© 2024
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Appointment of Pittsfield’s first Chief Diversity Officer prompts resistance from two new city councilors

A stone building with a colonnade.
Josh Landes

A routine appointment set off an emotional debate over the need for a municipal Chief Diversity Officer at Tuesday night’s Pittsfield, Massachusetts city council meeting.

Michael Obasohan made history in 2021 by becoming the first Black North Adams city councilor after his victory in the fall election.

Following the creation of the position in last year’s municipal operating budget in Pittsfield, he was a pro forma vote away from becoming the first CDO in the city’s history when his official appointment came before the 11-member body.

“I want to announce to the council [that] I will not be supporting this nomination, I will be voting against it. I want to give you my fair and unbiased explanation. I am not in favor of filling this position, because this is a position that's going to do absolutely nothing for the city of Pittsfield, but soak money from much-needed public projects and raise our taxes. It will do this by expanding and establishing a new bureaucracy in the city of Pittsfield," said Ward 2 City Councilor Charles Kronick. “I want to say that the HR department is the proper area for dealing with issues that they are describing. Now, we're talking about diversity, equity, inclusion, as the reason for this position. There is actually a much simpler way to say this: fair hiring practice. Fair hiring practice is mandated by federal labor law, if we have a problem with that, that's a big problem.”

At-large City Councilor Karen Kalinowsky agreed, and couched her opposition by addressing the candidate and mispronouncing his name.

“Nothing against Mr. [Obasohan] – did I say that right? This is nothing against you," said Kalinowsky. "I also researched this, and I also believe it's something that our HR department should be doing.”

Both Kronick and Kalinowsky are new to the council after winning seats in November.

“I've heard some things in this, these chambers before that have shocked me. This is probably number one," said At-large City Councilor Earl Persip, the sole Black member of the body. “To say we don't need this position from a lens of a white male- I kind of understand a little bit. But as a person of color who's experienced this city in a different way, and a person who has had highs and lows in the city, some of it because of my race and my name, to say we don't need something like this- Yeah, from your view, you might not think we need something like this, how you've experienced the city. There's many people of color who've experienced it differently, who have had troubles finding a place to find a job within the city or kind of policies within the city that don't represent them. And there's plenty of people out there, that this job, and this position will help put them in positions to be a voice in this city what they didn't have before.”

He noted that the position had already been approved and funded, and turned the taxpayer narrative back on Kronick and Kalinowsky.

“What about the people that pay the taxes that don't have a voice, who feel excluded, but they still pay their taxes?" asked Persip. "All the things we fund in this budget- This is long overdue. It shocks me that this is not going to be an 11-0 vote. Shocks me. I think you really need to look hard and do some deeper research and actually understand what this position does.”

In an effort to defend his position, Kronick offered a rebuttal of sorts.

“Let’s not be sanctimonious," he said. "OK, I am- You call me, you can call me a white male, I'm not going to take the bait. I will debate it outside this chamber. But you want to, how you like to characterize me, I have lots of, lots of identities I can pull out of my, my sock. But the point is this: This department that we're voting on, I say we should not fill this position, we should let it sit on the line and debate in the future budget. It will grow. You're going to have two people, and then you'll have your third, you'll have your intern coordinators. You'll have offices, it’ll become big- Then what's going to happen is that we are going to get rid of it, like all these boards will be gotten rid of down the road because they are nothing but the outcropping of a political movement. They don't serve, they do not replace what we already have, they don't replace our laws. We have a diverse workforce. Is it 50-50? No, but it's proportionate.”

While Council President Peter Marchetti attempted to steer the debate back to the issue of the appointment and not the office itself, city councilor Anthony Maffuccio of Ward 7 couldn’t contain his feelings on the matter.

“I just want to say I'm kind of embarrassed and appalled that we're even having a discussion like this over an appointment for an officer has already been designed, established by the last city council-“ began Maffuccio.

“We're talking about the appointment, not the position,” Marchetti interjected.

“I'm just saying that I’m appalled that we’re even having this conversation,” said Maffuccio.

“So noted,” said the council president.

Meanwhile, Ward 1’s Kenny Warren appeared to be dazed by the situation, and told Obasohan as much from the dais.

“I'm really not sure how I'm going to handle it, although I'm not sure I'm going to have a lot of time to think about this," said Warren. "Frankly, it's one of the toughest political, public official decisions I've made in a long time. I feel that you are fully qualified, and you would bring an energetic outlook to this position. However, I'm sort of in a conundrum. It's my professional opinion, that your position was not properly created pursuant to our ordinances.”

In the final vote, only Kronick and Kalinowsky voted against Obasohan’s appointment, while Warren chose to abstain. Despite saying he was unsure of how to vote, a comment from Marchetti suggested the Ward 1 representative had done some preparation for his abstention prior to the meeting.

“He has verified that with the city solicitor,” said Marchetti.

After the vote was confirmed, Obasohan received a standing ovation, and Mayor Linda Tyer officially introduced him as the city’s first Chief Diversity Officer.

“Michael, I want you to know that we welcome you and we are excited to have you join our leadership team,” said Tyer.

“Thank you so much,” responded Obasohan as the chambers erupted into applause.

The position is budgeted for an annual salary of around $51,000, with the full budget for the new Office of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion coming in around $100,000.

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.
Related Content