WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Members of the Select Board and the town manager Monday disagreed slightly on whether the town may need a new committee to monitor hiking trails and whether the board has the authority to create one.
The conversation was started by a proposal former Conservation Commission member Robert Hatton brought to the board earlier this summer for a new committee that would be responsible for making sure trails are maintained throughout the town.
The Select Board took no action on that idea at its July 9 meeting. At a subsequent meeting of the Conservation Commission, that body voted to send a letter to the Select Board recommending "a Trails Committee and/or appointment of a Trails Coordinator that would draw on the expertise of various non-profits and state agencies like the Department of Conservation and Recreation, Williamstown Rural Lands Foundation, Williams Outing Club and the Berkshire Natural Resources Council."
Hatton was back before the Select Board on Monday to argue that the issue is important enough to require a town committee with a specific charge: to be accountable for trail maintenance.
"To me, the Select Board is the entity that represents all of Williamstown's citizens, especially concerning town-owned open space," Hatton said. "I think people would support a committee created by the Select Board more than a vague bureaucratic [mechanism].
"I think the townspeople should be able to go to a meeting. … They're not going to go to a Rural Lands meeting or a Williams Outing Club meeting or a Hoosic River Watershed Association meeting. Those are all private meetings. If a committee is appointed by the Select Board, the people are going to support it."
Hatton argued that the Con Comm at its July 12 meeting was swayed by the argument made by the town's conservation agent, Andrew Groff, who provides staff support to the commission.
On Monday, Town Manager Jason Hoch argued to the Select Board that the town has significant oversight of the town-owned trails through the Con Comm itself and can more effectively address issues on other trails by coordinating communication with other stakeholders.
"Andrew [Groff] and I have been talking about this since the spring, what this best looks like," Hoch said. "I'm loathe to say that a town, with a capital 'T,' committee makes sense.
"There are very few 'town' properties. Many of the trails are on Conservation Commission properties, which neither you nor I have direct oversight of. What we kept coming back to was we have this great expertise with [WRLF], and how do we deep the partnership with them?
"The majority of trail mileage that is under the town of Williamstown is Conservation Commission land."
Hatton responded with a list of public land with trails that are not under the Con Comm's care and custody, including the Spruces property on Main Street, Linear Park and Torrey Woods.
Select Board member Hugh Daley supported Hatton's contention that a town committee dedicated to maintaining trails would provide a measure of accountability.
"The one thing about having a standing committee like [the Select Board] is we're held accountable by townspeople to do the job," Daley argued.
Hoch responded that it is a question of whether the town needs a new committee as opposed to trying to "lead the people who already are doing this."
And, Hoch raised the issue of whether the Select Board or the town manager is the proper authority to create a new committee.
He referenced the Town Charter, specifically Section 15, Part B, which reads, in part "The Town Manager, in accordance with the provisions of this Act and except as otherwise expressly prohibited by the General Laws, may reorganize, consolidate or abolish departments, commissions, boards or offices under his direction and supervision, in whole or in part, may establish such new departments, commissions, boards or offices as he deems necessary ... ."
Calling to mind recent committees that were creations of the Select Board -- the Spruces Land Use Committee and the ad hoc Economic Development Committee and Public Safety Building Study Committee -- Hoch admitted that it is a gray area.
"The Select Board has clearly appointed committees in the past, yet your charter puts a pretty significant responsibility onto me," Hoch said. "Ideally, we find a place where we can agree … and if we can't, that's why we have town counsel."
Select Board member Jeffrey Thomas, who participated from the floor at the most recent Conservation Commission meeting, said he hoped such an agreement could be reached.
One of his colleagues said either arm of town government ultimately could make the move unilaterally.
"I feel highly comfortable that if the Parks Commission wanted to appoint a Trails Committee, it could do it," Select Board member Andrew Hogeland said, referring to the Select Board's role as the town's Parks Commission.
"Getting lost in the weeds is not productive for either of us," Hoch said.
"I agree," Hogeland answered. "I think citing the Town Charter means we've lost something."
Hogeland then recommended that the Select Board wait and see whether the coordination plan endorsed by the Conservation Commission comes to fruition.
"If it jells, then we're done," Hogeland said. "If it doesn't work, we can restart the conversation. … I don't feel the need tonight to have a committee appointed by us or anybody else, but if there's a way to get this done cooperatively and effectively and there's an organization put together in the next two weeks or four weeks, let's see what happens."
No one on the board made a motion to take any action on the request, and the meeting adjourned shortly thereafter.
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