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Williamstown to Move Forward on Searches for Interim Chief, Town Manager

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The departure of the town manager may not slow the town's search for an interim chief of police, the chair of the Select Board said on Friday afternoon.

"My sense is we're not going to put the interim town manager search over the interim police chief search," Jane Patton said. "We're going to move forward on both."
 
Patton noted that an interim town manager would have the authority to appoint an interim police chief, presumably with the same community input that was anticipated when outgoing Town Manager Jason Hoch was heading the search.
 
According to the town charter, the town manager is the only position appointed by the elected five-member Select Board. The manager has hiring authority over all department heads, including the chief. But Hoch and the Select Board expressed a desire for a community advisory committee to help him choose an interim chief and, ultimately, make a permanent appointment.
 
"The good news is some of the folks we've talked to about the police chief search — interim and permanent — do this town manager work as well," Patton said. "I don't know if it will be exactly parallel tracks."
 
She was less certain how the searches for permanent replacements to the two posts will line up.
 
"The permanent police chief certainly will not be selected until we have a non-interim town manager," Patton said. "You'd think the police chief would want to know who they're reporting to.
 
"In terms of the town manager and how quickly they'd be asked to make a decision like that, I think it's too early to presuppose that answer. It would have to do with the town manager we selected and their comfort level and experience level. If it's someone who has, specifically, more experience in police chief hires, maybe it goes more quickly."
 
Hoch's departure was precipitated by severe public criticism by members of the community who felt he did not do enough to hold parties at the Police Department responsible for activities alleged in a federal lawsuit against the town.
 
Patton said she hoped that criticism and, at times, personal attacks would not scare off potential candidates to serve as Williamstown's next town manager.
 
"I certainly hope not," she said. "I think there are so many factors at play here, and one factor that has become conflated is the notion that Jason is being blamed or held accountable for things that happened years before he came here.
 
"Because most of those comments are made during Select Board meetings during the public comment period, a lot of people have come to believe that's coming from the Select Board itself. The fact of the matter is the Select Board does not hold Jason accountable for things that happened years before he got here."
 
Patton said she expected to have a similar process for hiring a full-time town manager to the one the Select Board employed in 2015 when it hired Hoch.
 
"That would involve an advisory committee with town residents," Patton said. "We'll amass a group of people with varying skill sets who, combined, bring a rounded set of ideas and do the same thing where there are opportunities for the public to meet them. It's important for candidates to spend time with department heads.
 
"My real, genuine hope is candidates see that this is a town in great financial shape, our setting is beautiful, what we have to offer is beautiful and there are opportunities for growth."
 
The last six months, which led to Hoch's Friday announcement, also put a focus on challenges facing Williamstown, specifically a historic legacy of racism and current concerns that the town is not welcoming to people of color and members of marginalized communities.
 
One of the groups pushing the town to address those concerns released a statement on Friday expressing its thoughts how the town should move forward.
 
"We hope that our new town manager will uphold Articles 36 and 37 [from the 2020 annual town meeting] in ways that center those who are and have been marginalized in our community," the statement from Williamstown Racial Justice and Police Reform read in part. "We know that Williamstown is not exceptional in its exposure to white supremacy and structural racism. We firmly believe that the insistence of transparency and accountability from those in leadership positions is a positive development that shows respect for every resident and visitor, regardless of their life experience. 
 
"We encourage broad community participation in articulating the qualities and recruitment of the next Town Manager. We hope residents and leaders will closely examine the vestiges of our town policies and Charter; to imagine creative improvements together will open Williamstown and its many gifts to others for decades to come."
 
Patton said Friday that the next town manager won't be expected to single-handedly end racism but will be expected to be part of the solution.
 
"I think what we're looking for is to help create an environment where people are aware of and working toward being antiracist and create … zero tolerance for any racial discrimination," Patton said. "It's not going to be one individual who makes that happen. They may have a fair amount of impact on creating the culture and environment that allows it to happen.
 
"But it also depends on all of us — the Select Board, the committees, the folks in town hall, the college and the residents."

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Williamstown Trust OKs Emergency Mortgage Program; O'Connor Won't Seek Re-Election

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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.
 
"Hopefully, I've also brought some reflections and useful comments as much as possible," O'Connor said.
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