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Seeking fourth term on city council, Persip discusses Pittsfield mayoral race, police, West Side, more

 Earl Persip
Josh Landes
Earl Persip.

At-large Pittsfield, Massachusetts city councilor Earl Persip is running for a fourth two-year term this year. In the 2021 election, he was the third-highest vote getter among the 11-member city council. It’s a momentous year for Pittsfield as Mayor Linda Tyer prepares to step down after eight years. Two of Persip’s colleagues past and present are running to replace her: City Council President Peter Marchetti and former Ward 6 city councilor John Krol. WAMC sat down with Persip to hear who he’s endorsing and his pitch for another term.

PERSIP: For me, the main point is leadership on the council. I think that now, being on my fourth term, I bring a kind of common-sense leadership style to the council, which I think it needs at times.

WAMC: When you look back over your time so far, what do you feel like stands out as examples of that leadership style?

I mean, there's a lot of issues that have come up. I think what I come up with, what I think of most, is just in all the conversations bringing a different perspective than most people bring. I grew up on the West Side, I worked in a nonprofit for 24 years with children, now I work in Lenox in a nonprofit in kind of a different role. So, I think my perspective is my number one positive trait that I think I bring to the city council.

With that in mind, you're one of the few people of color in elected office in Berkshire County. You've been in this leadership role through an incredibly tumultuous series of conversations in America about that concept of perspective- When you look back over your time and the fact that you have this relatively unique vantage point, what stands out to you from the last few years?

What stands out most is there's not enough people of color representing the community. I am not the only voice or should be the only voice of color. I bring a perspective that I have, and the lifestyle that I grew up in, and how I experienced the world. I would love to see more people of color run, I think it's important that- You know, I'm white passing. So, my experience in the world is a lot different than most. So, what I hope to bring is people that talk to me’s experiences for now. But I would love to see more people of color run for office. I think it's important. I think we need it to move forward in Pittsfield.

When you look at the issues facing Pittsfield in 2023, what do you feel like stand out the most? What are the big subjects in this election?

I think what stands out most- Roads I think are an issue. Bridges I think are an issue. Downtown Pittsfield I think is an issue. There's a lot of, like- I don't know if there's a huge issue that I would say. I would say there's a lot of medium issues to smaller issues. But those are the issues people care about. Those are what people talk about. We can talk about the budget process, how really no one shows up to have a discussion there, but if we're talking about roads or bike paths or North Street just in general, more people care or seem to notice and talk to us and write us emails or phone calls or come to speak at open mic.

Moving past the headlines, what do you think is maybe not discussed enough, or a topic that you think is an important issue to Pittsfield that doesn't get the same amount of oxygen as some of those larger things?

I think how we spend our budget should be talked about a little more, and those smaller things like the services that we actually bring to the residents that maybe everyone doesn't use, but other people do use and need. So, I don't know if I can pinpoint one issue that I don't think gets talked about enough. I would love to address- Trash, in my opinion, should be an issue we should address just to move forward in 2023. The way we do trash is archaic, in my opinion. Just littering the world with as much trash as we want. It's kind of backwards thinking in 2023. But I think downtown Pittsfield is a positive point that I think we need to continue to move forward with moving downtown, because I think downtown really generates throughout the whole city, if we have a positive, vibrant downtown. I think that's important.

This year sees two of your colleagues, present and past, competing as the main candidates for mayor, the current city council President Peter Marchetti and former Ward 6 Councilor John Krol. Are you endorsing in the campaign? And what are your thoughts on that conversation?

So, my first thought is, political wise, they're probably similar. When I endorse somebody for mayor, I like to look outside of those things, the political world. I think it's important to judge people on their career and what they've done in their career, what they've done in the community, volunteer work. I'm a person that's volunteered a lot of my time in the community, so I hold that person who is going to lead us forward in the next four years- I want them to be able to say I did this, I did that, besides what’s in the world of politics. So, with that thought process in mind, I will be endorsing Peter Marchetti. I think he's the right person for the job. He's really- You know, if you look beyond the political things he does, I mean, the Fourth of July parade, the bowling youth groups, and he’s just had a long-standing career in the banking industry, which I think is important when we talk about finances throughout the city.

You mentioned earlier what it means to invest in a vibrant downtown Pittsfield- Talk to me, from your perspective, what is the avenue to bring that vibrancy to North Street?

I think more storefronts, getting some of the dead zones and downtown and developed for storefronts. It drives me crazy that the courthouse is on North Street, that's really not a place for a courthouse. It's not really inviting that section of downtown. If you look at the section we're at currently, that's what a downtown should look like. And then you move down a little bit more, it's more industrial feeling than anything. I think the courthouse is the thing I see. Then there's an empty building across the street. Hopefully, it's getting developed very soon, there's been stickers on the window saying it's going to get developed. But hopefully that moves forward. So, things like that. And then that ties in the hotel and the new YMCA building with this section of North Street, which I think is a great way to go forward.

With Marchetti running for mayor, it obviously creates a power vacuum in the council. You have Pete White currently the VP of the body, you're also a top vote getter and an at-large councilor. Any thoughts on how that might shake out should you successfully be reelected this fall?

I haven't thought much about it. I do feel like I will- I want to step up in a leadership role in the council. I think if Councilor White and I are both reelected, I think he knows the rules a little better than me. So, I would support him for council president and I would probably run for vice president at that time. But we have an election to run first. So, that comes first.

Now you alluded to earlier, and I think accurately, that often, what in other communities might constitute the political conversation about a race is a little different in Pittsfield. It's a very tight political world, it's very personal. From that vantage point, what do you have to do to get out there and communicate with folks? How do you access the often sort of separate parts of the Pittsfield community to communicate your message?

