Alleged behind the scenes maneuverings involving the North Adams, Massachusetts city council has created discontent over how its new president was selected.
On January 1st, recently reelected North Adams city councilor Paul Hopkins was voted in unanimously as the president of the nine-person body, with fellow class of 2017 second-term councilor Jason LaForest similarly selected as vice president.
But according to at least one disappointed councilor, that’s not how it was supposed to go down.
“What happened, unfortunately, this year after the election, I think most of us in the council that were elected had all agreed that Councilor LaForest was going to be our new council president," said City Councilor Marie Harpin. She is also entering her second term in office.
“Unfortunately I didn’t find out until a few days before that some or actually several of the older councilors had changed their minds and wanted to elect Councilor Hopkins to the presidency,” Harpin told WAMC.
Harpin told WAMC that she suspected LaForest’s line of questioning to Mayor Tom Bernard in city council meetings might have inspired the shift.
“The issues were that Councilor LaForest, some of the issues that he had brought up on the floor some of the other councilors weren’t comfortable with,” said the city councilor.
She suggested that issues LaForest had raised around bonds may have been the specific questions.
“I’m really disappointed in the process of how that all worked out, and it was a last minute decision and not everyone was notified, for one, of what their decision was," said Harpin. "And two, I think that’s what our job is as councilors, is to ask questions. And I certainly am a person who is going to welcome more questions and if you make a mistake or you ask a question that’s out of bounds, that’s going to happen at times. But I certainly would have liked to see people on the council that ask questions more than someone that’s not going to ask a question.”
“I don’t know if I would say it was a change," countered Keith Bona – the previous president of the city council and a 10-term veteran of the body. He disagrees with Harpin that LaForest had the vote locked down, and told WAMC that LaForest was his first choice when it was just between LaForest and Lisa Hall Blackmer.
“At the time, there were probably since the election, there was only two showing interest, so I think at that point he probably felt he had the majority of the votes, but then when other candidates come forward, and it’s just like a regular election," said Bona. "Until the day is that you vote there’s no guarantee.”
He also disagreed with Harpin about what constitutes the right character for council president.
“A president – you don’t typically want to be overly strong as they might be on the floor," Bona told WAMC. "And I think Councilor LaForest’s strength as a councilor and being on the floor may not be actually the best choice when it comes to a president.”
One quality of Hopkins that appealed to Bona was his prior experience serving on city boards, which he said gave him more seniority as a candidate over LaForest.
“Councilor Hopkins definitely speaks a lot less on the floor, not as vocal, not as passionate about certain things, while his decisions are still intelligent," said Bona. "I think his personality fits the seat of the president better than some other councilors.”
Bona – who seconded Councilor Jessica Sweeney’s motion to elect Hopkins for president – said that he had not communicated with Mayor Bernard about the choice to endorse him over LaForest.
“One of the things that I feel needs to improve is communication with the mayor and the city council, so there was no discussion there – at least not on my part,” said the former city council president.
“I was not contacted directly about the decision to disregard my candidacy for president of the council," said LaForest. He told WAMC that by the end of 2019, he believed he had secured 7 or 8 votes to support his bid for president.
“It is the prerogative of the individual councilors to vote for whomever they wish, but I believe that when a councilor gives you their word that they are going to support you, that they should do that or have the decency to make it known that they have changed their votes,” said the city council vice president.
He acknowledged Bona’s suggestion that his inquisitive nature played into the decision to support Hopkins.
“I do ask a lot of questions," LaForest told WAMC. "I am not always content with superficial truths as we deliberate the agenda items before the council.”
Despite his disappointment with the process, LaForest says he’s looking forward to serving as the council’s second in command.
“I just have to trust that the majority vote did vote in the best interest of the city," he said. "I did ultimately join them in voting for Councilor Hopkins. So I look forward to moving forward with this council in ensuring transparency and checks and balances as the administration and the council tackles the problems that North Adams faces in the coming year.”
Councilor Benjamin Lamb is entering his 4th term on the council. He says that conversations about who will lead the body typically begins after the November election.
“There’s normally conversations among councilors, kind of like, who’s rising to the top in terms of a candidate field," said Lamb. "I know there was actually probably three folks who were rising to that level. Obviously Councilor LaForest and Councilor Hopkins were two of those.”
A former council president, Lamb says he spoke with LaForest and Hopkins before the election.
“Our process allows for multiple people to be nominated and that didn’t happen, nor did any ‘nay’ votes occur, so I’m not really sure what the real question is there,” Lamb told WAMC.
Lamb made the motion for LaForest to be appointed vice president.
“There’s likely going to be points in time where Paul won’t necessarily be able to be there and Jason would take the chair and I feel comfortable with him doing that,” he said.
Hopkins chose to not comment on this story.
North Adams Mayor Tom Bernard did not respond to request for comment in time for broadcast.
The council’s first meeting of 2020 is January 14th.