HIDDEN IN THE AMAZING ‘NEVER MIND’ OF NO-CONFIDENCE PETITION WAS AN OPPORTUNITY — LOST, AS IT TURNED OUT — FOR TRUE HEALING … plus … MUCH MORE ON THE DEBACLE OF TUESDAY NIGHT
By DAN VALENTI
PLANET VALENTI News and Commentary
(FORTRESS OF SOLITUDE, FRIDAY, OCT. 12, 2012) — On this, the Real Columbus Day, THE PLANET offers the second part of our ruminations over one of the worst meetings the Pittsfield City Council has likely ever conducted. It left veteran observers shaking their heads, novices agape, and those in-between ready to pack up their troubles. For those expecting the spotlight on Contractgate, please be patient. That will happen early next week. There is another development in this case that may have some bearing, and we want to wait until we learn more.
By the way, THE PLANET also has other stories brewing in the cauldron involving more Tales from the Crypt, involving:
* The Berkshire Carousel
* The Cultural Affairs Office
* The Pittsfield Fire Department
* and … ah, but we can say no more!
Now, on to No-confidence-gate.
A Preamble: Polarizing Politics (“I’m a This and You’re a That”) Has No Place in Rational Discourse and the Sane Living of Life
One first note. It’s a pity to see how polarizing politics has become, from the national level on down. If you’re a “this” and I’m a “that,” it must mean I have to always oppose you, irrespective of the facts or what might otherwise pass as rational discourse.
Case in point: THE PLANET and Barry Clairmont. It’s no secret. We got off on the wrong foot, and the icicles in the relationship were as big as any we saw in the raging winter of two years.
When THE PLANET started doing our investigations into the Spectrum case, we talked to most of the key players involved and assembled what has to be the most complete set of records this side of federal court. THE PLANET spent hours plowing through boring transcripts. We spent hours of interviews, both on and off the record.
We started our probe afresh, as is our modus operandi, pretending we knew nothing, so we could approach it with a new set of peepers. The determination would be decided on where the evidence took us, in a neutral, objective, reasonable, and non-emotional manner. On the basis of all that, we concluded that complaints over the city solicitor’s representation of the city were justified.
Over that time, THE PLANET had to meet with and relate to Clairmont. We don’t hold grudges, and we are always ready to move on to the next issue with the history slate wiped clean. Yet some folks viewed the mere fact that we were talking to be somehow heinous. That’s what politics has become.
We found his case, as he laid it out with others, credible. That’s all. Yet, some out there want to paint that as “traitorous” or somehow faithless and double-dealing. People can and will think what they will. They will draw their own conclusions. We can tell you, however, that no one side has Truth and Goodness wrapped up all the time. People being human and human being flawed, the truth lies where it does, and it takes courage to pursue it and find it, notwithstanding the preconceptions ones brings along.
THE PLANET has always been a truth seeker, willing to go where we should and ready to face whatever people we meet along the way. Let us conclude this preamble by saying that in our personal dealings with Clairmont, we found him intelligent, diligent, and possessing integrity. For instance, he froze, the equivalent of choking, following Yon’s stunning move to pull back the petition. He admitted that in a posting to THE PLANET in response to a comment made by The Man from Mensa, our Right Honorable Good Friend, former Ward 4 councilor Chuck Vincelette. Clairmont wrote:
First, let me acknowledge that is was an error on my part. I was so caught off guard, I froze and wasn’t sure what to do. As I thought about it, while speaking again, I reached the conclusion that how could I not support the person who submitted the petition. That is why I voted the way I did.
What I should have done was this…quote the June 26, 2012 court transcript where the judge todl Ms. Degnan to go back to Pittsfield and encourage everyone to read JFK’s Profile in Courage. I should have mentioned that leaders do the right thing under adversarial circumstances. I blew it!
Not only should the Councilor’s have voted on this petition, I’ll argue that Ms. Degnan deserved had a right to a vote, so she would know where she stood. It was unfair to her and the administration, period.
I accept my role in the mess up and take full responsibility for it.
It takes a man to admit he’s wrong.
I’m not recommending canonization for Clairmont, and we’re sure he’s hasn’t commissioned an artist to sculpt the bust of THE PLANET for the Journalism Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. We’re not going to attend church services together anytime soon, and we will disagree, rock, and roll on other issues, but we now have built a productive relationship built on mutual respect. THE PLANET offers the same to anyone, turns his back on no one, and rejects the type of politics that requires a person’s advance loyalty.
The meeting would not have achieved that dubious distinction had Ward 1 councilor Chris Yon followed through with her no-confidence petition on the table and allowed the measure to come to a vote. Her action had the effect of trying to minimize the importance of a most serious matter. You don’t launch an extreme initiative such as a no-confidence vote then pull it back of a sudden, out of the blue. It did an injustice to everyone, no matter how well intended.
