City clerk appointment puts North Adams city council turmoil into spotlight
Tensions among North Adams, Massachusetts city councilors were on full display Tuesday night as the body debated the appointment of a new permanent city clerk.
Two months ago, 22-year-old Josh Vallieres came into city hall as assistant city clerk before stepping into the acting position in June. City Council President Lisa Hall Blackmer sat on the city clerk search committee, which received 23 applications for the job.
“After we were done interviewing, we had a discussion regarding who we wanted," she told the council. "And we unanimously voted to recommend the appointment of Josh Vallieres as the, promoting him from assistant city clerk to city clerk. He spent a lot of time and worked really hard for the last couple of months getting, trying to keep the office running and doing the work that needed to be done.”
Vallieres sits on the city’s school committee and unsuccessfully ran for mayor in 2021.
Two councilors voiced opposition to the appointment.
“I do think that the scope should be a little bit more in depth than it is," said Marie Harpin. "Last year, I brought up the issue of salaries being low in the city of North Adams, and it's a discussion that we have had continually here at the city council and is being reviewed.”
Harpin said she’s concerned the council was setting up Vallieres for failure with preliminary voting already underway for the next election.
“We do need an experienced leader in this position," said the councilor. "And I do believe that we should go and repost this again to increase the salary and hopefully get more applicants.”
“We did receive an update on the, I believe it was the June 28th meeting, and the update that we were given was that there was in fact 23 candidates that were going to be going through the interview process and Councilor Wilkinson did state that, of course, the process would be that this committee would bring forward at least two of the top candidates to the council. I'm wondering why that process didn't happen," said Jennifer Barbeau. “And also, Councilor Blackmer, on the June meeting, you stated that you are going to be walking away from this process to avoid a bias. And that does not appear to have happened either as you are initialed as asking the questions.”
“Several people that I knew had reached out to me about the position they were none of the applicants that came through," Blackmer responded. "So there was no reason to recuse myself.”
Wilkinson said the screening committee called an audible when it came time to pick two candidates to bring to the council.
“We couldn't come up with a rational answer to that because the rest of the candidates were all so weak," he said. "It was a matter of, we have to go with what's best, and what's best is way we handled it.”
He said Harpin’s concern about the coming election made her suggestion to restart the search process for a city clerk illogical.
“It makes no sense whatsoever," said Wilkinson. "And you've probably got a bug up your ass, pardon my language.”
After being reprimanded for his remark, Wilkinson said he was sick and tired of Harpin’s and Barbeau’s behavior on the council.
“Somebody sooner or later has got to say something because I’m going to say it: This council needs to work together and not have two members put roadblocks and every time we want to do something,” he said.
“I don't feel as though I was rude. I did say how much I do appreciate Mr. Vallieres," Harpin responded. "But I am entitled to speak for the people that I represent. And if it's different than, well, however, how other people feel, that's what I'm here for.”
“I'll be one of the two who asked a lot of questions. I'll be one of the two who has a lot of questions in this administration. That's what I was elected here to do, to speak for the people," said Barbeau. “When I'm sitting here speaking tonight, I'm speaking to the 23 people who applied for this job, and if the standard of what was required is going to be reduced, then each one of them gets to reapply using the new standards.”
Piggybacking on Wilkinson, Council Vice President Peter Oleskiewicz ascribed the departure of the city’s recent clerks to Harpin and Barbeau.
“We know why we are on our fourth city clerk this time. I mean, this, this is unprecedented," he said. "In two terms, we're going to our fourth city clerk because of the toxicity that lies on this council.”
He swore by Vallieres’ dedication to the job and competence.
“When we differ in our ideas, some people will hold it as a personal attack, which is childish," said Oleskiewicz. "We are grown adults here sitting here at these tables trying to operate the business of the city.”
In a 6-2 vote, Vallieres was appointed city clerk with Barbeau and Harpin in opposition.
After the meeting, Oleskiewicz told WAMC that he believes the two councilors’ behavior drove both Cathleen King and Marcus Lyon from the clerk’s office.
“That is my, that is my belief," he said. "And I'm going to stand by it. Believe me, I don't mince words. I'm not shy. If I lose votes over it, you know that? That's what happens. The people ultimately have the final say, but as being in my second term as city council and currently council vice president, it's seen every day. It's tough.”