Political newcomer challenging incumbent for Whately Select Board seat

JOSHUA HARRIS

JOSHUA HARRIS

FRED BARON

FRED BARON

Polls will be open at Whately Town Hall from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Tuesday.

Polls will be open at Whately Town Hall from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Tuesday. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

By CHRIS LARABEE

Staff Writer

Published: 06-10-2024 10:39 AM

WHATELY — Select Board Chair Fred Baron is facing a challenge from political newcomer but longtime Pioneer Valley resident Joshua Harris in the only contested race on Tuesday’s election ballot.

Polls will be open at Town Hall from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.

Frederick U. Baron

Baron, 66, is seeking reelection to a second Select Board term with the goal of pushing forward the long-term projects the town has started in the last three years, while also maintaining continuity in town offices where the town administrator, assistant town administrator, town clerk and other positions have seen turnover in recent years.

His top three priorities are working on a feasibility study for a new Highway Department garage, finding a use for the former Center School that has positive financial benefit for the town, and spurring economic development around the Exit 35 neighborhood, which has been the subject of an ongoing study process.

“The past year, if you look at it objectively, you don’t see a lot of major projects finished, but there’s been a lot going on and it’s been going on in a time of a lot of personnel turnover,” said Baron, who has run High Ridge Books for 40 years. “I’ve learned a lot about the town, I’ve learned how it functions and the budgeting process, and with the turnover we’ve had, maybe a little continuity wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.”

On top of these priorities, Baron said the main challenge facing Whately is the battle between bringing economic development to town while also preserving the rural character that defines it.

“We’re largely an agricultural community, but if we don’t have economic growth, we will fall behind budgetarily,” Baron said, adding that the town faces economic pressures from neighbors like Northampton, Greenfield and Amherst. Environmental concerns also hamper development, as more commercial areas, like near the Whately Diner, are surrounded by wetlands and the community needs to be mindful of it.

Balancing development and town character, he added, happens on a “case-by-case basis.”

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“It’s on a case-by-case basis and a lot of talking to residents and working things out and getting community involvement, so it’s not always the same people’s ideas in meetings,” Baron said.

Along with his three years on the Select Board, Baron has also served on the Planning Board and Finance Committee, and he currently serves as Whately’s representative on the South County EMS Board of Oversight.

“I think I’ve done a good job of representing the attitudes and wishes of the community; I’ve listened to people and we try to treat everyone who comes before us with respect,” Baron said. “It’s been an honor to work with the people of Whately.”

Joshua S. Harris

Harris, 46, is a detective with the Amherst Police Department and has lived a life of public service through his work as a police officer around the valley, as an EMT and through his community volunteering. While a political newcomer in Whately, Harris said he is deeply familiar with how town government works through his time as a municipal employee and he has served as police union president and vice president at points throughout his career.

He is running on a platform of “common sense ideas and fiscal responsibility” with the goal of listening to voters and preserving Whately’s rural and agricultural character.

“I am not a politician, I’ve been in service to others my entire life going back to high school. I don’t have any self-serving interests in this,” Harris said. “I’ve been a servant of the public, which is what I enjoy … and maybe taking that next step to where I can have a voice based off what my neighbors, friends and constituents say, I may be able to change things or better things a little bit.”

As is the case in any small town, Harris said budget challenges are always front and center, and to him, the biggest priorities are ensuring long-term planning is always being conducted and continuing to work with the excellent schools.

Planning, he added, doesn’t just include the long-term capital projects like fire engines or Highway Department trucks; it also includes things like a backup generator to get water to residents in the event of a widespread power outage and communicating what grants the town has applied for.

In that vein, he said he’d like to welcome department heads to quarterly Select Board meetings to prioritize needs in a collaborative manner.

“It’s not just my opinion, it would be feedback from department heads, if we form committees, then committees and the public. I want their feedback,” he said, adding that he will be “that shoulder for people to lean on. “I want to be able to listen to them, I want to be able to give them a voice.”

Harris said his time working in the Pioneer Valley has allowed him to build up a wide network of contacts at both the local and state level as well.

“Locally we can have a direct effect on our neighbors and community,” he said, adding that when things are too big for the town to handle that network comes in handy. “When we have issues here, if we have that liaison or that relationship with them, we’ll be able to say what Whately needs.”

Chris Larabee can be reached at clarabee@recorder.com.