So, I use myself an example. When I ran in- I think it was 2017 originally, I get my dates mixed up, I didn't know anybody. I knew Peter White from, we went to high school together. But I didn't know anybody else. I just got out there, introduced myself, talked to people, went door to door a lot that election when it was possible before COVID. I think you just have to get out there, introduce yourself. I think no matter where you fall, if you talk to – and I say this with utmost respect – if you talk to all 11 counselors, and you're thinking about running, I think everyone would actually help you. We may disagree on issues and such, but I think everyone there I think is there for the betterment of Pittsfield. I would love to see more people run. I would love to go- I would love to be in an election slate where if I'm not elected, I'm comfortable who is elected, not struggling to find people to run in ward races or at-large races or even school committee. I think a good race is has a lot of people in it. So, if anybody wants any help, I'm always willing to help. And I think others are too.

Now when it comes to the council and its procedures, you often are very straightforward when you're displeased with how a conversation is going. I think often there's this sort of sense that, well, everyone gets their shot, and we sort of rotate around until it's done. But there are times when you sort of breakthrough that and sort of directly express frustration at times. Can you talk to me a little bit about what it's like to be on the body and be in the front row, or on stage, actually, for some of these conversations that can famously get somewhat convoluted in the Pittsfield city council?

Me personally, I'm a straightforward person. That's how I work. So, some people at work, that might drive them crazy, on the council, it might drive them crazy. My wife would definitely tell you I drive her crazy with my straightforwardness at times. But I think it's important to be straightforward and upfront so people aren't guessing where I'm coming from. I think everyone can kind of understand what my thought process is, and some of the struggles are when you have to wait your turn to come speak when you hear someone saying something that probably shouldn't be said in a microphone out loud, and the thought process is so archaic and 1940s thinking- It can be frustrating at times, and I'm the person, I'm going to speak my mind and I'm going to tell you when you're wrong. And if you want to tell me when you think I'm wrong, that's fine too. It's just, in the end of the day, it's how do we move Pittsfield forward in a positive direction, not in a negative direction.

Something we've heard this year from some community activists is a sense of frustration about a lack of momentum when it comes to police oversight following last year's tragic killing of Miguel Estrella at the hands of the Pittsfield Police Department. We've heard family members and representatives of the community talk about the sense that the council iha not acted enough on that subject. Can you speak to that? What are your thoughts as a council member?

I think it's- People need to really understand what the role of the council is and what we can do and what we can't do. I think we have done some things. We brought more clinicians on with the police department. We would love to bring more. We would- I think the majority of the council would support more. It's finding them is the true issue and we knew that up front. The Brien Center was having trouble finding clinicians, we have trouble finding clinicians. I think we're fully staffed at this point now. The next step if we are fully staffed is to hopefully get the administration to move forward with adding more, and government moves at a snail's pace. And that's hard to get used to. I don't know if I have the answer to fix that. Governments around the United States – you know, federal government down to cities and towns – run at a snail's pace, I think we have moved forward in that. It's not a light switch on and off. I would like to see more things happen. But there's a process, and unfortunately, it's not just defunding police and moving those monies elsewhere. It's, I think it's a slow progression of making small changes at a time and not- And it's hard to say that because it's making smaller changes more frequently, I would say, to make those adjustments in to kind of get where we're at. I don't think any town or city has the answer for this issue of- And I don't, until someone has the magic wand, I think we're all trying to guess what is the best scenario, because if you go into that room, we'll use body cameras as an example. Half of the room is supportive of body cameras, half of the room says they're not going to fix or do what we think they're going to do. So where do you go from there? I mean, I thought it was a positive that we added the body cameras. Others think, hey, that's not the solution. But I think it's a right step towards working to a solution. So that's how I see it.

On the topic of policing, obviously, finding a successor to Michael Wynn after his long tenure in the department is going to be a big story this year and maybe into next year. From your perspective, what needs to go into that search for a new police chief here in Pittsfield?

I think the first step- Saying this in a live mic sometimes turns people the wrong way. I think civil service in that role, how we hire, might be- Really needs to be looked at. I think that's the number one thing we should be looking at, is if civil service plays into that role. Besides that, I've never been part of the police chief hire or have thought about it yet, because it's an administration role. They do that. It's going back to understanding what the role the council as legislative body is. I think we should take our time. I don't think we should rush into hiring somebody that doesn't fit Pittsfield and doesn't understand our community, because I think that's very important. And I when I say community, I mean, all of the community, not just certain sections of the community.

You know, lastly, I wanted to ask you sort of a macro question about Pittsfield. You're from the West Side, you grew up there. It's a community that historically has been disadvantaged for any number of reasons, from redlining to lack of infrastructure investment to, just recently, the city sort of finally addressing some pedestrian safety issues on West Street following the death of a pedestrian. When you look at that community, where have you seen that community come over the decades? And when do you think the West Side will sort of finally get its due with some of these larger projects, like when it comes to those infrastructure improvements on West Street as an example?

I think the biggest thing I've seen change is the voices out of the West Side community. They're a lot more vocal, I feel like, towards city government. Now, should- I think we can do better listening to what that community wants, and not what we think that community wants. So, it's really going back to the community and saying, all right, what do you need? And what do you actually want? And not assuming we know what that community needs are, assuming we know what that community wants. So, I think it's important to just, I think we've been doing okay for infrastructure. You pointed out the sidewalk, what's going on now, which are awesome. But I think there's a lot more. I think there's a lot of abandoned buildings and buildings that need to be demoed that we really should take care of, because if they were in other certain neighborhoods, they'd probably be taken care of faster. So, blight would be a great thing. I think people appreciate houses around them being up kept, and if they're empty, getting them demolished.

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.