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Williamstown Moves Ahead on Interim Police Chief Plan, Department Investigation

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Select Board on Monday decided to hire an interim chief of police while continuing to press forward with an investigation into the Police Department.
 
Without taking a formal vote, the board expressed a consensus around a plan to bring in a long-term interim chief to help the department move forward while the town completes an evaluation of how it wants policing to look in the future.
 
That evaluation is being led by a social work researcher who the town is hiring to study the issue and engage the community about its public safety needs. A local social worker who helped the town hire that researcher told the board that the study will take time.
 
"What's being referred to as community conversations is a full-scale research project," Kerri Nicoll said after hearing the board discuss the question for several minutes. "It will be conducted by a professional in this field. It's not simply social-workers going out to chit chat with people.
 
"She will be working full time on this project starting Feb. 15. I believe that's her start date, and that is when she will be able to dive in to begin planning the scope of the project and what it's going to entail."
 
Nicoll, a professor at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts who serves on the town's Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity Committee, said the search firms the town might hire to look for a police chief would not be able to do the in-depth research the town needs. She also said the needs assessment research is not the only reason the town needs to take time before hiring a full-time chief.
 
"Our community needs time and space to process what has happened in the past, what is happening in the present and to envision our future," Nicoll said. "Hiring an interim chief will provide that time and space. And it will allow the police department to work under someone who has not been immersed in this department for years.
 
"I understand the desire to bring in a permanent chief. … We are going to find a police chief, but I think that needs to happen after the time and space has been provided for the community to process, understand and envision what it needs."
 
Select Board member Andy Hogeland started the discussion by presenting his colleagues with two potential scenarios.
 
Under one, the town would run the police chief search concurrently with the needs assessment and take data from the study in progress to inform an updated job description and questions that could be asked of candidates. Under the second scenario, the town would hire an interim chief and wait for the social work research to run its course before conducting a search for a permanent replacement for former Chief Kyle Johnson, who left abruptly in December after four months of controversy surrounding the force.
 
Hogeland said he frankly favored the first scenario and felt that the town could benefit from the research project as it is conducted without necessarily waiting for its conclusion. But after listening to Nicoll's reasoning, he said he was OK with the idea of hiring an interim.
 
Under either scenario, the hiring of either an interim or permanent chief is the responsibility of the town manager under Williamstown's charter. Town Manager Jason Hoch had signaled that he wanted the Select Board's input on the process, and again on Monday reiterated that he wants community input into the hiring processes.
 
"The scenario for an interim chief as well as a full-time chief anticipates having an advisory committee," Hoch said. "I would invite people who want to be part of that to send me a note or give me a call. We'll try to pull together a manageable group and think through the process.
 
"The selection committee for a permanent chief is going to be a more time-consuming engagement. Lending a hand in the short term [for an interim chief selection] may or may not be a long-term assignment."
 
Hogeland on Monday also presented the board with the responses he received from law firms that are available to investigate allegations raised in the lawsuit police Sgt. Scott McGowan filed against the town.
 
The proposals from four firms prompted questions from board members, including whether the law firms' final reports would include recommendations for corrective actions and how many hours the firms' estimated the investigation would take. Hogeland said he would follow up on his colleague's comments and report back at a future meeting.
 
Hogeland did have an answer when Jeffrey Thomas asked whether the board had references for the firms in question. But Hogeland's answer later elicited criticism from one of the residents at the meeting.
 
"I asked two people I respect in town who were familiar with this episode who they recommended," Hogeland said. "They both recommended one of these [firms]. I asked our current outside counsel, and she recommended one; she knew of two others. She recommended one and said the others would be fine. And I asked our litigation counsel, who referred me to two but had not worked with them.
 
"[The four firms] are familiar to people that I think I can trust. That's why I didn't cut anybody out on my list. They all had an indication of competence from other sources."
 
Later in the night, Janice Loux addressed the board and advised against taking recommendations from attorneys who have represented the town in matters under investigation.
 
"I strongly object to any attorney on that list who has been recommended by the town attorney or who has any connection to the town attorney," Loux said. "I'd like you to be transparent about it. I think if you look at examples of how these investigations are done, one would never let that conflict intervene.
 
"If I said to you, 'I think we should let Scott McGowan's attorney recommend who is going to do this investigation,' I guess you'd refuse it and look at me like I had 10 heads."
 
In other business on Monday, the Select Board discussed its process for the annual review of the town manager with the hope of having a final report completed by its second meeting in February.
 
The board members agreed to issue a memo to all town employees soliciting input for the evaluation process.
 
"I would like to talk to anyone who wants to talk to me," Hogeland said. "Not just to get input but also to find out how they're doing. As Jeffrey [Thomas] said, these are stressful times. People are working hard. They feel accused of things they didn't do or their entire department didn't do.
 
"I think if we talk to these people, it isn't just about a manager review. It's, 'How are you guys doing?' I suspect the answer is not going to be positive all the time, and I think we need to make that part of the conversation. We hear you, we know you guys are having a hard time, what else can we do for you?"

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Clark Art Virtual Writing Programs

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Clark Art Institute will offer two free virtual writing sessions in celebration of spring at noon on Tuesday, March 9, and Tuesday, March 16. 
 
Each session features different works from the Clark's collection as inspiration for workshops led by members of the Clark's Education Department.
 
The interactive virtual program is open to all regardless of experience and offers participants a focused writing session to encourage their creativity as they write their way through a series of open-ended prompts inspired by selected paintings and works-on-paper that feature spring themes. Participants may share their writing with the group at the conclusion of the program or they can opt to remain anonymous. In addition, all participants will be provided with additional nature writing prompts to use on their next springtime visit to the Clark's Ground/work exhibition.
 
Online registration is required; space is limited to 15 participants per session. Registration for the March 9 session closes at noon on Friday, March 5, and registration for the March 16 session closes on March 12, or when capacity is reached. Registrants will receive an email with a private link to this live virtual program before the event. Visit clarkart.edu/events to register. 
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