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Williamstown Select Board Chair Jeffrey Thomas wears a mask for the start of Monday's meeting on the Zoom video conferencing platform.

Williamstown Officials Urge Vigilance in Use of Facemasks

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Select Board kicked off its Monday meeting with a public service message, appearing from the comfort of their respective homes with the facemasks that they hope everyone will wear outside of theirs.
 
In its first meeting since Gov. Charlie Baker ordered all Massachusetts residents who are able to wear face coverings when they cannot socially distance, the board and town manager reminded their audience why that mandate is essential.
 
"The science shows it will decrease the likelihood of spread, and really, that's the spot we all need to be in on this," Town Manager Jason Hoch said.
 
Hoch said people should get into the habit of bringing their face coverings with them wherever they go, whether or not they think they'll need them. He said he is favoring the Gator-style mask worn around the neck and pulled up over the nose at a moment's notice.
 
"In all likelihood, this will be the practice we all need to adopt for the foreseeable future," he said. "Even as things open up, the expectation is we'll be wearing masks in more and more places."
 
Hoch directed any residents with questions about how to obtain a mask or make their own to watch a video from the Department of Public Health on the town's website.
 
And he said the town's efforts in social distancing have paid off. Although Williamstown has one well reported "hot spot" for COVID-19, the town's overall infection rate remains low.
 
"What we have seen townwide in terms of cases has been reassuring that social distancing, limiting time out has made a difference community wide," Hoch said. "But we are not without any cases locally. It is important to remember this is still out there, and our success in doing all the right things can be easily reversed without caution.
 
"That will continue to be the watchword we get from the state as we get to the next phases of a gradual reopening of things."
 
As for the town's hotspot, Hoch shared encouraging news about Williamstown Commons.
 
"It seems as if they're past the worst of it there," he said. "They have continued to work closely with the [Northern Berkshire] operations center and [Department of Public Health] guidance as it has come out to put in the best practices as we know them."
 
Hoch said the town has received "informal guidance" from the Department of Revenue on how to plan for a "1/12th" budget in the event town meeting does not meet to approve and approve a fiscal year 2021 budget before the end of the FY20 on June 30.
 
"In some cases, there may be some additional reimbursement, whether through FEMA or the CARES Act," Hoch said. "Guidance on specific questions being developed as we speak. We're watching that landscape, but there's certainly uncertainty there.
 
"I'm fairly comfortable that we're making good progress on budget. We're being fairly thoughtful about where we are on that, so that once we're in a position to move on an update of getting that first 1/12th budget approved — in theory I should have that at one of our next two meetings, a review sufficient to satisfy DOR. … [Town Accountant Anna Osborn] and I … are pre-emptively doing July and August. I have no idea how many will be needed, but the fewer times we go through these, the better."
 
In response to a follow-up question from Select Board member Andy Hogeland, Hoch said he thought it was "highly unlikely" the annual town meeting would be scheduled in June. And the town manager indicated he is no particular rush to get an FY21 budget before the voters.
 
"I'm watching towns jumping through all sorts of hoops trying to figure out how to have town meetings prior to that — parking lots, football fields, all sorts of things, Zoom meetings," he said. "My guiding theory on all this is the more we understand the impact of the loss of state aid and the decline in local tax revenue, the smarter our budget can be.
 
"My greatest concern in all this is rushing to get an approved budget based on a series of expectations that turn out to not be true. … If revenues don't perform at those levels, we don't get to adjust appropriation to accommodate a new level without yet another town meeting. Once we vote an appropriation, we're committed to spend and raise for that. If revenues fall short, that just means more taxes.
 
"The better information we have before we make the final commitment, the better we're going to be."
 
Hoch will give the board its next update on the budget picture at its May 26 meeting. The board Monday briefly considered moving that meeting to its regular night of the week, Monday, instead of moving it to Tuesday, as has been the practice around Monday holidays.
 
"Jason [Hoch] pointed out that in the COVID era, all days are kind of the same," Select Board Chair Jeffrey Thomas said. "We could just as easily have our meeting on Monday. I thought we'd bring [the question] to the board."
 
Jane Patton made a principled case for keeping the meeting on Tuesday evening.
 
"I think I'd feel better if we followed procedure as it would be if we weren't in the middle of this wherever we can," Patton said. "I feel like where we can stick to norms, it gives people comfort to some degree. All the anxiety comes from all the change — the anxiety in my house is all around change."
 
In another nod to normalcy, later in Monday's meeting, Thomas informed the board that he wants to do its annual reorganization on May 26. The board generally elects new officers at its first meeting after the town election, which has been rescheduled from May to June 23 this spring.
 
"In this case, it's two incumbents, Hugh Daley and Andy Hogeland, who are unopposed [on the ballot]," Thomas said. "I think it's a fair assumption that they'll be serving another term."
 
In a bit of non-coronavirus business on Monday, the board voted 5-0 to appoint Richard Duncan to the town's Sign Commission.
 
Duncan, who has a marketing degree and works in the human resources department at Williams College, told the panel he thought the Sign Commission was a good fit for his first foray into serving the town he adopted as his home three and a half years ago.
 
"It's sort of an application of a policy, and that's what I do in my current job at Williams," Duncan said. "It sort of seemed like a natural extension of what I'm currently doing. Anne Singleton, who has been on the commission for some time, and I talked about it. It's sort of like the one committee that has been on my mind the most, odd as that sounds."
 
Duncan was appointed to serve a term ending on June 30, 2025.

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Williamstown Planning Board to Look at Impact of Land Regulations on Equity

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Planning Board wants to make a concerted effort to assess potential bylaw changes with an eye toward increasing equity.
 
Picking up on a conversation that has dominated discussions in the town's Select Board in recent weeks, the Planning Board last Thursday began talking about how it can advance social justice through its work.
 
"I think this is really essential work for us to be doing," said Peter Beck, who participated in his first meeting since his election to the board in June. "Issues of racial equity are not tangential to planning and land use but deeply wrapped up in it."
 
Chair Stephanie Boyd raised the issue toward the end of a meeting dominated by discussion about bylaw amendments the board plans to bring to next month's annual town meeting.
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