In the Arena: Greenfield undergoes surprisingly smooth transition to ‘city’ status

Friday, December 29, 2017

Congratulations, Greenfield. You are now officially a city, although not many people seem to care.

This past week, the Greenfield Town Council voted to officially change the charter to omit all references to the “town” of Greenfield and replace them with “city,” ending what Council Vice President Isaac Mass aptly termed the “identity crisis” Greenfield has endured since the advent of the mayoral charter over a decade and a half ago.

The council’s decision to approve the change with little to no debate was surprising enough. But what was truly shocking was that no one turned out to speak on the change at the Dec. 20 public hearing.

Not that long ago, the idea of ditching Greenfield’s small town identity would have been cause for a near riot. Remember when then-Mayor Christine Forgey changed the town’s website to cityofgreenfield.org? Some people really lost their marbles over that one.

And let’s not forget that retaining the town moniker was a pretty serious negotiating point during the charter’s development. There were certain people that just did not want Greenfield classified as a city, even though it was adopting a city form of government, and had pretty much the same demographic makeup as Gardner and North Adams — both communities which had waved goodbye to the small town identity years ago.

The one I remember being most adamantly against the change was the late Barbara Tillmanns, who threatened to actively campaign against the charter’s passage if it changed the name from town to city.

“She was pretty adamant,” said commission member David Singer. “She wasn’t the only one, but she was the most vocal.”

Singer said the pushback was such that the commission researched the legal ramifications of establishing a city form of government without actually labeling it as such.

“We looked up the law and found that there was nothing preventing us from being a city without actually calling it a city, knowing full well that, at some point down the line, it would probably be changed,” Singer said.

Singer said the commission’s main concern was developing a charter that was both operationally effective and politically palatable to the voters.

“We knew that this was going to be a close call, so we wanted to minimize those areas which were likely to cause division,” Singer said.

That left the handle “the city known as the town of Greenfield,” a pretty ridiculous moniker which did little to raise the community’s stature among its neighbors, or the commonwealth as a whole.

Still, it didn’t seem to matter much, and the community conducted business as usual for years under the mayoral charter. And as Greenfield began to achieve some stability and success under the new form of government, the town-city debate became less and less of an issue — save the guffaws which used to pop up at the annual budget meeting when it came time to read the warrant.

I, for one, never expected this change to happen, and I anticipated some serious pushback when Mass proposed it. And there was a little bit, mostly in the form of letters and emails, and the ones that asked to retain the town identity also suggested that Greenfield go back to a selectboard-led form of government, which isn’t likely to happen.

Another suggested that because the state knows Greenfield is a city, changing the name wasn’t a big deal, which actually is not the case. According to Council President Brickett Allis, the city-town confusion reared its head when it came time to sign this year’s election warrant.

“When we called the state to ask if I could sign the warrant, instead of having to call a special meeting, which we ended up having to do, they said ‘no,’ that because it says Town Council on the charter, therefore we are a town,” Allis said.

“So it does make a difference, and the state does make decisions based on what our charter actually says, ” Allis added.

Allis also made the point that, regardless of what Greenfield calls itself, the business of government will still go on.

“We’ll still have the same good and bad things we’ve always had, but we’ll just call ourselves something else,” Allis said.

The difference is, this time, it will finally be accurate.

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.