Emails detail mayoral candidate’s clashes with city officials

  • Mayoral candidate Eric Berzins participates in a televised debate with Mayor Nicole LaChapelle at 22News in Chicopee on Oct. 20. SCREENSHOT/WWLP-TV 22News

  • MAYOR NICOLE LACHAPELLE

Staff Writer
Published: 10/22/2021 5:45:48 PM

EASTHAMPTON — Mayor Nicole LaChapelle emailed a police sergeant on July 26, 2019, “regarding Eric Berzins’ harassing and intimidating behavior toward me on the Manhan Rail Trail” the previous night.

LaChapelle wrote that she was riding bikes with her adult daughter when Berzins, the owner of Fort Hill Brewery who is running against her in the Nov. 2 election for mayor, “rode by us and flipped me off with his middle finger. As we rode down the path, by National Non-wovens, Eric was circling in the upper parking lot, yelling at me, ‘Nicole, you are corrupt.’”

Berzins was embroiled in a dispute with city officials over his tax bill, as well as the allegedly illegal construction of a bicycle and dirt bike track and the addition of new parking spaces on his brewery’s Fort Hill Road property without a permit. Ultimately, the city sent Berzins three cease-and-desist letters before suing him to stop the work in July 2021. The city is currently in talks with Berzins for a possible settlement.

“Near Easthampton Feed, Eric rode up by my side and startled me,” LaChapelle told police in her 2019 email. “Eric instantly started asking questions in a demanding manner” while pedaling “very close to my side. I told him twice I did not want to speak with him and asked him to leave me alone.” He started calling her “lady,” she wrote.

“His tone was abrupt and demanding,” LaChapelle wrote. “As he ignored my requests to leave me alone, he remained in my personal space as we pedaled. I told him I felt harassed and asked to move along. He asked me what I was going to do — call the police? — as he pedaled away from me. I responded yes and called Chief Alberti. … Until I said I was going to call the police, I felt like I could not stop as it felt like he was going to corner me.”

In an interview, Berzins said LaChapelle’s email was “her side of the story,” but it’s true “for the most part.” He acknowledged flipping off the mayor and calling her “lady,” but denied yelling at her from the parking lot, and said a police officer came to his home after the incident for a “20-minute conversation.”

“I don’t go around harassing city officials for sport,” Berzins said. “I know how to be very polite, and in an argument, I know how to be very rude, very quickly.”

A police officer’s report filed about the incident reads, “As Berzins spoke he had a strong odor of an alcoholic beverage emitting from his breath and his speech was slurred. … I informed him that the facts of the case is he is harassing a woman and her daughter in their personal time and acting disorderly, and if he’d like to be arrested … we can certainly facilitate that.”

Through a public records request, the city of Easthampton provided the Gazette with 224 pages of emails that Berzins exchanged with officials in the planning, building, city assessor and other departments, and emails sent by officials including LaChapelle and Police Chief Robert Alberti about Berzins, between January 2019 and February 2020.

The Gazette initially requested all emails sent by Berzins related to the ongoing lawsuit against him in Hampshire Superior Court, and for all emails relevant to the cease-and-desist orders. The city responded that more than 30,000 pages were available and that properly filtering and redacting them could take significant time, so the Gazette submitted an amended request for certain records from 2019, when the city first noticed the unpermitted work.

In addition to providing insights into the legal turmoil, many of the emails tell of Berzins allegedly harassing and insulting city officials and staff to the point that some contacted the police.

Berzins alleges deadly plot

Berzins declined to explain the source of his conflict with LaChapelle, saying, “If I keep my mouth shut and not do stupid things like talk to the press, I will not be killed.”

Asked if he really believes his life is in danger, Berzins said yes, but refused to detail any threats or provide the names of anyone allegedly involved in a plot against him.

“The government has done a very good job of keeping me quiet,” Berzins said. Offered a chance to respond to some of the comments made about him by city officials in their emails, he said, “I would rather take the hit of being labeled a jerk. ... I don’t want to wind up dead.”

In March 2019, Berzins wrote to City Planner Jeffrey Bagg regarding the unpermitted work, “You may or may not agree with this statement: but am trying to treat this situation as diplomatically as possible (seeing as how I don’t want to get killed).”

Asked if she knew of anyone in government who had threatened Berzins, LaChapelle said, “No.”

“His life is not in danger. Not from the local government, not from any agent of the government,” LaChapelle said. “I’m not sure where that comes from.”

LaChapelle said Berzins’ “emotionality” often crosses a line, especially that day on the bike path in 2019.

“I have a very high tolerance, and give a wide berth for the First Amendment,” LaChapelle said. “The way he presents himself, to me, is scary.”

From the emails, it is possible to glean that Berzins was upset about his business’s property tax bill, which he compared to the bill for nearby Palmer Paving Corp. and R&R Window.

