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In The Arena

In the Arena: A break from the past

They still have a lot to learn about how to run a government, but it’s obvious that certain fledgling members of the Greenfield Town Council are starting to feel their oats politically.

The most recent indication came Wednesday, when a couple of councilors left little doubt that they think this body is more in touch with the voter’s wishes than their predecessors.

“I feel it’s a culture shift,” Precinct 7 Councilor Karen “Rudy” Renaud said. “This is not to degrade the council that served before or the previous board members; they worked really hard and did a lot of good things, but I guess the message is that we have to listen to the voters.”

Renaud’s comments, and those by fellow Councilor Norman Hirschfeld, are the first significant public reactions by council members to the rapidly changing town demographics that have turned, in the span of only a few election cycles, what was once a pro-growth, conservative council into a decidedly progressive one.

One of the voices starting to emerge from the pack is Renaud, who has quickly grown from a quiet freshman councilor into a budding community leader, as evidenced by her recent work on a pretty successful forum on the state of affairs at Baystate Franklin Medical Center. There is also a growing buzz that she may be the sentimental choice among progressives as they looks for a candidate to back in the upcoming council president’s race.

Renaud went to great lengths to try to temper her comments about the previous council, but I’m not sure how successful she was or could have been given the nature of the topic — a moratorium on all biomass and other large-scale energy projects in Greenfield until September 2014.

For a lot of the council’s “biomass babies,” this vote had to seem like the political equivalent of Christmas in April, especially since stopping that particular project was the issue that brought a lot of them onto the public stage in the first place.

The vote allowed Renaud and Hirschfeld to turn the debate into a symposium on how the current council’s effort to be the “voice of the people” has differed greatly from their predecessors, especially on this issue.

“Government at that time was really not listening to the people and they had already made up their mind,” Hirschfeld said, after admitting that he joined the anti-biomass movement shortly after moving to town five years ago. “They knew what was good for Greenfield and that was it — but times have changed.”

“This moratorium will work in favor of our community to that we have local control over our future and our health,” Hirschfeld added.

That wasn’t the end of the commentary, which also exposed a basic misunderstanding among some councilors about how certain aspects of government work. Renaud openly questioned how the biomass application “ever got through” the Zoning Board of Appeals, failing to acknowledge the ZBA’s regulatory role, one that is to ensure that building projects conform to existing bylaws. To reject any project on purely political grounds would have resulted in a lawsuit.

Renaud’s inexperience, and growing boldness, was further exposed later in the meeting, when she argued unsuccessfully in favor of placing a nonbinding question on the election ballot asking if voters favor splitting the town’s tax rate and charging a higher rate for commercial and industrial property owners.

“We received a letter that says this has never been done, that we shouldn’t take something that didn’t come before us by petition and do this,” Renaud said. “Well, this is not your grandfather’s council anymore, it’s a different council and we do want to hear the voters and give people a forum to give their opinion.”

The letter Renaud referenced is believed to be an email sent by former Council President Tim Farrell, who has a problem with the council taking essentially a straw poll on a decision they are elected to make as a matter of policy each year. Farrell called it “weak with a capital ‘W’” — a position Renaud clearly doesn’t share.

“To do this takes guts,” Renaud said. “And I think we should send it to the voters and let the chips fall where they may.”

Seven of the councilors present felt otherwise, so the split tax question won’t go on the ballot. This seemingly leaves little reason for the voters to come out in June, which Renaud also views as an indication that this council is on the right track.

“You can also say that half of you are on this council because nobody runs against you, (but) I think the reason they most of us are unopposed is because we are reflecting the way folks in Greenfield think and feel, and we are making this a very transparent government,” Renaud said.

And something tells me they aren’t going to be shy about reminding us about it every step of the way.

Chris Collins is the Franklin County News Bureau Chief for WHAI, WPVQ and WHMP Radio. He is a former staff reporter for The Recorder, and is a Greenfield native.

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