In the Arena: Council meeting a night to remember

Friday, November 17, 2017

I’ve seen some wacky things in my time covering local politics, but this past Wednesday’s Greenfield Town Council meeting may very well end up taking the taco.

For those who didn’t get a chance to see it, break out the Jiffy Pop, dial up gctv.org, and prepare to be both amused and horrified, because this one had a little something for everyone. But in between outbursts over politically motivated letters to GCET interrogation to discussions over the price of pants and bananas, some actual history got made, some of it pretty significant.

Split tax rate

For the better part of a decade and a half, progressives have been trying to get Greenfield to adopt a split tax rate which would force businesses to assume a larger share of the tax burden. But it would be — of all people — a conservative Republican who got the job done.

“I’ve been banging my head against the wall for 20 years trying to think of ways to lower the burden on residential property taxpayers,” Council Vice President Isaac Mass said. “And I’m willing to try a progressive approach, which I haven’t always agreed with, to at least say we did something.”

When I heard Mass was proposing splitting the rate for the coming year, I wasn’t sure what to think. It struck me as a bit of desperation, especially after he and his slate of candidates got their proverbial heads handed to them in last week’s election. And despite his desire to see real property tax reform, I never saw Isaac as a split tax advocate, particularly given the potential negative impacts on commercial and industrial businesses.

Still, there he was on the council floor Wednesday night giving an impassioned speech in favor of the split rate while giving his colleagues an impromptu history lesson on all of the times Greenfield has said “no” to economic development initiatives — chief among them a big box store and the failed Myers Farm office park — which could have expanded the tax base and lessened the need for a move to a split rate.

Whatever he said worked. The vote to split wasn’t even close, and was one of the few times this council has pulled together on an issue, especially one which has the potential to be as controversial as this one is likely to be with the business community.

Brickett vs. the mayor

It wasn’t a question of “if” this was going to blow up but when, as this was first council meeting since word surfaced of Council President Brickett Allis’ parking ticket showdown with Police Chief Robbie Haigh, for which he was admonished in a letter written by Mayor Bill Martin, which was released to the press on the Friday before the election prior to it being sent to Allis.

The story broke at the worst possible time for Brickett, whose newborn daughter was fighting for her life, a situation of which he claims both Martin and Haigh were well aware, though both have denied that.

As inappropriate as Allis’ outburst against Haigh may have been — and he admitted as much — Martin’s decision to quickly leap to Haigh’s defense does raise some questions, like why he didn’t take similar decisive action when two female members of his financial team allegedly faced similar mistreatment from the now-former director of GCET? It is this double-standard which Allis is clearly taking aim at, as well as the perception that Martin bullies his employees, and that Haigh is instructing the parking division to target certain areas of town, which the chief denies.

It remains to be seen who will win this argument, but we’ll find out more Nov. 29, when the council, for the second time in its history, uses its investigative and subpoena powers to get to the bottom of yet another political controversy.

The Verne and Rob show

Wednesday night was a big one for two guys who are normally among the council’s quietest members.

Precinct 1 Councilor Verne Sund was quite vocal during the split tax debate and called on the mayor and other councilors to go to each other when they have a problem, not the newspapers, admitting his own role in helping trigger an election week controversy involving fellow Councilor Penny Ricketts.

And after being largely silent or missing from the last several meetings, Precinct 5’s Rob Wainstein came in loaded for bear, at one point asking if members of the assessor’s department were “hacks,” and then speculating whether the department should be “disbanded” if the council wasn’t going to follow their advice and go with the single tax rate.

It seemed like my man was shot out of a cannon. At one point, Wainstein seemed to vote both for and against the split rate amendment, before eventually making it clear that he was in favor of keeping the single rate.

All in all, a night to remember or forget, depending on your perspective — but one I’m guessing might pale in comparison to what we see in two weeks.

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.