WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — First-year Town Manager Jason Hoch was given high marks by the Board of Selectmen on Monday.
The board held its final vote on a weeks-long process that began with the development of a comprehensive technique for performing the evaluation and ended in a 5-0 decision to approve a report that found Hoch, "has shown himself to be a thoughtful, intelligent and articulate manager who comes with significant expertise in his field and the ability to learn quickly as new issues arise."
When it began the evaluation process over the summer, the board grappled with the fact that none of them had engaged in a thorough evaluation in the past. Longtime, now retired Town Manager Peter Fohlin received regular but, in the board's estimation, somewhat cursory reviews, in the final years of a career that most in town government agreed was stellar.
Faced with a first-year replacement and a process it was building from ground zero, the board developed a questionnaire that it sent to 45 people, including town employees, town board and committee members and members of the public. It received 38 responses.
"I was pleased to receive the draft [report] and extra pleased to see how favorable it was," Selectwoman Anne O'Connor said. "I think we all know we have a great town manager, and this process confirmed it."
As a followup to the online surveys, members of the board interviewed selected respondents to get more information about Hoch. Selectman Jeffrey Thomas said there was value in going through the interview process.
"I learned a lot about how Town Hall runs," Thomas said. "We learned a lot from speaking to Town Hall employees. That was a point Jason made early on in the process: There are a lot of aspects of his job that we're not aware of. It was great to see 'Jason in the round,' so to speak, and just how favorably he is regarded here in Town Hall.
"Having had a mix of success as a manager in my own career, I have a deep appreciation of how challenging it can be to come into a new situation and manage that."
The executive summary of the evaluation, read into the record by Chairman Andrew Hogeland, alluded to the transition process Hoch faced and emphasized the success of his management style.
"Since he arrived shortly before the [fiscal 2017] budget cycle started, there has been limited opportunity to use his own approach to budgeting matters, but he has shown relevant expertise," Hogeland read.
"Of particular note, he has been very well received by town staff. He created a positive atmosphere and started to create a more efficient way to do the town's business. He works with staff in a collaborative fashion, respects their experience and does not micromanage them. Morale is very good."
Monday's meeting included the announcement that Hoch and his Town Hall team nearly have completed a years-long process begun under his predecessor, the closure of the former Spruces Mobile Home Park and the shepherding of $6.1 million grant funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Hoch told the board that the town has received its last pending major reimbursement under the grant, which was administered by the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency.
The money, predicated on the flood-prone park's closure and return of the land to a natural state, was used to relocate Spruces residents, remove park infrastructure and help fund the Highland Woods senior affordable housing project off South Street.
Hoch told the board the town has made its last $400,000 payment to Highland Woods developer Berkshire Housing Development Corporation.
"This is the end of a long process," Hogeland noted. "Thank you to Debbie [Turnbull], too. This was years' worth of work."
Turnbull, the town manager's assistant, managed the mobile home park during the period when the town controlled the property on behalf of its owner Morgan Management, which only relinquished title to the town after the last residents were relocated. Turnbull, who was recognized at annual town meeting as the town's employee of the year, was for many months the point person and advocate for Spruces residents at Town Hall.
Hoch told the board that while most of the money related to the closure has changed hands, there is still some paperwork hanging over the town's head: the final signoff from FEMA that the terms of the grant have been fulfilled.
"There is no reason to expect any concerns, but the paper is not here with their signature and my signature," Hoch said. "Hopefully, this will be done by the end of the year."
In the near future, the town will be closing a portion of Walden Street to ease confusion and promote safety around the Williams College bookstore project at the corner of Spring and Walden.
Hoch asked the Board of Selectmen — in its capacity as road commissioners — to approve the closure of the eastern end of Walden at Monday's meeting. He explained that the town had been keeping the road open to traffic as much as possible and closing it when necessary with detours through the nearby municipal parking lot.
"What we've noticed — this came out of conversation with someone on the street — is there is some confusion and potential hazards going back and forth between open and closed," Hoch said. "Given the fact that the detour has been effective — the world has not ended in the critical summer months — my recommendation is we close that corner until construction at the corner ceases. Let's stop with the on again, off again. Let's close it and reopen it when we don't need to close it again three days later."
Hoch said the college did not ask for the long-term closure and had been doing everything possible to keep the street open during construction of the store, set to open in fall 2017.
"The proposal is the end point be when construction activity ceases," Hoch said. "The worst-case scenario is end of August next summer. … The reality is I'd like to have it sooner, but it's unsure when street-based work is finished and they're truly inside."
The board voted 5-0 to order the closure up to Sept. 15, 2017, or until conclusion of the construction activity, whichever comes first.
In other business on Monday, the Board of Selectmen approved an alcohol license for Images Cinema.
Executive Director Doug Jones explained the need for a license and how the non-profit Spring Street venue plans to regulate alcohol consumption during films.
"Allowing people to come to the theater and enjoy a beer or a nice glass of wine during the film is in line with what we do at Images," Jones said. "When you come to a movie, it's more than going to a movie. … This is in line with the organic popcorn and gluten-free brownies from Spring Street Market.
"Another primary reason is movie theaters getting liquor licenses is much more the norm in the industry. The Beacon Cinema in Pittsfield has one. As of today, the Regal Mall 10 [in Lanesborough] just started serving. While we're a non-profit, we're competing in a competitive arena. This will help us be more competitive."
Jones said he has looked to competing theaters to find best practices for selling alcohol. Images' plan is to sell alcohol for a one-hour period for each screening — half an hour before and half an hour after. Patrons will be required to have a ticket for the film being shown during that window and will be limited to one drink per customer. Jones assured the board that all Images employees will be TIPS trained.
The board voted 5-0 to grant the license.
"This is a great idea and a proven concept," Selectwoman Jane Patton said. "You're not going to have any issues where people go overboard."
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