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A look back at 2023 in Berkshire County

A rainbow arcs over Lanesborough, Massachusetts, in October 2023.
Josh Landes
A rainbow arcs over Lanesborough, Massachusetts, in October 2023.

With 2024 just hours away, it’s time to look back and take stock on the past year in Berkshire County. WAMC has this annual review.

In March, North Adams Mayor Jennifer Macksey cryptically announced that Police Chief Jason Wood had been placed on leave pending an internal investigation.

“Josh, the only thing I can tell you right now is that the chief is on paid leave, pending investigation," the mayor told WAMC. "My only comment.”

Citing an unspecified personnel issue, Macksey said his contract would not be renewed in June after a loss of faith in his leadership. A Freedom of Information Act request by WAMC revealed evidence that Wood had been involved in a messy extramarital affair that bled into his professional life. After he sued the city for wrongful termination, North Adams settled with Wood out of court to the tune of almost $96,000 in October.

“There isn't much we can say other than the fact that we're happy that the case is resolved. And it's, I think, in everybody's best interest to have the case resolved in a way that it did, and we're very happy with the resolution," said Timothy Burke of Needham, who represented Wood. “You know, it's kind of one of those situations where it's part of the resolution is that the parties have very little opportunity to express an opinion on the case. I think the settlement speaks for itself.”

Macksey appointed Sergeant Mark Bailey to the role of interim chief as the city prepares to name Wood’s permanent replacement.

In July, WAMC broke the news that North Adams Fire Chief Brent Lefebvre had sent a woman to the emergency room with multiple injuries including a brain bleed after hitting her with a city vehicle. Until WAMC’s reporting, Lefebvre remained on duty — until Macksey placed on him paid leave while the incident was investigated.

“I really believe from the information that I've been told that it was a terrible accident, and there was no malice, there was no speed involved," said Macksey. "It was just an awful thing, and we hope for the best for the victim and we wait for the outcome of the investigation.”

Lefebvre was found responsible for the accident and issued a citation before returning to full duty days later.

North Adams also made headlines when catastrophic flooding in July overwhelmed the city’s decrepit infrastructure, blowing out culverts and creating sinkholes on major thoroughfares. Facing millions of dollars in damages, Macksey pleaded with Governor Maura Healey for state aid when she visited North Adams that month.

“Governor, we just need help," she said. "We need help from the state and the federal level, not only to rebuild what we see today, but also to work on long term fixes throughout our community. And it's something that we've talked about. As all of you know, North Adams has an infrastructure crisis we've talked about for a long time. And we need resources put behind us to help us with that.”

While Healey issued flood relief funding to Western Massachusetts farmers, North Adams has yet to receive any aid to address the destruction left by the storms.

While Macksey overwhelmingly won re-election to her second two-year term heading the Berkshires’ second largest community, the county seat of Pittsfield saw a hard-fought mayoral race end in a November victory for long-serving city council President Peter Marchetti. He spoke to WAMC on election night:

“I actually think it boiled down to who had the leadership that could do the job, who had the experience, and who had the dedication to the city, and I think that's what it came down to,” said Marchetti.

He bested former city councilor John Krol with 5,800 votes to Krol’s 3,500 in a race that saw only 31% of registered voters – a historic low – turnout. Marchetti laid out his priorities for 2024:

“Police chief search, a mental health and substance use disorder task force, and a complete relook at our roads and sidewalks to update our plans so that we have a more proactive plan,” he told WAMC.

Over the summer, Pittsfield Chief Michael Wynn stepped down after 15 years heading the city’s police department.

A campaign scandal will hang over Marchetti as he prepares for his January 2nd inauguration at city hall. In the waning days of the race, news broke that the candidate was named in a federal lawsuit alongside other executives at Pittsfield Cooperative Bank alleging that Marchetti had been involved in sexual discrimination, harassment, and creating a hostile work environment. Marchetti denied the claims in a November debate with Krol:

“I dispute many of those allegations, and I would like to share a part of the response from my employer," said the mayor-elect. "‘The investigator concluded that Mr. Marchetti did not violate the bank's anti-harassment and discrimination policy, nor did he violate any laws, including the sexual harassment laws. She also determined that the bank and its officers did not engage in any wrongdoing.’ Personally, I strongly support that harassment of any kind has no place in the workforce, none whatsoever. That is why I supported the creation of the [Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion] Office at city hall. It is important to have protections for women and all marginalized people. As a gay man myself, I understand the importance of fair, respectful, and harassment free culture. I have and will continue to support a safe and non-hostile work environment, a culture that is accepting of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, age, and disability. I will stand up for fairness of women and anti-harassment and discrimination policies in the workplace.”

In Lee and other communities along the Housatonic River south of Pittsfield, public debate continued to rage over the controversial plan to clean up the long-polluted water way. The EPA-brokered deal will see General Electric spend at least 15 years and hundreds of millions of dollars on removing toxic chemicals from the river — and create a landfill in Lee, much to the distress of the site’s neighbors like Raymond Turner.

