state House Speaker against State Representative John Barrett of the 1st Berkshire District.

Barrett was North Adams’ mayor from 1984 until 2009, and was elected to the Massachusetts House in 2017. His influence over North Adams continues. Mayor-elect and former city treasurer Jennifer Macksey – who thanked Barrett for “letting me do this my way” at her victory party – was a close confidante in his administration.

Bernard, who did not seek a third term, says a dispute over his administration’s handling of the redevelopment of the historic Mohawk Theater last week led to Barrett making allegedly threatening comments about Bernard’s livelihood and family. Bernard is actively seeking the open position for interim town manager in neighboring Williamstown.

Barrett did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story from WAMC.

WAMC also sought comment from House Speaker Ron Mariano. The state inspector general, also alerted to the interaction by Bernard, declined to comment on this story.

UPDATE: Mariano's office offered the following statement to WAMC through a spokesperson after this story aired on November 16th, 2021: “The Speaker has no firsthand knowledge of this private conversation. Per House rules, the Ethics Committee is able to investigate complaints filed by a Member, officer or employee.”

Bernard spoke with WAMC about the November 9th phone call at the heart of the matter, and why he’s decided to go public with his concerns about Barrett’s conduct.

BERNARD: The current state representative for the 1st Berkshire District called me prior to the city council meeting to inquire about my plans with the paper that I had submitted to present to the community and update on the disposition of the Mohawk Theater. The conversation reached a point where the state representative indicated his intention to report the disposition to the inspector general to look into. In my first response to him on Wednesday, November 10th, I took care of that and forwarded the communication with the state representative to the inspector general, should they care to look into this matter. Following that, following the indication that the state representative intended to address this matter with the inspector general, he indicated that my pursuing the course of action I was on regarding the disposition of the Mohawk Theater would be “bad.” And I will leave it to others to define the word bad, but bad for my job, my career and my family. And I will tell you what, Josh, I don't know or care what was intended by that comment, but invoking a person's family is out of line. And if it hadn't been for that, I would have chalked it up once again, as so many others have done, to the price of showbiz and public life in North Adams and the Northern Berkshires, to the state representative being the state representative. But that's how problems persist. That's how problems persist in North Adams, that's how problems persist at the national level. There's always, always a good reason, Josh, not to call out concerning behavior. I'm doing this in the midst of a very public interview process. That's how important this is to me.

WAMC: Your email does feature lots of examples of Mr. Barrett's tenor in other situations. What was your intent framing your communications with the state rep with those citations to various other media references to that sort of thing?

Well, honestly, because with a conversation like this, a telephone conversation that gets contentious and heated, the immediate response will be, someone misheard, someone misunderstood, someone’s blowing something out of proportion. So sharing those examples, including the one in the current state representative from the 1st Berkshire District's own words from this July, was intended to say, no, I didn't misunderstand. No, I didn't overreact to [Barrett] bringing my family into his interpersonal issues with me.

By choosing to publicize this exchange and drawing attention to Mr. Barrett's behavior, what are you hoping comes out of this situation?

Well, I will tell you that after the initial call, I did immediately call the representative back. There was no pickup. I texted and asked for a callback to clarify my understanding of something that had been said. And once that didn't happen, I said, disregard, I'm all set. And I have pursued this. It is up for others to determine what response is appropriate. All I can say- And I was very careful in my word choice, Josh. You know that I try to be very deliberate at all times in how I how I present and express myself. And I spent a lot of time in reflection making sure that while I'm clearly angry, and I am very angry at a line that I felt was crossed, that I am clear-eyed and clear-headed about my motive. And my motive is, there needs to be accountability. And what that accountability looks like is for others to determine. I have made my comment public, I have said my piece, I have presented it to the legislature with the request that it follow the appropriate channels to determine if there is anything in this conversation as I represented it that rises to needing a consideration around ethics. But again, no one in a position of responsibility, regardless of interpersonal relationships, regardless of differences of opinion about a about a project- I mean, we're talking about selling a building, and certain things are just out of line.

I've heard around town that you've had a difficult relationship with Mr. Barrett since you first became mayor. Would you say this interaction characterizes your relationship to date?

I would say that this reached an extreme, and whatever pattern that I or others have experienced is beside the point. This particular interaction was beyond the pale.

Here are the emails Bernard sent out about Barrett's conduct:

November 10th, 2021 #1

Good morning, Representative Barrett – Thank you for your call yesterday afternoon sharing your concerns regarding the agenda item on last night’s North Adams City Council meeting relative to an update on the disposition of the Mohawk Theater in the City of North Adams, in your legislative district. I appreciate your interest regarding the property, and your stated intention to challenge the city’s proposed approach to the Office of the Inspector General, copied here.

