Williamstown fire district to hold special election

Joey Fox, Managing Editor

Williamstown’s fire district will hold a special election next Tuesday Nov. 19 for two seats on its prudential committee as the district prepares to move its fire station from Water Street to Main Street. 

David Moresi and Jerry Smith will face off for one of the seats on the volunteer committee overseeing the Williamstown Fire Department (WFD), while Bruce MacDonald will compete against Richard Reynolds for the other. Though the fire district’s boundaries align with Williamstown, it is taxed and governed separately from the town government.

The election comes after a decision by the prudential committee in 2017, and approval from Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker in July 2019, to expand the committee from its current three seats to five. One of the new members will be elected for an 18-month term and the other for a 30-month term, after which both seats will align with the fire district’s standard schedule of electing members in May for staggered three-year terms.

Anne Skinner, senior lecturer in chemistry emerita and president of the League of Women Voters of Williamstown, said that her group is concerned about the possibility for low turnout in the election. “This is an unusual election,” she said. “It’s two weeks after everybody else voted, it’s in the elementary school cafeteria (whereas the town elections are in the gym) and it only runs from 3:30 p.m. to 7:30 [p.m.], whereas town elections run from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m.”

The election is being held now, rather than in May when most fire district elections are held, due to the urgency of the committee’s current project. After 50 years in its current location on Water Street, the WFD is moving to a new location on Main Street near the Green River.

“The fact is that there is a 50-year-old fire station,” Skinner said, “and in the last 50 years, fire engines have gotten bigger, firefighting equipment has gotten more elaborate, and this fire station won’t do anymore.”

“They [the prudential committee] don’t want to wait until May to get a larger committee and really start working on these problems,” Skinner continued. “And that’s a big project. That’s a multi-million dollar project.”

In addition to the immediate need for a successful transition to its new location, the WFD is also struggling with the challenges of maintaining a volunteer firefighting force in a relatively elderly town. 

“The demographics of Williamstown are not conducive to a volunteer fire department,” Skinner said. “It’s an aging town, and many of the people who live here who might previously have worked … relatively locally, now may work in Pittsfield or someplace where they can’t get back. By the time they get back, the fire’s either out or out of control.” 

“This is something that over the next few years, the fire district is going to face,” Skinner said.

A spokesperson for the fire district did not respond to a request for comment on the election.

At a forum broadcast on WilliNet and sponsored by the League of Women Voters, the four candidates spelled out their backgrounds and positions. 

Moresi highlighted his background in real estate management and development, including his recent redevelopment of the Norad Mill in North Adams. Smith similarly emphasized his history in construction, including his previous role as president of the Williamstown board of trade.

For the other seat, MacDonald also brought up his development credentials, most notably his redevelopment of the Smedley House in 2014-2015. Reynolds, who works as a program manager for Hewlett Packard Enterprise, is the only candidate to have experience in a fire department as a former volunteer firefighter at Rutgers University.

Smith, after thanking the WFD and the currently serving members of the prudential committee, framed his reasons for running in a call to service. “I strongly believe that, if you have the time, people should come forward and serve. I just happen to have some time,” he said.

MacDonald laid out a more specific set of three priorities: increasing efforts to recruit volunteers, using his own experience with building to help the committee and fostering transparency on the committee. “Many people in town don’t even know what it is they do,” he said. “I would like to work with WilliNet, I would like to work with iBerkshires, and promote what exactly the prudential committee is doing to keep the public more informed and widen the participation of all the residents of Williamstown.”

Moresi also noted his concerns about the declining number of volunteers, mentioning his previous work as a volunteer paramedic for an ambulance service in Schenectady County. “I want to bring a fresh new perspective to the committee,” he said. “I want to bring some energy, some involvement.” 

Finally Reynolds, echoing many of the other candidates’ points, brought up his own background as a member of the Williamstown elementary school committee and his work coordinating stakeholders at Hewlett Packard. “As a member of the committee, I will look to collaborate with … and hear from the community to deliver on those needs. It’s going to be a transformational time,” he said.

For Skinner, given the importance of the prudential committee’s tasks in the years to come, the most important thing is that the town community shows up to vote. “The turnout for fire district elections is usually quite low, because there isn’t much at stake,” she said. “There’s quite a lot at stake in this one.”