A vote would have been cathartic, not that it would have flushed away the smoldering resentments so palpable in the chambers Tuesday night but, more in the short term. The vote would have allowed the room to vote after being whipped up into a frenzy, the way a release valve let’s steam from a pressure cooker. Remember, the councilors were casting votes not just for themselves, but — as they do each time they “yeah” or “nay” — they speak for hundreds and thousands of others. When they couldn’t vote, thousands of people who were expecting a tally were left hanging. When the meeting moved from agenda item 12 to 13 (Contractgate), people took with them their unresolved animus toward the “other side.”
It was the worst possible outcome, because you know the pressure will continue to build. It has to escape sometime, somewhere, over some issue.
We wish to raise three new points in our coverage of this historical, hysterical meeting: the peanut gallery, the hundred grand, and the deliberations.
PEANUT GALLERY — THE PLANET here refers to a point made by many speakers at the open mic session: They said they wanted the council to drop the nonsense and get on with the business of governing, which, they said, was to deal with issues such as jobs and public safety. A couple of observations:
The refutation of that argument, to be made not by THE PLANET except to bring it to light in a Devil’s Advocate sense is this: The no-confidence petition, the other side was arguing, did involve getting on with governing. Councilors who have lost their trust in a position as key as city solicitor would argue they were doing We The People’s business. Only they can know for sure if the petition was about improving government or political revenge. Also, the way multiple speakers made the same point suggested (though it does not prove) that their remarks were coordinated. They sounded as if they had been coached or reciting from briefings made from the same talking points.
THE PLANET likes for We The People to get involved with government, as they were on Tuesday night. However, we will point that people packed the chambers for one item on a 22-item agenda. Where were they on the other hot item, Contractgate, #13, that essentially wasted more than $100,000 of taxpayer money in support of an ethically corrupt deal between the Pittsfield School Department and Lynn Whitney.
THE HUNDRED GRAND — Why did the city agree to pay Spectrum $100,000, plus another $76,500 it the company relocates within the city? Was it necessary. The company wanted one thing only: to open up shop. Could that have been enough to satisfy it? Was the payment part of a conditional agreement? Did Spectrum tell the city: We locate where we want, you give us $100,00 plus a relocation fee, or we continue in federal court? Would the city have lost in federal court? As Kathy Degnan’s attorney conceded at the meeting, maybe and maybe not. It’s true, other town have not prevailed and lost greater amounts against the company, but each case is fact-specific. What were Pittsfield unique set of conditions that might have convinced a judge or jury such that even Ms. Degnan’s lawyer admitted? Maybe the city did “get off cheap,” but saying that is saying, “Maybe not.”
Based on the facts that have come to light thus far, it appears that the city’s decision to pay $100,000 plus relocation fee was to settle the suit. It also appears to have been the wise move. THE PLANET says this, though, with the caveat that there may be additional facts that, of discovered, could shed more light on the matter. In any case, it would behoove the mayor to address this question clearly, in plain English, and forthrightly. That has not yet happened, and, for the record, Mayor Bianchi’s office has not responded to this question, which we asked yesterday.
THE DELIBERATIONS — We won’t attempt to provide a sense of the discussions. For that, we would suggest people turn to the city clerk’s minutes when they are posted. THE PLANEt has a few highlights and lowlights:
— Mike Filpi, during open mic, called the petition “a tremendous detriment on how city government should function.” Some version of that line would be echoed again and again by the parade of speakers.
— Donna Mattoon, open mic, took the emotional approach. She asked people to imagine how it must feel to be Degnan or one of her family, friends, and loved ones. Of course, governing based on people’s feelings, the same as writing that way, makes about as much sense as giving every kid a medal at the end of the season, irrespective of how they performed. Everyone has feelings. In public life and in positions of authority, you have to toughen the hide. It’s one of the realities that comes with the turf, and it’s as true for city solicitors as it is for journalists.
— Bianchi, open mic, said “people want us to get on with our work.” He said “this whole issue has been filled with a lot of half facts” and “hearsay.” He added that the Yon-Sherman Act did “not promote good government.”
— Yon, during deliberation, introducing her petition: “I tried to no avail to resolve the situation in the privacy of Mayor Bianchi’s office, to no avail. … It was never my intention to go after anyone. This is not political. I was simply looking for answers.” Yon and Sherman had previously said that they attempted to meet with Bianchi several times, to no avail. During her opening comments, Yon revealed that Sherman met with Bianchi earlier that day in one last attempt, “to no avail.” Yon also said she didn’t know and was never told why she was subpoenaed by Degnan for a deposition. She claimed that by her testimony in court, Degnan “opened up a fresh discrimination case against the city” and that she “breached confidential information.”
— Chris Connell, Ward 4, chided the no-confidence petition, pointing out his experience in business, dealing with personnel as a manager. Connell said “this is not the [correct] process of how you deal with a situation like this.” He said “people are perceiving us as the old, embarrassing council” of a years ago, a pointed reference to the council led by Rick Scapin and its inability to work collegially with mayor Sara Hathaway. That brought the first outburst of applause from the spectators (during deliberations). Sherman was not forceful enough in ruling this out of order.
