WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Select Board on Monday recommended to town meeting passage of two warrant articles designed to address issues of racial equity and diversity after reconsidering an earlier decision to make no recommendation on one of the measures.
The last two items on the 37-article warrant for Aug. 18's outdoor annual town meeting at Weston Field were generated by way of citizen's petition.
The first asks town meeting voters to commit to the "Not In Our County Pledge" generated by the Great Barrington-based group Multicultural BRIDGE. The second, titled "Equity," calls on all agencies and committees of town government to re-examine their policies, demands the town train board members and employees about issues of systemic inequities and requires quarterly reports on these issues to the recently formed Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity (DIRE) Committee.
Board members expressed support for the intent of both articles but raised technical issues about each, though the panel took no action on the warrant's final measure, the Equity article, before Chair Jane Patton realized there were members of the audience who wanted to speak to the articles from the "floor" of the remote meeting.
The board members were dressed down by several residents who expressed dismay that the elected representatives would pass on the opportunity to take a stand on the social justice articles.
Bilal Ansari, who sits on the DIRE Committee, gave the Select Board credit for forming that panel earlier this summer but said it needs to keep moving forward and not "slip backwards." He called on the board to recommend that town meeting affirm the work of the DIRE Committee and the lives of disenfranchised citizens generally.
"Why can't we affirm [the warrant article] and move on," Ansari said. "Set the trail so that the town hears you and hears you loud and clear — not that there's some token group that is meeting every week, but that we do the work also. We pledge and we work as hard as they're working — this is the type of leadership I know you're capable of doing, and I call you to it.
"We've come too far, and we can't step backwards."
Ansari said the Select Board should recommend passage of Articles 36 and 37 on the town meeting warrant even if the members of the board thought the articles might be unpopular, because they are the right thing to do.
"You may know it would never pass muster with the town, but you, as our leaders, voted this way … despite what everyone else is thinking," he said. "I will feel so empowered, so ready to fight with you, stand with you, do the labor every week with DIRE because I'm working to make recommendations to a board of leaders who stand against the grain, against the tide, despite it all. We need leaders like you to keep walking in faith.
"I need to know that my leaders are down. I need to know that I'm not serving on this DIRE Committee just to be talking, just to be a token."
The Select Board members did not cite the potential that either article would fail at town meeting as a rationale for not making a recommendation. And at least one member, Anne O'Connor, said she likely would vote for Article 36, the Not in Our County Pledge, as a private citizen at the Aug. 18 meeting, even though she joined a unanimous vote Monday that initially made no recommendation on the article.
The hesitancy to recommend Article 36 was based on two elements of the warrant article that the petitioners added to the original language developed by Multicultural BRIDGE.
The pledge generated by the South County non-profit is in the paragraph labeled No. 1 in the article and talks about working "to acknowledge, address and act in response to all forms of intended or unintended exclusion, hate, bigotry, intolerance and bullying."
The article on the town meeting warrant adds introductory text that talks about "the ideals of equity and inclusion, particularly concerning the effort to assure the safety of black-identifying people of color," and a second "action" paragraph that requires the town and its representatives to "report a representative and unbiased picture of any and all hate, exclusion, or intolerance they may witness as being directed towards an individual or group based on any of the above demographics."
Both those clauses were marked as problematic by different members of the board.
Patton, who works with Ansari on the DIRE Committee, said the focus on a particular portion of the population, "black-identifying people of color," in the article's preamble was inconsistent with a more universal sense of inclusiveness to which the DIRE group aspires.
Jeffrey Thomas and others on the board questioned the reporting requirement in the article's second paragraph.
"[Paragraph 2] has a reporting burden … I'm uncomfortable with that," Thomas said. "That sort of goes to these third-party things that come to us. They're very difficult to vet in this context. If it was just the 'Not in Our County' Pledge, which is something we've already done, I'd say, 'Why not do it again?'
"With this extra language, I don't know. I just don't know. I would say that all the ideas in here are important, but the logistics are something we have not had a chance to understand."
O'Connor said she thought Monday's DIRE Committee meeting, which she watched live prior to the Select Board meeting, showed that the former body is taking a methodical approach to collecting the kind of data implied in the citizen's petition Article 37. She said she wished the petitioners had stuck to the original language in the Multicultural BRIDGE-authored pledge and not strayed into the area of required reporting.
