SCHOOL DEPARTMENT SOURCES CLAIM CONTRACTGATE ‘INSIDER TRADING’ THE NORM, FOR YEARS … LETTERS TO THE EDITOR … plus … WHAT HAPPENED WHEN DAN O’CONNELL MET MEGAN WHILDEN? THE PLANET HAS THE EXCLUSIVE
By DAN VALENTI
PLANET VALENTI News and Commentary
(FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE, TUESDAY, OCT. 23, 2012) — A new development in Contractgate suggests the pattern of inside dealing to receive free student labor from the vocational department goes back for years, according to the testimony of two sources. The first is a former school department employee, a department head retired last year. The second currently works in an administrative capacity for the Pittsfield public schools. Both spoke on condition of anonymity after contacting THE PLANET.
Piecing together what the two of them say, Contractgate has been the “usual” way to decide who gets the benefit of free student labor. This comes as no great shocker, but the significance lies in the apparent confirmation from those with experience in the school department. Let’s not kid ourselves: Contractgate has never been about The Children. It’s been about two insiders — Frank Cote and Lynn Whitney — using their positions to engineer free construction of a new home.
‘This has been going on for years’
“This has been going on for years,” says one of the sources. Sources say in past years, the school department received no bids for “sponsors” of student projects outside of school department employees. In short, according to the sources, Contractgate has been the rule and not the exception. The reason the School Department has been able to get away with it is lack of exposure. The sunshine has not reached into this underhanded manner of assigning vocational students to work on projects.
This year, however, two things changed: (a) First, Mary Jane and Joe Kapanski “shocked the world” by electing an honest man to the school committee: Terry Kinnas, the embodiment of the cornball (but true) sentiment that “one man can make a difference.” (b) This honest man had a media outlet not afraid to shine a bright light into the slimy darkness. That, of course, would be THE PLANET. Face it, if We the People depended on the Boring Broadsheet for a story like this, the corruption would still be going on, unabated.
The School Department, your see, is one of the BB‘s biggest advertisers, a rapidly shrinking universe for the once decent newspaper. The BB would not want to upset one of its key advertisers, so it won’t assign a reporter to cover stories like Contractgate. The School Department, likewise, does not like any reporting other than “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.” The cozy arrangement fits each party swimmingly.
We have no misgivings. Our exposure of crummy deals like Contractgate won’t stop the funny business, but at least more people know about it. At least they can base their decisions on more of the truth. At least those who wish to pursue truth can find its outpost.
Our sources’ disclosures prompt a series of crucial questions:
* What do the records say?
* Is there paperwork on each contract for vocational students’ work going back, say, 20 years?
* Who were the beneficiaries of the previous work? (Who were the previous “Lynn Whitneys?”
* Who authorized the work within the school department (Who were the previous Frank Cotes?)
* What were the votes of the school committee of years past for this type of work? Was there any discussion, debate, or deliberation? Did anyone on previous school committees question the work?
* How many responses did each school year receive for the bids?
* How did the word get out, or keep from getting out, that free labor could be had?
If previous vocational work was assigned in a fair and honest manner, there should be no problem locating the paper trail. Sources say to beware of a “second set of books” and also for the “mysterious disappearance” of the documents from specific years.
THE PLANET calls upon our Right Honorable Good Friends in the school department, the school committee, the city council, and in the corner office to request documents and reveal what they show. There are numerous superintendents, seven committee people, 11 councilors, and one mayor. Any one of them can do this.
Contractgate must not be allowed to happen. It might be the last chance for this administration to save its political hide.
LETTERS TO THE EDITOR
School Committee, Council’s Vote on Contractgate ‘Unethical’
I’m wondering how the school committee as well as the city councilors can vote in favor to have the Taconic high school carpentry department students build a house for Lynn Whitney free of charge??? Lynn Whitney is the secretary to the assistant superintendent Frank Cote. I believe that this information should be made public to the good citizens of Pittsfield who work, own property and pay tax. I would also like to hear the Mayors response and explanation as to why he voted in favor for this clearly unethical situation. Let’s see some of that transparency we heard all about. This job should go back out to bid and the students hard work should go to a cause that would benefit more of the community not just one connected person. To think Mayor Ruberto had to hire a lawyer and face an ethics commission for taking some Red Sox tickets. We’re talking about at least a hundred thousand dollars here. — Scott Moore
O’CONNELL WAS ‘THIS CLOSE’ TO BE REHIRED BY CULTURAL COMMISSION, BUT WHILDEN SAID NO.
THE PLANET has learned that back in March, former city arts commissioner Dan O’Connell applied for an administrative assistant’s position in the office of cultural affairs. Our source says Mayor Dan Bianchi encouraged O’Connell to apply, which would lead one to believe he had a good chance at it.
In April, O’Connell met with current arts commissioner Megan Whilden. Following that meeting, O’Connell sent the following note to Whilden. The note is dated April 23:
—– 00 —–
I want to take this opportunity to thank you for meeting with me this morning concerning the position at the Arts Center . It was really great to meet you and to visit the Arts Center once again. I look forward to working with you as your program assistant if that is of your choosing. I know together we can make a difference in bringing the arts to all of the citizens of Pittsfield. You certainly have added a great deal to the visions that I established with Kitty Lichtenstein while making sure that the arts remain both physically and economically accessible to all.
Whilden replied back on May 1:
Thank you for your email. I very much enjoyed our interview and especially hearing stories about Pittsfield ’s cultural past, including Norman Rockwell teaching at the Boys Club! I had meant to give you the full job description for the Administrative Assistant but I’m not sure I did, so am sending it along now. The support position is fast paced, a lot of work, and alas, almost all administrative, clerical and physical. The Office of Cultural Development is very active these days with a lot of different responsibilities, including 3rd.Thursdays, the Pittsfield Tourism Commission, DiscoverPittsfield.com, and our weekly email newsletter, along with supporting and partnering on a wide number of activities, including the Pittsfield Ethnic Fair, the WordXWord Festival, the 10X10 On North Winter Arts Festival, and now the First Fridays ArtsWalk (kicking off this Friday!) Let me know if you have any further questions.
