In the Arena: Officials’ weak response to homeless situation won’t be soon forgotten

Published: 8/10/2018 9:00:13 AM

Happy Friday, newshounds. You didn’t think you were going to get rid of me that easily, did you?

For those who may not have noticed, I’ve been missing from this space for a number of weeks while recovering from a minor health problem, which is kind of like the late Sebastian Ruggeri once classifying his tax title property losses as the result of a few “financial reverses.”

I’ll spare you the gory details, but let’s just say that this “incident” and the corresponding path to recovery have been my primary focus, leaving me with little to no interest in local politics, as well as a Mt. Rushmore-sized case of writer’s block, from which I’ve had major difficulty shaking.

As rough as it’s been sitting on the sidelines contemplating my mortality for the second time in seven years, I remained confident that a moment would present itself which would force me to re-engage, whether I was ready or not.

Enter the Greenfield City Council, which has had quite a couple of weeks for itself, beginning with an unprecedented vote of “no confidence” in Mayor Bill Martin, with the added demand that he resign his office for refusing to renew the contract of City Finance Director Elizabeth Braccia.

I think there are many people, in and out of city government, who were infuriated by Martin’s decision, as well they should be. Braccia’s willingness to stand up and blow the whistle on the fiscal nonsense going on at GCET may very well have saved the town from a potential multi-million dollar headache.

Martin apparently based his decision to ditch Braccia, in part, for her alleged “mistreatment” of a fellow employee, but her fate was likely sealed when she testified before the council, under subpoena, about GCET last Sept. 20.

When you boil away all the posturing, Braccia’s real mistake was crossing the boss, even though it was for all the right reasons. And while I understand the council’s motivation for the “no confidence” vote, the reality is that Martin’s actions were, though unpopular, well within the scope of his enumerated powers under the city charter. To demand his resignation had more to do with a long-brewing political disagreement than official misconduct, which is why Martin isn’t going anywhere unless he is recalled, which seems unlikely at this point.

In a somewhat ironic twist, His Honor was in front of the council again the very next week for another special meeting, this time to figure out what to do about the makeshift tent city that has suddenly taken over the common.

This has very quickly become one of the most volatile debates this “city known as a town” has ever seen. There are no shortage of opinions, but the ones that matter the most right now belong to the council and Martin, who presented what seemed to be a pretty sensible two-part plan intended to help the 20 or so people currently living there access the public services necessary to improve their lot in life.

I’m not sure where Martin’s plan stands now, given the bolo punch he threw at ServiceNet on the front page the other day, but the council, on this night anyway, largely ignored the idea, and instead voted to install a portable toilet near the common, open up the former Wedgewood Gardens to camping — despite a warning from the chair of the Conservation Commission — and an ordinance intended to loosen certain restrictions that currently make it difficult for houses of worship to provide shelter to the homeless.

Numerous logistical questions aside, it became abundantly clear by the council’s action, and the two hours of testimony prior, that not only is a homeless encampment on the common not a problem for some members of that body, it’s actually being viewed in some circles as a good thing for Greenfield — which is about as baffling a political stance as I’ve seen advanced in my nearly quarter of a century of covering Franklin County politics.

How can this possibly project a positive image for Greenfield? And yet, for some, including a few who purport to have the community’s “best interests” at heart, it’s become more of a “cause celebre,” designed to put the problem of homelessness right in our faces. If that is the intent, fine. Message received. But now it is time for the leaders of this community to get together and develop a plan that helps these people help themselves, while getting them the hell off that particular piece of property.

As much as some would like to believe otherwise, Greenfield is not ever going to completely solve its homeless problem. No community can, or it would have happened by now. But it should be able to expect its elected leaders to consider and address the impact this little social experiment is having on the entire community, including the downtown business owners they purport to care so much about.

Fortunately, the board of health this week seems to have taken the bat out of the council’s hand by ordering an end to the encampment on public health grounds, but that doesn’t mean the homelessness issue is going away, nor will the residual political effects of a pretty anemic official response to one of the more regrettable chapters in Greenfeld history.

Chris Collins is a former staff reporter for the Recorder, and is a Greenfield native. Over the years he has continued to keep his eye on local politics from a variety of perches for different news outlets.

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