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Jeffrey Thomas, left, and Ann O'Connor disagreed on the place of 'symbolic' resolutions at town meeting.

Williamstown Selectmen: Pot Bylaw a 'Defensive Step'

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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Selectwoman Jane Patton publicly grappled with her conscience before voting against recommending town meeting approve a bylaw change regarding marijuana businesses.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — A divided and conflicted Board of Selectmen on Monday voted its recommendations on a 40-article warrant to be presented to next month's annual town meeting.
The four selectmen in attendance made short work of most of the financial warrant articles, though a couple of the Community Preservation Act allocations generated some discussion.
The real sticking points came further down the warrant, when the board considered a bylaw amendment to create zoning regulations for marijuana businesses and, later, three articles placed on the warrant by citizens petition.
Jane Patton set the tone for the marijuana bylaw by expressing the conflict she felt between her obligation as a town official and her personal opinions about legalized pot.
Patton admitted that she was in the minority among town voters who cast ballots on November's statewide initiative to legalize recreational marijuana. She said Monday's vote was the hardest she had to cast in her four years on the Board of Selectmen.
"I'm struggling with this, and I don't often struggle," Patton said. "I usually have a clear conscience and a sense of purpose. … This one honestly has got me all jammed up."
Each of the selectmen at the table grappled with the complex issue, but the majority came down in favor of the Planning Board's initiative to define the zoning districts in which marijuana retail, testing and production facilities would be allowed if ever.
It was the "if ever" part that was key to the discussion.
Everyone at the table noted that the commonwealth is at least a year away from having a clear regulatory path established for marijuana retail establishments.
"Among the things we're waiting for from the Legislature is a rule about how a town can enact a full ban," Town Manager Jason Hoch noted. "There's reference to it in the [November 2016] referendum, but it's not clear what the legal process is.
"I have to believe something will come out of the Legislature allowing that. We could be in a position next year where a group of citizens at town meeting could pursue that."
Selectwoman Ann O'Connor was the second person on the board — and third town official in two weeks — to reveal how she voted on the state initiative. She voted for legalizing marijuana, but she saw the issue as one of criminal justice reform, O'Connor said.
Now that it is the law of the commonwealth, she shares the concerns expressed at last week's Planning Board public hearing about the impact on local youth of sending the wrong message about pot.
O'Connor said she had at one time "held every position in this room," but her thought process led her to ultimately support the zoning bylaw proposed by the Planning Board.
"As it stands, we don't have any restrictions on where you'd place a business selling marijuana," O'Connor said. "My sense is that the Planning Board has been doing its job by tackling this question now and not thinking we have this statewide moratorium. Yes, there is a moratorium, but it's wise to figure out in what parts of town you'd permit this."
Jeffrey Thomas agreed.
"Ann makes a good point in clarifying that this is a pro-active and, in a way, defensive step, where we're saying: If it comes here, this is where it will be, and this is where it won't be," Thomas said.
"People in the community are confused and think that if they support this warrant article, it means they think we should have pot shops here, and that's not true. If you're concerned about having marijuana here, you should get behind this warrant article because it gives us, in case it does come, control over where it is located."
Thomas, O'Connor and Chairman Andrew Hogeland voted to recommend town meeting pass the bylaw. Hugh Daley, who previously expressed an intention to abstain because of a potential conflict (land ownership in one of the affected zoning districts), missed Monday's meeting because of illness. Patton voted in the minority of a 3-1 decision after clarifying that she appreciated the Planning Board's work on the bylaw.
"I am thrilled beyond measure at the Planning Board and the work that they've done on this," Patton said. "This is not an easy thing. This literally comes down to my personal moral compass, and, for the first time, it has gotten in the way for me. … I like to really support something or really not. I'm not good at gray. Therein lies my challenge.
"But I have total and complete confidence the Planning Board has gone through this. How I feel about this is not an indication of the regard and respect I have for the Planning Board and the work it has done."
Thomas was on the losing end of a pair of 3-1 votes regarding two of three articles on the warrant via citizens petition.
He voted against a proposal to rename Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples Day in the town and against a resolution to encourage pollinator-friendly behavior in the Village Beautiful.
On both counts, Thomas was clear that he agreed with the intent of the articles. His issue was with the practice of using town meeting to make "statement" resolutions.
Thomas noted that the former resolution, on Columbus Day, would do little more than change some paperwork at Town Hall and a notation on the town's calendar. Williamstown's decision will not change the fact that there is a federal holiday recognizing an historical figure whose legacy is more sordid than was widely recognized a generation or two ago.
The latter resolution is arguably more symbolic. The Pollinator-Friendly Community resolution, one of several working their way through Western Massachusetts municipalities, is non-binding and described by proponents as educational.
Thomas contended that town meeting should be about the town's business: the passage of a budget and other concrete actions, like zoning bylaws.
"Why support a resolution that's not going to change much?" Thomas asked.
Hogeland said he shared Thomas' concern but at the end of the day, town meeting is the legislative body of the town, not the creation of the Board of Selectmen. And it is far from unusual for legislative bodies at all levels of government to pass non-binding resolutions.
O'Connor was more strongly in favor of such motions.
"I feel that in a town that cares about many issues, advocacy of this kind is not unusual," the Williamstown native said. "I believe there's plenty of precedent throughout town meeting history. The town clerk has, I believe, files and files of petitions and resolutions with signatures.
"You say these are non-binding. We might be grateful for that. These [pollinator] petitioners could have written ordinances and gotten those ordinances on the ballot. That would have created more problems for town government: A poorly written ordinance gets passed and has to be reviewed by town counsel."
The vote in favor of recommending the Indigenous Peoples resolution to town meeting was 2-1-1 with Thomas voting against and Hogeland abstaining. Hogeland joined Patton and O'Connor in recommending the pollinator resolution to town meeting.
All four members of the board at Monday's meeting enthusiastically supported a resolution to affirm the policy of the town's Police Department not to investigate civil immigration matters. In addition to affirming that general order, the resolution makes it town policy that the order cannot be rescinded or modified without a minimum of 30 days advance notice to the public.
Police Chief Kyle Johnson previously told the board that he was OK with the wording of the resolution.
"I want to note that there was a great process offline which involved discussion between the town manager, the chief of police and the citizens who wanted to see this happen," Thomas said. "I want to acknowledge the wonderful work that brought to us something reasonable, and [that work] makes me comfortable with the mini precedent of a town meeting vote affecting how the police operate."

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In addition to influencing care within the organization, SVMC emergency staff are empowered to be leaders beyond the health system, impacting nurses and other health-care providers throughout the state and country. In the last three years, SVMC's ED nurses have presented at local, regional and national conferences on topics including cultural humility, harm reduction, design considerations for emergency psychiatric care, and orientation strategies for new emergency registered nurses.
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