The fallout from a federal lawsuit dropped late last year has seen the resignation of Town Manager Jason Hoch and the former Police Chief Kyle Johnson.
Updated at 2:43 p.m. with comments from Select Board Chair Jane Patton.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Town Manager Jason Hoch announced Friday afternoon that he is leaving the position.
Hoch has come under heavy criticism from many community members in the wake of a federal lawsuit that was filed in August against himself, the former chief of police and the town.
On Friday, he said the calls for his firing played a role in his decision to ask the Select Board to negotiate a way for him to leave the post he has held for five and a half years.
"It was certainly part of the consideration," Hoch said. "I can't say it's been a wonderful time for me or my staff. I think there's a point at which it's reasonable to question: Can I continue to be as effective as I'd like to be, and where is my attention landing?"
Hoch said he will remain in the corner office for 60 days and through the end of May to serve as a resource in the transition process.
"I think it was important to the board and me to find a path that recognized an orderly transition," Hoch said. "That was an important thing we all wanted to make happen. It's hard to believe, but after 5 1/2 years, given the change in the organization, I'm a large part of the institutional memory.
"I want to leave the organization and the community in the best possible position. And an abrupt change is not going to do that."
In the months following the McGowan suit (which was dropped after Johnson resigned), Hoch came under fire for, among other things, not notifying the Select Board of a complaint by McGowan to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination that predated the lawsuit and raised most of the same allegations.
Select Board Chair Jane Patton brought up the MCAD complaint on Friday afternoon.
“My feelings about this are somewhat nuanced in that Jason has really, on the whole, been a very good town manager in terms of the stuff he mentions: completing the [police] building project, we’ve had public housing projects, our financial situation is very good,” Patton said. “He is incredibly well liked and respected by all of his staff.
“Not knowing about the MCAD complaint was hard.”
Since Johnson's departure, some residents' ire has turned more acutely on Hoch. He has been accused of covering up for and tolerating alleged offensive behavior at the WPD, some of which dates five years before Hoch's arrival at Town Hall.
Much as Johnson framed his decision to step down as helping the Police Department move past the allegations in the McGowan suit, Hoch emphasized in his announcement that his decision was based on a desire for the town to move forward.
"An opportunity to refresh the relationships between the town and the community offered a healthier path forward to allow more people to fully and constructively engage in that work," he wrote. "I care deeply about Williamstown and am committed to work supportively in the transition to position the community and the organization for future success."
In a Friday afternoon telephone interview, Hoch said that he does not see his decision to step down as "giving in" to the public criticism or as a confirmation of the accusations that have been made against him.
"I absolutely know who I am and what I've done, and it is not at all something I see as giving in," Hoch said. "I see it as our inability to move the conversation in the way we aspire it to be.
"If this [controversy] continues to hold back the rest of the conversation, we're not going where we all say we want to go. I don't need to be so self-important to continue to be an obstacle to prove a point."
Prior to August, Hoch's tenure received high marks for his efficiency and responsiveness from public officials on many boards and committees.
The Select Board, which hires and oversees the town manager, praised him heavily in his last review, announced in December 2019.
"This year, he was faced with the retirement of four senior staff, but he's prepared for this succession, made key hires and managed the transitions," then-Select Board Chair Jeffrey Thomas said in announcing the board's review. "Town staff continue to praise his leadership and his management style and say that the town is 'headed in a good direction.'
"The town's financial position is healthy and trending toward greater strength. And there's also been good progress toward collaborations with other municipalities. … Jason is known as an innovator and has a reputation for thinking outside the box. He's brought a lot of new technology to town hall and has been streamlining operations since he started. He's always looking to do things better."
Hoch's 2020 annual review was delayed due to the board's decision to prioritize things like the COVID-19 pandemic and efforts to address allegations of institutional racism at the Police Department. The body did begin a process of completing that review this winter.
Patton said Friday that the board has discussed the review in light of Hoch’s decision to leave and decided to complete the review process anyway.
Thomas said the decision to leave Town Hall was "Jason's alone."
It came after several closed door meetings over the last couple of weeks for the purpose of conducting negotiations with non-union personnel; the town manager is the only town employee whose contract is the purview of the Select Board.
Thomas, who is stepping down from the Select Board this spring with one year left in his three-year term, said the majority of the board was prepared to extend Hoch's annual contract.
Patton, while being careful not to reveal specifics about the board’s executive sessions, confirmed that, “the direction of the board was not unanimously in favor” of renewing Hoch’s contract.
For his own part, Thomas continued to express his approval for the job Hoch has done.
"Without doubt, Jason's departure is a significant loss for the community of Williamstown," he said. "Within municipal and state government, Jason is known as one the region's most knowledgeable town managers. My favorite adjective for him is 'ultracompetent.'"
Thomas is the lone current member of the Select Board who was not on the five-person body when it tapped Hoch, a 1995 Williams College graduate, to replace Peter Fohlin, who was town manager for 15 years.
Hoch returned to the town of his alma mater after being the town administrator or town manager in the New Hampshire towns of Litchfield, Plaistow and Littleton.
In his announcement on Friday, Hoch noted accomplishments during his tenure like the construction of a new police station and a new middle-high school, in partnership with fellow Mount Greylock Regional School District town Lanesborough.
"We have achieved many things over that period, completing two major public building projects, significant economic development and multiple environmentally sustainable initiatives all while maintaining and enhancing the town's solid financial position and keeping the tax impact for the cost of town services nearly unchanged," Hoch wrote. "This has only been possible through the support of the community and the phenomenal town staff with whom it has been a privilege to work alongside over that time."
His statement recognized the support of "many in this community."
But he said that for months he had wrestled with the question of whether it made sense for him to continue to serve the community.
"For a while, every morning you get up and say, 'Am I all in or is it time to think about something different?'" Hoch said. "You always reflect on that. Having gone through that conversation with [Johnson], it was certainly something higher in my consciousness than it had been before.
"For the past six months, it's been almost impossible to be the town manager I was five years before."
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The board of the town's Affordable Housing Trust on Wednesday decided to move ahead with an emergency mortgage assistance program for residents impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, approved a solution for a problem vexing a different town committee and learned that one of its members will be rotating off after May's town election.
The board member in question is Anne O'Connor, who made her colleagues on that panel the first to learn that she will not seek another three-year term on the Select Board this spring.
O'Connor, who occupies the trustee position designated for a member of the Select Board, noted that she brings a particular perspective to her work with the trust and all her town service: that of a resident who is a lifelong renter and who lives in Williamstown housing that was created to be affordable.
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