In the Arena: Deerfield Selectboard race follows unusual path


Published: 5/3/2018 5:06:49 PM

Is it possible to defeat a six-term incumbent without waging a public campaign?

We may get the answer Monday, when Deerfield political newcomer Erich Brown attempts to unseat incumbent Selectboard Chairwoman Carolyn Ness in what has been one of the more unorthodox municipal races in recent memory.

It’s not odd in the sense that Ness is facing a challenger. Some would argue she’s had a bull’s-eye on her back for a while simply because of the amount of time she’s been in office — a tenure that Ness admits has forced her to make decisions which have proven unpopular in certain circles.

“Unfortunately, it comes with the territory,” Ness said. “People don’t like being told ‘no,’ and sometimes you have to. But anything I’ve done during my time on the board has been in the town’s best interests, and I’m very proud of my record.”

It’s that very record, however, which seems to be at the center of this election, but not from Brown’s perspective, who believes he has a skill set that would benefit the town moving forward.

“This town is about to begin a number of projects, and I have an expertise I believe could be helpful,” Brown, who is an engineer, said. “I’m not running to get rid of Carolyn, who has given countless hours to the town.”

Brown said he bears no ill will toward Ness, which is one of the reasons he didn’t want to debate her.

“I just think a debate would add to a divisiveness which already exists,” Brown said. “This isn’t a presidential race. This is two people vying for the same job, both of whom want to serve their communities.”

I get Brown’s point, but sometimes the only way to truly vet candidates in a competitive race is to watch them debate the issues in an equal time forum. I’m about as politically interested a person as you are likely to meet, but up until I got him on the phone, the only thing I knew about Brown was that he has lots of lawn signs out — which, as my late friend Marty McGuane used to always remind, does not necessarily translate into votes.

Brown also has the support of a number of “old guard” Deerfielder’s such as former Selectman John Paciorek, his wife Sharyn, and current Selectman Henry “Kip” Komosa, who might have the most to gain from a Brown win. A Ness defeat would effectively put Komosa in the driver’s seat not only on the Selectboard, but the three or four others he is on, a list which, after Monday, could include the Board of Assessors.

Brown was quick to push back on any effort to classify him as “Kippie’s candidate,” saying he plans to be an independent voice on all issues if elected. He also does not believe keeping a low media profile hurts his chances.

“You say no one knows me because I haven’t debated or done interviews, but I disagree,” Brown said. “I think there are many people in town who do know who I am. I’ve lived here for six years. My wife and I made the decision to move our family here, and I’m ready to give back.”

But will he have the time? Brown admits that his work takes him out of town frequently, but says it would not impact his ability to be a good selectman, which Ness believes does not jibe with the realities of the job.

“It’s way more of a time commitment than just a couple of meetings a month,” Ness said. “I wish it were that simple, but it’s not. There’s a lot more to it.”

One area where Brown and Ness disagree is marijuana policy. While Ness voted against scheduling a marijuana prohibition vote — a decision that could end up costing her a lot of votes — Brown said he favored scheduling the vote, while admitting that he was a “no” vote on the 2016 state ballot question to legalize pot for recreational use.

“How I feel about the issue personally really doesn’t matter,” Brown said. “I think the people should have had the right to decide for themselves.”

Brown also doesn’t seem wild about the narrative that this race is less about his upsides than Ness’ negatives. If he does feel that way, he should probably get over it, because perhaps never before have we seen a local election that is as much of a referendum on a sitting incumbent as this one.

The great irony is that the incumbent in question is about as nice a person as you are likely to meet, which may not be enough to save Ness in what will no doubt be the race to watch in Franklin County on “Super Monday.”

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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