Area legislators at summit listen to constituents

 

Daily Hampshire Gazette 

By GENA MANGIARATTI

Staff Writer

Sunday, November 16, 2014
(Published in print: Monday, November 17, 2014)

“I think I agree with every single of one these things up here,” she said as she reviewed the poster-size papers with lists of residents’ ideas on the walls of the JFK Community Room Saturday.

Story was among five Democratic legislators who heard the priorities of their constituents this weekend at a legislative summit organized by the Hampshire Council of Governments. Also there were state Reps. John Scibak of South Hadley, Peter Kocot of Northampton, Paul Mark of the 2nd Berkshire District and state Sen. Stanley Rosenberg of Amherst.

The priorities presented to the legislators included funding for early education, greater access to higher education and the creation of jobs that would keep young people in the area after they graduate from local colleges. Residents also advocated for more alternative energy incentives and development of the Connecticut River.

The goal of the summit was for residents to brainstorm and prioritize legislative topics specific to the needs of western Massachusetts cities and towns, said council director Todd Ford. Around 75 people from all four counties of the region were in attendance Saturday.

The four-and-a-half hour gathering began with a presentation of data by Daniel Hodge, director of economic and public policy research with the Donahue Institute at the University of Massachusetts. Participants then divided into smaller groups sessions on topics such as economic development, small business and tourism before a larger discussion in the company of their legislators.

Residents came from both large and small communities throughout western Massachusetts. Patrice Woeppel of Williamsburg said in an interview that one of her major concerns was stopping what has been termed “school to prison pipeline,” and noted research that has shown a higher suspension rate among students of color and students in special education.

“It’s wrong, dead wrong,” said Woeppel.

She said her other priorities included divestment from gun manufacturing, and affordable housing as a way to encourage more young people to settle in the Valley.

Sarah Etelman and Francis DeToma of the South Hadley Select Board said they came out to Saturday’s event to make sure their town had a voice. DeToma, who was part of a smaller group discussion focused on economic development, said there was an interest in seeing how industry and education could understand each other’s needs in order to create jobs.

Story encouraged the residents to narrow down their priorities to between two and four issues on which they could become unified.

“We could be very noisy about it and all of you could be very noisy about it,” Story said.

Gena Mangiaratti can be reached at gmangiaratti@gazettenet.com.