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In The Arena

Small town politics

Stories that are catching my attention

I’ve often said that the most intriguing political stories are often found in the smallest towns and that certainly seems to be the case these days in Franklin County.

Montague Center School

It looks like the next battle over the redevelopment of the Montague Center School will take place on the floor of Montague’s annual town meeting.

The Montague Planning Board this week voted to recommend that town meeting alter the bylaw regulating minimum apartment sizes from 700 to 500 square feet. Town officials believe that the change will create a more legally consistent measure, one that prevents the Zoning Board from having to treat variances like special permits and thus exposing the town to potential lawsuits.

But try telling that to the people in Montague Center, who believe this is nothing more than an attempt by the town to make it easier for Greenfield Developer Mark Zaccheo to move forward with his plans to convert the school into a new housing development. One lawsuit has already been filed challenging the Zoning Board’s decision to green-light the project that has been the subject of a somewhat raucous public hearing process, which ended Tuesday.

I’ve been to a couple of these meetings, and while they have been entertaining, I’m still confused as to what all the fuss is about. I’ve heard arguments made about the potential for increased traffic and lighting and a lot of the other NIMBY stuff, but little concern raised, among abutters, about the ramifications of letting that building decay.

I’ve also heard concerns raised that the new apartments will “change the character” of the village, but with precious few specifics on what that “change” might look like and why they are so afraid of it. Maybe we’ll learn more at town meeting.

Upheaval in Hawley

It’s not every day that a town gains a selectman and loses two other members of its government, but that’s what happened this week in Hawley when John Sears was won a selectman’s race and inadvertently triggered the resignations of Town Clerk Lisa Turner and Hawlemont School Committee member Hussain Hamdan.

Hamdan, who finished third in the selectmen’s race, apparently informed his committee that he would step down if he won, but did not indicate that he would quit if he lost, so his motivation to leave is a bit murky. Turner, however, left no such ambiguity about her decision.

“I don’t care to work with this administration,” Turner said. “I don’t think I have ever quit anything, but as of tonight, it is different.”

Turner’s partner, Tedd White, was elected selectman last May, and has since engaged in some pretty serious public disagreements with current Board Chairman Phil Keenan, to the point that White suggested that the board have no more meetings until a third member was elected to replace Richard Desmarias, who died in December.

Sears now finds himself sitting in between two board members who clearly don’t like each other while controversy swirls over the Chickley River repair and restoration project, the likely fallout from which will make Hawley worth keeping an eye on over the next few months.

Ashfield’s legal conundrum

If Hawley’s Sears needs some advice on how to deal with feuding selectmen, he should ring up new Ashfield selectmen’s Chairman Tom Carter, who now sits between Paulette Leukhardt and Ronald Coler, who I’m guessing still aren’t one each other’s Christmas card lists, despite how well they seemed to work together in the period between Doug Field’s November resignation and Carter’s uncontested February special election win.

The big challenge the town is facing right now is how to pay for mounting legal bills related to a series of Open Meeting Law complaints, mostly related to meeting minutes that some people feel are not being made available in a timely enough fashion.

The kicker is that most of those complaints have been filed by the same three people, and seem to track back to a dispute over some town decisions related to the Ashfield House. Carter says the board has no choice but to respond to the complaints, but the multiple complaints have tapped the town’s legal account, requiring selectmen to go back to town meeting for $12,000 for legal fees and another $3,000 for town employee time necessary to cover the handling of the paperwork, which may not seem like much, but is no small amount to a community that could be looking down the barrel at a Proposition 21∕2 override, depending on what happens with the Mohawk Trail Regional School budget.

“It’s a mess, there’s no doubt about it,” Carter said. “I don’t understand why people can’t make an appointment with us and explain what their problem is.”

Because the fleas come with the canine, Mr. Chairman, and nowhere is that more true than in the dog-eat-dog world of small town politics.

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.

This story has been modified since its publication.

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