I also understand that in our conversation you indicated that presenting this update and strategy to the Council and the community would be “bad” for my livelihood, professional standing, and family, which I reasonably infer and construe as a clear, if nonspecific, threat on your part toward me.

I look forward to exploring these issues with you as well as with the parties copied here. To those parties, my contact information is below, and my City of North Adams cell phone number is 413-652-5165.

Finally, Commissioner Santiago, would you please share this communication with the Chair of the Board of Higher Education for his attention as Representative Barrett currently serves as a Trustee of Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA) in the City of North Adams.

Thank you

Mayor Tom Bernard

November 10th, 2021 #2

Good afternoon, [House Speaker Ron Mariano],

Thank you for the opportunity to speak by phone earlier today. As a follow up to our conversation I formally and respectfully request that pursuant to House Rule(s) 16 and 16A. (1.) […members, officers, and employees should exercise prudence in any and all such endeavors and make every reasonable effort to avoid, transactions, activities, or obligations, which are in substantial conflict with or will substantially impair their independence of judgment], and to other House Rules as applicable, this matter be referred to the House Committee on Ethics for further examination.

Chair Walsh and Vice Chair Robertson are copied on this communication for their information.

Thank you.

Mayor Tom Bernard

November 15th, 2021

Good afternoon, Representative Barrett,

Further to the conversation of November 9, 2021, referenced in this email thread, and as noted in my initial message of November 10, 2021 (the earliest in this thread), I perceived your statement that my presenting an update and strategy regarding the disposition of the Mohawk Theater to the North Adams City Council on Tuesday, November 9, 2021, would be “bad” for my livelihood, professional standing, and family as an unmistakable, if nonspecific, threat on your part toward me.

For the benefit of the parties copied here I offer the following examples to support this perception and my believe that I did not misunderstand, nor am I overreacting to, your statements on the telephone during the aforementioned November 9, 2021, telephonic contretemps call between us.

The first example comes from a 2008 Boston Phoenix article that references an interaction between you and a member of then Governor Romney’s staff (https://thephoenix.com/boston/news/55461-mitts-pit-bull/):

Fehrnstrom’s reputation as a tough guy goes back to his years as a reporter for the Boston Herald, where he covered cops and then the Massachusetts State House. (“He was incredibly hard-nosed,” says Herald editor Kevin Convey. “My father used to talk about ‘pig-headed Swedes.’ Eric was a pig-headed Swede in the best sense of the term.”) But his reputation as a tough flack was cemented early in Romney’s term as governor, when he nearly brawled with North Adams mayor John Barrett after an appearance on New England Cable News.

The exact details of the incident remain murky. According to Barrett, Fehrnstrom accused him of sexism after Barrett suggested that Romney meet with the state’s mayors instead of using Lieutenant Governor Kerry Healey as his surrogate. Barrett acknowledges calling Fehrnstrom a “wuss,” but claims Fehrnstrom called him a “classless piece of shit” first. He also says he shoved Fehrnstrom, but only after Fehrnstrom shoved him; Fehrnstrom has said he never touched Barrett. Whatever actually happened, things might have gotten even uglier if a station producer hadn’t helped break things up.

The second example comes from a Berkshire Eagle article published in July of this year regarding a public event held at the Greylock Glen in Adams, Massachusetts. This selection includes a statement attributed to you, describing in your own words, the tenor of your interactions with other public officials (https://www.berkshireeagle.com/news/local/long-time-coming-gov-baker-says-greylock-glen-project-found-its-right-time/article_a1be6480-e4f7-11eb-972e-c37592370b72.html):

One of the project’s key backers, state Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams, was teased by Baker for having pushed relentlessly for funding to be released. “He basically bit my head off over Greylock Glen,” Baker said, remembering one call.

When it was his turn to stand before a podium atop the grassing mowing, Barrett turned around and glanced at Baker. “Governor, if I was on the other end of that phone call, I would have hung up on me.”

Beyond acknowledging these examples to contextualize my impression of your side of the aforementioned July 9, 2021, telephone conversation between us, I leave it to others to consider and determine what merit this matter may or may not have.

I continue to look forward to exploring these issues with you as well as with the parties copied here. To those parties, my contact information is below, and my City of North Adams cell phone number is 413-652-5165.

Mayor Tom Bernard

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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