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Jeffrey Johnson and family. Johnson is running for the three-year seat on the Select Board.

Johnson Seeks to Heal Williamstown

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Ask Jeffrey Johnson for his campaign's "elevator pitch," and you had better hope that lift is taking you on a ride in a skyscraper.
 
Johnson, a lifelong resident of the town, has an ambitious agenda for town government and boundless energy to talk about his priorities.
 
But at his core, Johnson wants to do what he can to heal the wounds that have divided the town over the last year.
 
"Our hearts are hurting," Johnson said. "No matter what side of the equation you're on, we all know we need changes to be made. Unfortunately, due process takes time, and change is scary.
 
"I hope to provide a voice for the town as I've been here a long time and have many connections where I feel I have my hand on the heartbeat of the town, and it's time to become transparent as we move forward. I'm here to help the town, bring in infrastructure to town government, bring us up to modern times and implement warrant Articles 36 and 37 as voted in by the citizens."
 
Those articles, which addressed issues of social justice, received near unanimous support at last August's annual town meeting. Among other things, those town meeting actions called on Williamstown to, "work to acknowledge, address and act in response to all forms of intended or unintended exclusion, hate, bigotry, intolerance and bullying."
 
In May's annual town election, Johnson will vie with Anthony Boskovich for a seat on the five-member Select Board currently held by Anne O'Connor, who chose not to seek a third term on the board.
 
Johnson is no stranger to town service. Since July, he has served on the first incarnation of the town's Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity Committee.
 
With a personal heritage that is multiracial — African-American, European-American and Native American — and lifelong friendships with people in multiple social circles throughout town, Johnson says he is uniquely positioned to bridge some of the divides in town.
 
"Even among the other candidates involved in this election, I grew up in the same neighborhood as Albert Cummings, Wade Hasty is friends with my brother-in-law, Barbara [Rosenthal] and I have spoken, Tony [Boskovich] and I have spoken," Johnson said. "I'm a healer. I want to bring people together. Everything in my life has prepared me for this.
 
"On the DIRE Committee, I was more about the I and the E, the inclusion and equity. With the 'R,' I have stories in my own family going back to the '70s with racism."
 
And his family was in the middle of one of the biggest stories of Williamstown in the last 10 years, the flooding caused by Tropical Storm Irene that led to the ultimate closure of the Spruces Mobile Home Park.
 
"My grandmother was displaced from the Spruces," Johnson said. "She lives in a trailer park in Pownal [Vt.], and I have a sign in front of her place representing all the people who want to come back."
 
That experience helps fuel Johnson's commitment to one of his priorities, affordable housing.
 
"The town garage site [on Water Street] sticks out in my head as one location," Johnson said. "I'm also trying to look into different pieces of land. Why do we not know every single place we can build? … We first have to figure out every place we want to build."
 
And adding to the town's housing stock is directly tied to another of Johnson's objectives: helping the town achieve its environmental goals.
 
"As a college student, I was privileged enough to work at the Middlebury College Recycling Center," Johnson said. "Two years after that started, they did the recycling for the entire town of Middlebury. I think we deal with our landfill issue by doing more reuse … but we're going to need people to work on those jobs.
 
"Where would those people be able to live? We have to decide how to utilize places and spots in town."
 
As for the structure of town government, the fallout from a series of incidents of alleged and admitted misconduct at the Police Department has exposed a need to modernize the municipal infrastructure, Johnson said.
 
"We have to look at our human resources infrastructure," he said during Monday's meeting of the DIRE Committee. "The systems we have in HR in place are not up to modern times. It's absolutely one of the things I'm focused on."
 
He also is focused on the need to get answers about the allegations that were made in a federal whistleblower lawsuit that came to light in August and was dropped in December. Johnson said he would have pushed for an independent investigation into the lawsuit's claims back in the summer, but he stopped short of blaming the current Select Board, which did hire an independent investigator this winter after the specter of litigation was lifted.
 
Johnson acknowledged the board likely was being told by its counsel — paid for by its liability insurer — not to talk about the suit's specifics and not to conduct a third-party inquiry while the town was being sued. But he said the cost of delaying the investigation ended up hurting the town in the long run.
 
"The insurance company cares about money, that's their job," Johnson said. "I think this whole time, the residents of the town never cared about money. The town cared about the truth. People wanted to know the truth. The Select Board is charged with representing the people of the town."
 
Asked if the Select Board also has a fiduciary obligation to the taxpayers, Johnson said, "That's the hard dilemma. I don't know what [the Select Board knew]."
 
He said he does not want to be a Monday morning quarterback, but he would have prioritized uncovering the facts behind the allegations.
 
"It's easy to sit here and second guess," Johnson said. "But if you're asking me what I would have been pushing for … I think the truth and where we're going and where we want to go, that would have been the start of it. Now, all these months have passed, and the town is torn apart, and we didn't gain anything.
 
"Are we here to protect our wallets and pocketbooks or here to help people heal? And I don't know how we heal until the truth comes out."
 
Johnson freely admits that he does not have all the answers for all the issues he is raising in his campaign, but he believes the answers are out there.
 
And he wants to help the town come together to find them.
 
"We all cherish security, trust, love," Johnson said. "I'm trying to bring people back to the middle as far as the tougher things: reshaping policing, what can we do to provide affordable housing so people who provide services in town are also able to live in town. I know there are ways we can do this together.
 
"We're at a critical place where we're going to be creating a Master Plan for the first time since 1992. We can't just have the loudest voices on either side of the argument."

Tags: election 2021,   town elections,   


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Mount Greylock District Builds Diversity Training Days Into 2021-22 Calendar

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Mount Greylock Regional School Committee last week approved a 2021-22 academic calendar that includes six half days for all-staff professional development with an emphasis on diversity training.
 
"When it comes to diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging work, that's a community effort, and it starts with the community in the central office and goes to everyone who works in school buildings or around school buildings," Superintendent Jason McCandless said in proposing the calendar.
 
"I would suggest to you that if we adopt this calendar, it becomes, in many ways, a template for moving forward with inclusion of half days as professional development time. We need time to reflect, to gather and learn from one another, and we need time to learn from experts, whether joining us in person or virtually, who are helping us become better practitioners all the time."
 
McCandless scheduled the half days for staff training on Oct. 8, Oct. 29, Jan. 14, Feb. 11, March 11 and April 18 — all Fridays. He also built into the schedule a full day for professional development on Friday, March 18.
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