— Jonathan Lothrop, Ward 5, said the petition was “not about Spectrum” but rather about “the performance of the city solicitor.” Key to the issue, J-Lo said, is that he as a councilor felt that Degnan had misrepresented him and had “misled” him, referencing the June 9 budget meeting when he questioned Degnan about the the additional $100,000 in the solicitor’s budget. “If I am not given accurate information, how am I supposed to do my job?” He said that prior to Degnan’s involvement in the Spectrum case, the city had defeated three motions of Spectrum’s in court.
— Degnan’s attorney, Alexandra Glover of Great Barrington, pointed out that Pittsfield’s three wins in court did not constitute “a judgment on the ultimate facts” but rather were procedural victories. On whether or not Pittsfield would have prevailed against Spectrum in federal court, she said maybe-maybe not. That was a surprising statement, saying that Pittsfield could very well have won. Glover said that during the budget hearing Lothrop referenced, Degnan “answered the council’s questions as best she could, given the confidentiality agreement in place at that time.” She called the agreement reach by the mayor and Spectrum “a good settlement” but did add a curious statement to the effect of “nobody wants to be located next door to this sort of thing [meaning a methadone clinic]. That was the kind of statement made by an under-prepared Degnan that essentially provided Spectrum with a slam-dunk in federal court on the basis of the anti-discriminatory provisions of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act. Glover said the petition was “meant to disparage” Degnan.
— Kevin Morandi, Ward 2, wondered how the Sherman-Yon petition could possibly benefit the city, nothing that the Spectrum mess was “dumped” on Bianchi “by the previous administration.” That, of course, would be Mayor Jimmy Ruberto.
— Melissa Mazzeo, at large, warned her colleagues “were setting precedent tonight,” referring to the “slippery slope” that could ultimately make it fair game for any councilor to go against any administration official, even for the most superficial of reasons. Mazzeo said she was perplexed as to why the Spectrum issue kept resurfacing and questioned the intent of those who were finding ways to keep it alive simply to embarrass Bianchi.
— John Krol, Ward 6, agreed with Lothrop, saying the larger issue was the council’s interactions with the city solicitor’s office and not about specifics of the Spectrum case. “This is a very demoralizing time for all of us,” Krol said. He accused Degnan of “delivering information to a company that’s suing [us] in court.” Krol said the issue is all about trust and the necessity of being able to trust the solicitor’s office. Krol said that trust had been betrayed.
— Barry Clairmont, at large, mentioned another issue to make the point that J-Lo and Krol previously made, that the no-confidence petition wasn’t about Spectrum but about the actions and ability of the city solicitor. He brought up Degnan’s action in Mayor Bianchi’s attempt to remove a long-time member of the licensing board. He also refuted a point made multiple times for Degnan’s defenders, that she has only been on the job nine months, far too soon for a no-confidence vote. Clairmont referred to Degnan’s two years of previous experience with the city as an assistant solicitor as well as her extensive experience as solicitor in other communities. He accused Degnan of “misrepresentation.” Clairmont also made an unusual statement, revealing “threats that I’ll be sued” based on what he would be saying in deliberation. As a precaution, he emphasized that what he was to express were his opinions. THE PLANET abhors any threats of this sort that would seek to intimidate a government official or try to hamper or qualify his or her free speech.
Nothing to Say
Amazingly, Paul Capitanio, ward 3; Tony Simonelli, Ward 7; and Churchill Cotton, at large. did not speak. THE PLANET finds this Greta Garbo-Harpo Marx dummying up perplexing, that three councilors with standing, who campaigned for the position, would find nothing to say about an issue of such portent. What does that mean? A lack of interest on their part? A lack of confidence? A lack of leadership and intestinal fortitude? We cannot say. We can only point out that the nature of officials in representative government is to “represent.” The constituents of Capitanio, Simonelli, and Cotton were thus relegated to the back bench as mere spectators. They were among the biggest losers Tuesday night. That “silent treatment” is unsatisfactory. All three had an obligation to let it hang, lay it on the line, and be heard, as did each of their other colleagues, who weren’t afraid of the challenge.
To that point, council president Kevin Sherman also had an obligation to do more than referee the fight. His name was on that petition, and it was no time for him to hide behind the president’s chair. He could have, and should have, turned the chair over to his second-in-command, Lothrop, and weighed in. Not doing so was a big mistake and created the perception, however accurate or not, that he was ducking the hot issue. That, combined with Yon’s filing of the petition, created a bad taste (already bad enough) in the mouths of Degnan’s supporters, especially, who interpreted the two actions as preplanned and evidence of intent. Some Degnan supporters offered Sherman’s silence and Yon’s dramatic last-second action as “proof” that the intent all along wasn’t to get a no-confidence vote but simply to embarrass the mayor by running over Degnan in open session then retreating under the “Mission Accomplished” banner.
The more we write on this story, the more information that surfaces. We shall be revisiting, we’re sure.
The final word is, as we said yesterday, nobody won. Everybody lost.
THE AGE OF LOVE WAS FOUND TO BE AS WISE AS THE SERPENT AND AS HARMLESS AS THE DOVE. EH? HAVE A GREAT WEEKEND.
“OPEN THE WINDOW, AUNT MILLIE.”
LOVE TO ALL.