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Moon looks back on the challenges, accomplishments of four years on Pittsfield city council

Pittsfield, MA city councilor Helen Moon.
City of Pittsfield, Massachusetts
Helen Moon.

Two-term Pittsfield, Massachusetts city councilor Helen Moon is looking back as her tenure draws to a close.

Moon’s first run for office was a direct result of the 2016 election and Donald Trump’s ascension to the presidency. Her successful bid for Pittsfield’s Ward 1 city council seat in 2017 made her the first Asian American to sit on the body, and she believes she’s the first immigrant to hold the position as well.

“There are very real and large implications of local governance on our communities’ lives that can profoundly impact their quality of life," Moon told WAMC. "And I think that we should be looking at them with a more discerning eye and with a values driven kind of perspective.”

At the core of Moon’s own value system is a commitment to equity.

“Everybody, regardless of your racial background, your gender identities, your sexual orientation, regardless of whether you came from a wealthy household or a poor household, whether you're an immigrant or have generations of your family living in the United States, I believe that everybody should have an equal access to pursuing their lives with safety and with justice and with dignity,” Moon explained.

Over two two-year terms, she points to her successful advocacy for the city to adopt an alternate side parking plan as an example of the intersection between local governance and equity resulting in material benefits for Pittsfielders.

“There was a point a couple years ago when the city of Pittsfield had a no parking ordinance for snow emergencies," said Moon. "And that posed a big problem for people who live downtown, in the Morningside and the West Side areas where it's heavily populated with renters and multifamily homes. And so when those homes were first built, with one driveway, it made sense that people couldn't park on the street during snow emergencies. But as they became populated with more than one household where they have more than one car, it's difficult to not park on the street – where else are they supposed to park – and we were essentially penalizing people for parking on a street and not giving them an alternative to where they could park. And so I'm proud of the way that I worked with [Public Utilities] Commissioner [Ricardo] Morales and the city council in getting that passed and providing a solution to residents in our lower income and heavily renting population areas.”

Another issue Moon found herself drawn to was police accountability and oversight.

“We should be very good stewards of the money that the city of Pittsfield and our residents put into our responsibility," she told WAMC. "That's what the council does. We are the purse strings for the city of Pittsfield, and the budgeting process is our biggest responsibility as a legislative body. We scrutinize public works and utilities and the school department, we scrutinize every single dollar that they spend. And yet when it comes to the police, and how the police are spending their money, conversation just gets shut down.”

Moon worries that after the murder of George Floyd in 2020 and a summer of protest and debate about the role of policing in American society, the topic has again faded from public discourse.

“It seems like when we are not confronted with a murder in front of our eyes on a video by a police officer to a Black man, we are less likely to have conversations around this," she said. "But a year and a half ago, we were inundated with these images, and we were having very loud conversations on it. And I don't believe that those conversations should stop just because we're not seeing those videos anymore. Those problems still exist. And they even exist in the city of Pittsfield. I think we're being naïve to think that just because we're a small community, that we don't have the problems that are facing these national-level news outlets. We have those issues, and at the very least, we can prevent those issues from happening. But we can't do anything about it if we're not even willing to open up discussions about it.”

Moon, a nurse, was the legislative face of a community effort to reallocate police funding in Pittsfield’s budget hearings for fiscal year 2021 and 2022, to limited effect. She was often the lone city councilor pushing Chief Michael Wynn to explain the sometimes opaque finances of his department.

“I would never suspect as a nurse to not be held accountable for my negligence as I was providing patient care," Moon told WAMC. "If I was negligent in how I provided patient care, then I should expect to be held accountable to that. And at certain levels, I would lose my license because of it. But we can't even go there with the police. And that makes no sense to me. Being held accountable is not punishment. Being held accountable is not a bad thing. It actually proves to be better for society, it proves to be better for our community if we're held accountable to our actions, and as a community if we expect more from law enforcement. I was criticized a lot for what people said I was doing as defunding the police. And yet, when I would have conversations with various members of the community, very pro-police members of the community, and I would ask them, do you think it's appropriate for the police to be responding to mental health crises? They would say no, they're not trained for it.”

From a widely publicized falling out with District Attorney Andrea Harrington first reported by WAMC to biweekly battles on any number of issues in city council chambers with her fellow elected officials, the 38-year-old frequently found herself at the center of public debate during her tenure. She says it wasn’t what she expected when she first ran for office.

“It was hard," Moon told WAMC. "I think it's really easy to just go along to get along. I think it's really easy to not make any waves. And I can't say that I don't understand, because I do. And I can't say that I wouldn’t- I don't know if I wouldn't do the same thing. But I can't say, like, I completely understand why it's so easy not to stand up for things. Because it is not easy to be at the other end of, on the opposing views of very powerful people. It's not easy, and I don't want to be in this place necessarily. But I also think that when, and this goes back to the beginning of our conversation, when I think that I tried to stand up for my values and make decisions based on my values. It goes back to that.”

While she’s stepping down from life as an elected official, Moon is already involved in a full slate of community groups and political organizations, from the Berkshire Chapter of the NAACP to the Berkshire Democratic Brigades to the Pittsfield Ward 1 City Committee and beyond. Her goals range from seeing more women elected to public office to advocating for Medicare For All.

“One of the things I'm most proud of as I'm leaving office is the number of people that have reached out to me via email via telephone via Facebook messages," said Moon. "People who I would say are completely against, oh, most of my votes. But they still have told me, even though I don't agree with your votes, I agree that, I respect the positions that you've taken, I respected your convictions. And I think that that is extremely valuable. I had one councilor tell me recently that they didn't agree with all of my positions, but that I encourage them to think about issues in a different way. That's valuable. I feel like, what more can you ask for as a city councilor? If not- You know, like, you're never going to get every issue passed the way that you think that they should be passed. But if you can get people who are in a position of authority to think in a way that is different than their own previous experiences, then I think that that adds a lot of value to our community and can help direct our community into a more inclusive, more welcoming community.”

Along with Moon of Ward 1, Kevin Morandi of Ward 2, Nicholas Caccamo of Ward 3, Christopher Connell of Ward 4, and at-large city councilor Yuki Cohen will be stepping down from the 11-member body at the end of term. Replacing them, respectively, are Kenneth Warren, Charles Kronick, Kevin Sherman, James Conant, and Karen Kalinowsky. They’ll be sworn in at Berkshire Community College January 3rd.

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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