In a dramatic meeting that lasted over six hours, the Pittsfield, Massachusetts city council Tuesday explored and ultimately rejected a petition asking if one of its members had left the city.
A citizen petition submitted by Elizabeth Herland asked the council to “determine whether Ward Four City Councilor Christopher Connell has removed from the city.”
“I have not moved out of Pittsfield," said Connell. "I have supplied the city solicitor with the necessary paperwork to verify that fact.”
Much of the debate around his residency focuses on the fact that since March, he now spends upwards of five nights a week in what he describes as a vacation condo in Upstate New York with his girlfriend.
“I continue to serve the city and ward and respond to my constituents as I always have," said Connell. "I have temporarily limited the time spent living with my mom in my house to minimize the risk of her exposure to COVID-19 due to the fact – two reasons. I am in constant contact with tenants and constituents. Also, my girlfriend is a first responder as respiratory therapist.”
Connell is a landlord in Berkshire County, as well as the owner of a mobile home park in New York.
The petition brought out friends of Connell like former longtime city councilor and mayoral candidate Melissa Mazzeo. Despite her promise to continue to represent the community even after her term ended, it was her first appearance at a meeting in months – and brought with it news that she has now moved to neighboring Dalton.
“With everything that’s going on right now in the world and how difficult it is to even get business done and to live our day to day lives, I was absolutely appalled that I read this petition that they were questioning where he’s staying," said the former councilor. "And as I said on his Facebook page, he could be in Siberia and he would still be more responsive to his constituents than I’ve dealt with some councilors in my past.”
It also brought out critics, like James Campagna.
“Chris Connell is many things. He’s a longtime city councilor. He’s also a vocal opponent of the Black Lives Matter movement and the proud owner of low-rent properties who has now become one of our city’s many absentee slumlords," said Campagna. "But Pittsfield city councilor Chris Connell is not a resident of Pittsfield. In fact, what he is, is a relic of times gone by that we want to move past in Pittsfield. And it’s time for him to quit phoning it in from New York and return representation of Ward Four to those who actually live here.”
As city solicitor Stephen Pagnotta explained, the key word is “removed.” As referenced in the city charter, it has archaic origins and hazy legal definitions.
“People tend to talk about the difference between residences and domiciles," explained Pagnotta. "People can have multiple residences but can only have one domicile. The term ‘removed’ exists in the 1822 case dealing with an elected tax collector who was determined to have removed himself to another town. And the language is not too dissimilar to what is being used today to determine what somebody’s domicile is.”
As per the charter, it came down to the city council to make its own determination as to whether or not Connell had left the city – and whether his explanation for his time spent in New York holds water.
“The concerns that were brought up were about being represented by someone who lives here in the city, and I know we’ve talked a lot tonight about residence, we’ve talked about domicile. To me, it comes down to where you are most of the time," said At-large City Councilor Pete White.
He related his own struggles to keep his elderly, immunocompromised mother safe during the pandemic – and said that Connell’s reasons to largely relocate out of state seemed to violate the charter.
“Whether deliberately leaving the city or not, the domicile doesn’t seem to be Pomeroy Ave,” said White.
“Most of us have immune compromised family, and we are finding a way to serve them and to show up for them," said Ward 6 Councilor Dina Lampiasi. “Not all of us have the privilege to be able to go sleep somewhere else and come back every week, maybe two weeks, we don’t really know when, to check in on that family member. That’s not really an option for all of us.”
At-large Councilor Earl Persip shared his findings from an independent investigation of Connell’s social media presence.
“So if I look back at your social media posts and I didn’t know who you were, it looks like you live in New York state,” Persip told Connell.
The case against Connell was challenged by Ward 5 Councilor Patrick Kavey, who said the legal basis for any removal effort seemed too vague. He noted that the council’s conversation about Connell had far surpassed that of the issue of growing homelessness in the city.
“We’re spent more time debating this than we spent debating the issue in Springside Park,” said Kavey.
Ward 1 Councilor Helen Moon, a healthcare worker herself, sympathized with the struggle of making decisions around protecting family members from COVID-19.
“To Councilor Connell’s own admission, he has not spent many evenings sleeping in Pittsfield, but it’s his intent to continue to live in Pittsfield in the near future," said Moon. "I think that is what is- Really kind of why I don’t think I can make this decision right now in the middle of a pandemic.”
When the final vote came early Wednesday, the council unanimously voted “no” on the question of Connell’s removal.