In November 2019, Berzins emailed Assessor Lori Stewart to ask about Palmer Paving’s tax bill, writing, “I just want to make sure the town is taxing me properly relative to my neighbors. As you told me before: there were mistakes on the previous (Fort Hill Brewery) assessments because of the previous assessor. … I personally think I should be taxed like R&R Window.”

The following month, he wrote that the city is “taxing the bananas out of me.”

District 5 City Councilor Dan Rist wrote to Berzins in July 2019, “I do not however feel the current government, councilors, planning department or the mayor are corrupt and have engaged in some conspiracy against you or for Palmer. You probably disagree but I will proceed to get you answers even if you decide that I am a part of this ‘conspiracy’.”

The cancer comment

The Gazette requested police reports related to the incidents described in the emails and received eight records in total.

In August 2019, Peter Davies, chair of the Board of Assessors, reported Berzins’ behavior to a detective, describing an incident at the Brass Cat in which Berzins “went off” on him, “began cursing and causing a scene,” and another in which Berzins allegedly said, “I’m coming for you.”

“At this time Peter Davies does not want to pursue this matter further. Peter relayed to us if Eric starts to harass him again, he would explore his options to include an Harassment order, and or pursuing criminal charges against him for Harassment,” the report reads.

According to an internal Police Department email, Berzins was trespassed from the Brass Cat after getting into an argument with the owner and texting him “an inappropriate message about a former girlfriend.”

On Oct. 30, 2019, Berzins wrote to Davies to apologize for “the cancer comment: that was the most vial [sic] thing I have ever said to anyone and I’m a little ashamed I said that to you.” Berzins also acknowledged saying “(expletive) you” to Davies more than once, but wrote, “I meant that.”

When asked by the Gazette to repeat the “cancer comment,” Berzins declined. He said that he is a cancer survivor, and he tries to “get a rise out of people” with his “potty mouth.”

Davies, reached on Wednesday, said that Berzins “knew of a medical issue that I had, and said he hoped it didn’t get better, and kind of intimated that he hoped it would get worse.”

In a separate August 2019 email, Police Chief Alberti advised fellow police officials, “I’m sure that Peter Davies has enough harassment now to be granted a 258E” harassment prevention order in court, and other records show an officer advised a member of the Planning Board about getting a harassment prevention order against Berzins.

Alberti wrote in his email that Berzins’ behavior is “getting worse,” and “I don’t want to be put into a position where we are enabling him by yet another talk and apology by him. He clearly knows how to work the system.”

According to Davies, Berzins was “pretty much, kind of banned from city hall. He would go in there and yell at the building inspectors.” This allegation is reflected in the police reports and call logs related to Berzins, which also show that at least two city officials reported Berzins showing up uninvited at their homes to discuss taxes.

Pressed by the Gazette to explain his interactions with Davies and others, Berzins repeatedly referred to the fact that there are 30,000 total pages of emails, and said the answer is buried within them.

“You’re going to learn about why I did that from those 30,000 pages,” Berzins said in one such exchange, reiterating that he believes his life is in danger.

Councilor intervenes

On Jan. 13, 2020, Rist, the District 5 councilor, offered some advice to Berzins. Rist counseled Berzins that his conduct toward city staff needed to improve, and said he wanted to “bury the hatchet” and repair their own relationship.

“You have 2 sides to your character and if I can use a Star wars analogy, a dark side and a very good side,” Rist wrote. “... calling city officials corrupt, harassing, calling me and Peter [Davies] cowards, has alienated many elected and city officials.”

He suggested that Berzins “brew great beer” and let others in his company work with the city.

He wrote that Berzins has “a very generous ‘good’ side to your character that I wish I could deal with that side all the time. You give to a lot of worthy groups. It is that side of you I strongly recommend you show moving forward.”

Berzins replied, “What is the point of this email? The message you are trying to convey is not clear.”

About an hour after his initial reply, Berzins wrote again. He said he interpreted Rist’s outreach as, “1. Respect the authority unconditionally, 2. Don’t participate in government for a while, 3. Don’t call people cowards: it hurts their feelings, and makes them unable to actually do their jobs.”

Berzins and Rist exchanged a few more emails in which Rist tried to clarify his position, and Berzins argued that Rist was not helping him. On Jan. 14, 2020, Berzins wrote to Rist, “Don’t you ever speak to me the way you did. boy.” Four days later, he wrote to Rist to offer “my commitment to positive change, as well as a genuine apology.”

Campaign message

Last week, Berzins filed a document with the state Office of Campaign and Political Finance that states he will not raise or spend any money on his campaign for mayor. Asked if he was running to win, Berzins said yes, but that he expects to lose on Nov. 2.

His message to voters about his behavior, he said, is that he does not tolerate lying.

“If you lie to me, then I’m not afraid to speak up and defend my position. I’m not going to take it on the chin,” Berzins said. “I would be terribly embarrassed if another citizen were treated that way by their government.”

Asked by the Gazette to explain who lied to him, when, and about what, Berzins again declined to answer.

Brian Steele can be reached at bsteele@gazettenet.com.

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