Then the communication stopped. O’Connell never received a call back from Whilden or her office. From Whilden’s response, it appears that the position would be flying a desk and not in O’Connell’s line. Nonetheless, the city could use O’Connell’s skills as an artist to restore the public murals. Unfortunately, the murals are being allowed to fade away, like good soldiers. They need restoration and repair.
The murals were done by O’Connell, working with nationally known painter Daniel Galvez working with a team of local artists including William Blake, Stephen Mark, Jay Tobin, and Bonnie Bergman. The murals are municipal treasures of the city. They belong to The People. They tell a story beyond one event or performance. They can be accessed and enjoyed by the community for free all year round. They need to be saved, but sadly, city hall doesn’t think too much about them based on the inattention. This lack of respect for the murals stands in nicely as a symbol for how city government thinks of We The People.
While were at “sorry states,” has anyone noticed how dilapidated the sculpture garden has become at the Lichenstein Arts Center at 28 Renne Ave?
Meanwhile, our Z-agents tell us that on Friday night, Oct. 12, O’Connell and Whilden had an encounter during a reception at the Arts Center. Whilden asked O’Connell if he wanted to sit on the center’s board, which oversees Whilden’s office. O’Connell, we hear, told Whilden he was undecided. He then asked her about the lack of signage leading to the Arts Center. He also noted the removal of all plaques in the gallery crediting Kitty Lichenstein with establishing the center in 1983. O’Connell mentioned the deteriorating murals and the condition for the sculpture garden.
Our sources say Whilden “blamed it all on the directives of former Community Development Director Deanna Ruffer.” We find that explanation plausible, since we have heard the same elsewhere. Ruffer, known to some in the cultural affairs office as “the fuhrer,” was known that that type of bullying approach to the public’s resources. With Ruffer now out of the picture (hallelujah and rejoicing!) there would seem to be no reason why Whilden couldn’t get those projects done.
About five years ago, sources tell us, a local book on the history of Pittsfield was published. It said the Arts Center opened in 2005. It didn’t. It opened in 1983. O’Connell is correct about the odd removal of Lichenstein’s name from public recognition. Look around town. There are banners everywhere naming ballet, the Colonial Theatre, the lakes, Wahconah Park, Barrington Stage, the library, parks, the state forest, the Berkshire Museum, and city hall, but not one naming the “Lichenstein Center.”
How odd. Was this done on purpose? Seems to be. What an insult to a woman who gave so much to the citizens of Pittsfield.
THE PLANET can understand not hiring O’Connell for an administrative assistant’s job, but he possess a skill set that could greatly benefit the arts in the city.
For your information, here’s how the city posted the job:
OFFICE OF CULTURAL DEVELOPMENT ADMINISTRATIVE ASSISTANT
Reports to: Director of Cultural Development, City of Pittsfield
- Actively participate in social media, website and other online communications regarding cultural activities in the city of Pittsfield to include Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, YouTube, Pinterest, Flickr, Main Street Mail, and others as needed.
- Serve as first point of contact for visitors, phonecalls, mail, email & other inquiries. Assist all contacts with needed information, referrals, and resolution of any concerns.
- Assist in writing and editing weekly email newsletter, Cultural Pittsfield This Week and collecting and updating online calendar listings for DiscoverPittsfield.com
- Maintain clipping file of media coverage of Pittsfield’s arts & cultural activities.
- Maintain and update filing, databases and mailing lists.
- Provide administrative support for Cultural Development Board meetings and other meetings as needed, to include sending out meeting notices, filing agendas in a timely matter according to state regulations, maintaining member lists, taking minutes at meeting and keeping members updated.
- Handle all bookkeeping functions for Office of Cultural Development and Lichtenstein Center for the Arts, including requisitions, purchase orders, and maintaining up-to-date spreadsheets of all active accounts.
- Manage & order office supplies, and other office support systems including coordinating repair and other maintenance requests.
- Distribute marketing collateral including banners, flyers, posters, and postcards on foot throughout the downtown area and by car elsewhere as needed.
- Represent the Office of Cultural Development at meetings and events where needed.
- Serve as the administrative coordinator for the Upstreet Cultural District Partnership, maintaining member list, meeting schedule & minutes.
- Assist with special projects and new & existing public events, initiatives, festivals, and activities, including 3rd.Thursdays, the Pittsfield Ethnic Fair, First Fridays ArtsWalk, and others.
- Assist in researching and writing grant proposals and other documentation as needed.
- Other duties as needed.
LICHTENSTEIN CENTER FOR THE ARTS
- Staff Lichtenstein Center gallery during open hours as needed.
- Maintain internal Lichtenstein calendar & schedule volunteer artist coverage of the gallery on Saturdays and during special events.
- Schedule classes, exhibitions, space rentals and performances at Lichtenstein Center for the Arts. Set up & take down tables and chairs for meetings and events as needed.
- Collect payment from renters and ensure all agreements and liability forms are filled out and collected.
- Work with artists and organizations regarding installation and deinstallation of exhibitions, including coordinating sales, artist contacts, receptions, forms and other needs.
- Promote Lichtenstein Center for the Arts events and exhibitions through social media, press releases, calendar listings, email, and on the website.
- Supplement custodial work and ensure cleanliness of Lichtenstein Center for the Arts public areas.
“OPEN THE WINDOW, AUNT MILLIE.”
LOVE TO ALL.