“Who wants any toxic dump in your backyard? Makes no sense at all," he told WAMC. "I mean, you worry about what it's going to do to you. Am I going to get cancer from it? What kind of air is it going to be when I breathe? I mean, I'm outdoors a lot at this place. I go walking every day on this road. It's sad. Who would want anything like that in the area?”

The corporate titan held a public meeting in late November where it proposed relying on trucking to remove more contaminated materials from the Berkshires. The plan was poorly received, with locals describing it as insulting and vocalizing long-held resentments against GE.

“Approximately 50 years ago, GE laid off my dad, along with tens of thousands of other people and put this county in a depression, and the people of Berkshire County lifted themselves up out of that depression, and we built a tourism economy and a service economy," said Patrick White of the Stockbridge select board. "And if you think we're going to trust you not to wreck that economy over the next 20 years as you put all these trucks over our roads past Oak and Spruce and Tanglewood and the Red Lion Inn, tens or dozens or 50 trucks a day, you have another thing coming. And I just want to tell the Lee select board, you have one vote for whatever you need.”

Almost four years since the COVID-19 outbreak, Tanglewood – the sprawling concert ground in Lenox and Stockbridge that serves as one of the region’s magnets for summer tourism – reported healthy attendance on its legendary lawn-covered campus.

“We're reasonably happy," said Boston Symphony Orchestra Vice President of Artistic Planning Anthony Fogg. "We can always do better. But it is slowly, I think slowly getting back to some of those pre-pandemic numbers. Certainly, there's a great feeling around the campus of energy and lightness, and that all reminds us of the old days as they were before we went through this massive cultural event.”

A mural of Miguel Estrella – the 22-year-old Pittsfielder shot to death by police during a mental health crisis in March 2022 – was unveiled in downtown in September. Alongside an image of Estrella was a quote chosen by his mother Marisol:

“Basta ya de tanta injusticios. Todo lo que nuestra rodea tiene la huella tu entrega, tu carino y tu amore. Aunque, te fuiste sigues con nosotros.”

“Enough of so much injustice. Everything that surrounds us has the imprint of your dedication, you affection and your love. Even though you left, you are still with us.”

With the help of her daughter Elina interpreting, Marisol reflected on the meaning of the day.

“So, today she says that it's an honor for her to be able to put his picture up and have it shown to the city, because it's something that she's going to always remember," explained Elina. "She wanted to show everyone that he's always in her heart and as well as everyone else that he impacted.”

The officers who shot Estrella were exonerated after investigations by the city’s police department and the district attorney. While the city responded to the incident by expanding its mental health co-responder capabilities, activists have criticized Pittsfield for dragging its feet on police reform after the killing.

In October, a plan to combine the Berkshire Hills and Southern Berkshire school districts failed when only half of the eight towns involved in the move approved it. At a meeting in Great Barrington, school district planning board representative Deb Phillips said it was a matter of time before consolidation is necessary.

“Berkshire Regional Planning Commission has noted that as a region, we need to attract 660 more people aged 20 to 49 annually to stabilize our school age population," she said. "For the Berkshire Hills and Southern Berkshire school districts share of this is about 80 new young and middle-aged adults moving into their communities every year. We don't even have the capacity for this to happen.”

Monterey resident and Southern Berkshire Regional School District school committee member Kimberly Alcantara explained why she and others in the region opposed the move.

“I do feel some place down the road, a merge might be a good thing, just not in this particular platform that they're offering," she told WAMC. "I have high concerns because they do not have a cost of a building. They have no educational pathway.”

The failed consolidation vote means the plan, for now, will be abandoned.

For Pittsfield, 2023 marks the end of eight years of Mayor Linda Tyer’s leadership. Tyer has been a public servant in a variety of roles – including city councilor and city clerk – for around 20 years. She did not seek a third term in this year’s election, which was won by her political ally, city council President Peter Marchetti.

“We got the Berkshire Innovation Center built, we got the Morningstar St. Mary's campus saved and restored, we launched the At Home in Pittsfield program, we lead the community through a global pandemic, we managed $40 million [in] federal ARPA funds,” said the outgoing mayor.

She told WAMC that along with the police killing of Estrella, one of her major regrets from her time in office goes back to the height of the pandemic in 2020 when an emergency shelter downtown was abruptly shuttered.

“I wish that I had been more aggressive around engaging with ServiceNet and insisting that they reopen the shelter," said Tyer. "At the time, I was feeling like I didn't have the authority to make a demand on a nonprofit organization. I attempted to encourage them, cajole them. But I never said to them, I am demanding and insisting that you reopen the shelter. That's something that has haunted me.”

Marchetti will be sworn in on January 2nd, Tyer’s final day in office.

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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