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In Wake of Lawsuit's Dismissal, Williamstown Turns Toward Healing

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Earlier this month, Bilal Ansari asked his fellow town residents to pray for a holiday miracle.
 
On Monday night, he got his wish. Or, more to the point, he got half of it.
 
"If we can get this lawsuit done and over with, I would appreciate it because my community needs to heal," Ansari said during a meeting of the town's Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity Committee. "It's Christmas. Let's just hope the miracle of Christmas makes this thing go."
 
Police Sgt. Scott McGowan, who in August filed a federal lawsuit against the town, Chief Kyle Johnson and Town Manager Jason Hoch, said Monday night that he would withdraw his suit just after it was announced to the town that Johnson was stepping down from his post.
 
"My reaction: 'Truth is powerful and it prevails,' " Ansari wrote Tuesday morning in reply to an email asking for comment on the move. "Sojourner Truth said it best.
 
"Sgt. McGowan and I spoke once over a month ago. What I heard was a sincere desire to heal our community. The town manager and select board members, too, now have a sincere desire to heal our community. Together, I believe we will get to a better place here in Williamstown."
 
That search for a better place appears to have been what motivated McGowan to ask his attorney, David Russcol, to file a notice of dismissal in the court of Federal Magistrate Judge Katherine Robertson.
 
McGowan said as much in his Monday evening statement, and Russcol reiterated the point on Tuesday morning.
 
"Sgt. McGowan brought this case because he believed that the Williamstown Police Department was not serving the people of Williamstown or the people who worked at the department in the way it should have," Russcol wrote. "As a result of many people asking difficult questions, and recent actions by the Town and the Select Board, he believes that Williamstown is committed to making the changes necessary to have a police department that is run in a way that everyone can be proud of."
 
Russcol went on to say that the lawsuit itself, which raised allegations of racism and sexual misconduct at the WPD, had become an obstacle to change.
 
"For instance, some members of the Select Board supported an independent investigation of the issues Sgt. McGowan raised, but announced that it could not happen with the case pending," the Boston attorney wrote. "In order to allow the Town to move forward in a positive direction, Sgt. McGowan is voluntarily dismissing the lawsuit. He looks forward to continuing his work for the police department and contributing as much as possible to the changes ahead."
 
Johnson and Hoch, the chief's supervisor, have been under fire from many in the community for the last four months, and a lot of residents' anger also has been directed toward the five-member elected Select Board, which hires and supervises the town manager.
 
The question for many now becomes: What does Town Hall do now that it does not have the constraint of a lawsuit?
 
It was the litigation that drove a lot of the board's discussions into executive session and prevented frank dialogues in public about the disturbing particulars of McGowan's allegations. A town-backed independent investigation into incidents going back 13 years seemed unlikely given the fact that anything discovered -- even incomplete information still in development -- would be ammunition for the plaintiff.
 
But that did not stop many residents from demanding for months that the town launch a probe of the allegations, some of which were substantiated in part or in whole in the town's response to a Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination complaint McGowan filed last year.
 
Select Board Chair Jane Patton said Tuesday that an investigation is on the table, and she and the rest of the board need to think about next steps.
 
"My thinking is we've always been open to an investigation," Patton said fewer than 24 hours after hearing about McGowan's decision from a story on iBerkshires.com. "Not knowing Sgt. McGowan was going to dismiss the suit, we need to think through all the next steps of what that allows and what that means.
 
"I don't think this changes the idea of an investigation. I just don't know what that looks like right at this minute. We want to carefully think through all the next steps over the course of the next few days."
 
The Select Board, which generally meets on the second and fourth Monday of the month, is not scheduled to meet again until 2021, but Patton said she likely will be asking her colleagues whether they want to call a special meeting between now and then or use the Dec. 28 date that the board normally skips during the holiday week.
 
One of the board members Tuesday said he was for moving ahead with an independent probe.
 
"My goal is to restore trust in the Williamstown Police Department," Hugh Daley said. "With the litigation dismissed, we are not going to be able to use the courts to get at the truth of the allegations. I think we should pursue a fact-finding independent investigation. We need to know the facts of the situation, so we can better prepare corrective actions.
 
"I am a person who believes we need a police department. In keeping with that, I think our community vision of policing is an important conversation that should be had with the entire community. I do think the Town will continue with that and the policy review project, though both scope and timeline may change as we search for a new chief. I know we can get creative in how we address the concerns that have been raised, if we are willing to work together."
 
Daley said he believes the WPD would welcome the probe and pointed to a need for transparency, accountability and communication.
 
Ansari focused on the same kinds of priorities but indicated an investigation may not be needed to achieve them. He also pointed to a need for justice for two officers identified in the McGowan lawsuit.
 
"I hope for forgiveness, transparency, and accountability in town government going forward and I personally no longer feel an independent investigation is necessary," Ansari said. "However, I would like [Officer C and Dispatcher A] to be offered the first right of refusal for positions in WPD as restorative justice. That is what I am going to work toward, and now we know holiday miracles are the truth that prevails."

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Williamstown Tea, Shake Spot Reopens Friday with New Owners

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff

The beverage shop offers indoor seating. 
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Spring Street's newest entrepreneur is new to business ownership but not new to the business of making healthy, refreshing beverages.
 
Logan Lamphere and her mother, Christina, took over Unlimited Nutrition at 31 Spring St. last week, and on Friday, they will hold their grand re-opening of Williamstown's home for "Good Vibes and Great Nutrition."
 
"I work at another nutrition club in New York state near my home," Logan said this week. "Jackie [Therrien] and Kenzie [Huntoon], who were the owners of Unlimited Nutrition, reached out to the owners of that [New York] club and said, 'We can't do this anymore.'
 
"My bosses reached out to me and said, 'We're not sure if you're ever interested in owning a nutrition club, but this is a great opportunity.' "
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