After all five members of the board voted not to make a recommendation on the penultimate warrant article, it moved on to the Equity article, but it did not get too far along in the discussion before Patton realized there were residents queuing up to talk about Articles 36 and 37 as well as heavily-debated land-use articles on the warrant to regulate the production of recreational marijuana.
Ansari was joined by three other residents in pushing the board to reconsider its vote not to recommend the Not in Our County Pledge.
"I'm pretty unhappy with the feedback here tonight," said Jessica Dils, the first member of the audience to speak on the issue. "I know you all signed on as a board to take this pledge, having made the mistake of not taking the pledge in 2017. This has been worked on countywide. It was carefully put together … by Multicultural BRIDGE.
"Right now, this petition basically takes it one step further. It is the bare minimum in our town to say to someone standing next to you, who is a person just like you are, that you are willing to make the commitment to protect them in our county against hate, intolerance and exclusion. This is what every single person deserves."
Dils said the DIRE Committee cannot conduct its work unless the town takes the commitment embodied in the pledge.
"You are elected leaders, who have the potential right now to say, before town meeting, we as leaders are going to make this commitment," Dils said. "I think the quibbling over language and trying to hold two different communities on the same playing field when they clearly are not, it's hard to listen to. I'm sorry to sound frustrated, but I am frustrated. This is a chance for everybody to do the right thing."
Dils and, later in the discussion, Thomas asked the town manager directly to comment on the level of burden that the Pledge and Equity articles place on town government.
Jason Hoch said he had reviewed the language in each of the articles with the petitioners before the articles were submitted to the town for inclusion on the town meeting warrant and that he did not have concerns about either creating unreasonable burdens for town employees.
"Officially, the town and its staff and agencies are not to be standing by when there is hate, exclusion and intolerance," Hoch said. "We have an obligation to stand up, point that out and support appropriate movement away from that. That's the obligation we commit to in the [Multicultural BRIDGE Pledge], and this re-emphasizes it in that second part.
"I don't draw nearly the same heavy emphasis on this writing annual reports of hate. I think it simply is our need to call that out and do what we can do officially to move away from that and, going forward, figure out how we can find ways to engage."
Later, in the context of the Equity warrant article, Hoch told the Select Board that he thought the staff training required by the article, if passed by town meeting, was "achievable and reasonable."
Despite those assurances, Thomas and Andrew Hogeland still struggled with the "report" clause in the Not in Our County Pledge article.
"Part of my concern on this reporting paragraph was I think it did set up a town reporting requirement," Hogeland said. "It did sound to me like we'd have to make sure we had to cover all these instances and issue a report of some kind. One of the missing things is, if you saw these [Black Lives Matter] signs torn down, to whom would you report it? There's no recipient.
"Words matter. The town needs to understand that when you bring things to this board, they read them. Some of these things are not as well written … Jessica Dils stands up and says, 'If you see something, do something.' I say, 'Of course,' but that's not what this [warrant article] says. It says something else.
"Having read this a number of times, I think we can make this language work. Even though it's vague and not ideally drafted, clearly the heart is in the right place. I think we can make this work."
After the board voted to reconsider its decision not to make a recommendation on the Not in Our County Pledge, it voted unanimously to recommend town meeting pass the article … but only after Thomas made one more clarification of his earlier stand against making a recommendation.
"I'm going to need a couple of seconds," Thomas said before casting his roll-call vote. "This is very difficult for me because I don't feel this is the right way to do governance. And I feel a strong sense of commitment to this town to do the work on the Select Board the right way, and I don't feel this is it.
"But I also understand that if I fail to vote in favor of this, I subject myself to ridicule and shame by people who simply won't take the time to understand, in my opinion, the work of this board and the importance of the integrity of the work of this board. So that's my speech. I'm going to go along to get along and say, 'Thomas, aye.' "
Moments later, Thomas abstained in a 4-0-1 vote to recommend that town meeting pass the Equity warrant article, noting that he hoped the article could be amended on the floor of town meeting to clarify the language around quarterly reports to the DIRE Committee that the article requires.
"I'm going to abstain," Thomas said. "Let me be clear, not because I don't support what's here. I'm going to wait until town meeting when I know what the actual language is, so I can feel I'm doing my responsibility as a Select Board member and a part of the community."
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At the town meeting, these items should be voted on by secret ballot. Why? While passing them by voice vote may give the Town a happy good feeling, a secret ballot will tell the Town how its citizens really feel. Then Town will know how to address these issues. There's a reason why the Klan wore hoods.
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