WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Select Board on Monday decided to ask town meeting whether to study ways to increase diversity on town boards and committees and whether that effort should include financial compensation.
Monday marked the night when the Select Board was scheduled to make its advisory votes on all the questions that will come before the town in June.
On what promises to be the most controversial issue up for discussion, the board broke with the Planning Board, voting 4-1 against recommendation of the cannabis cultivation bylaw that the planners focused on for the past year.
There were a few other dissenting votes on the Select Board, which generally voted in favor of recommending all the other articles on the draft warrant it considered.
But the panel stopped short of asking voters this year whether they approve of a stipend for Select Board members.
That was the proposal espoused by Jeffrey Thomas, who is resigning from the Select Board with one year left on his current three-year term. Thomas has argued that a small stipend — $3,500 for four members and $5,000 for the chair — would help encourage residents of more modest economic means to participate in town government.
"Diversity in town hall is something that I, personally, have been thinking about for a long time, ever since I started volunteering," Thomas said. "I look around, and there's just so much homogeneity — socio-economically, ethnically — in the town volunteer boards and committees.
"I've always said, 'Gee, how can we address that?' "
Thomas brought up his proposal to the Select Board shortly after he announced his intention to step down from the body. And the proposal won the endorsement of the town's Finance Committee when it looked at it among other draft warrant articles that are under consideration for the June annual town meeting.
Thomas argued that there is precedent in the county for compensating select board members, pointing to the town of Great Barrington, where the elected officials receive a sum equal to employee share of family health insurance premium. The South County town, like Williamstown, has a strong town manager form of government; in towns without that model and where select board members presumably have more responsibility, stipends are even more common.
Andrew Hogeland came to Monday's meeting with an alternative to Thomas' Select Board stipend proposal, suggesting that the town instead consider a system that would compensate volunteers on all town boards and committees for the actual expenses they incur for their service to the town.
"I was never quite enamored of the original proposal to give us all a few thousand dollars, but I was sympathetic to the rationale for that, which was to make it not a hardship for people to be able to join the Select Board," Hogeland said. "But we also talked about the question of why is the Select Board different from anyone else? Why wouldn't this be equally applicable to anyone else."
Hogeland argued that compensation for expenses — like child care to allow residents to attend meetings — might accomplish the same objective across a broader spectrum of town government.
But Hogeland's idea generated its own concerns.
Anne O'Connor wondered about whether an individual's payments to their babysitter would become part of the public record. Thomas asked who at Town Hall would be responsible for deciding which expense reports are reasonable and appropriate. And Thomas noted that if the program was opened up to 70 or 80 individuals with a maximum of $1,000 in compensation (from Hogeland's draft), it could be considerably more expensive than the $19,000 in Thomas' original proposal; and even if the cost did not end up being $70,000 per year, it was hard to budget for what the cost might be.
Eventually, Hogeland said neither his proposal nor Thomas' is fully fledged and suggested that money may not be the only lever can pull to encourage more participation on its boards and committees.
"I don't think there's that direct link between not being paid and not having diverse boards," Hogeland said. "There's probably a lot of other reasons. I wouldn't want to have the correlation be: If it's a diversity problem, therefore it must be an economic problem. That's not fair to anybody either."
Hogeland agreed with Anne O'Connor that the Select Board should engage with the town's Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity Committee to develop a holistic strategy to recruiting new voices for town bodies.
"I totally support this mission," Hugh Daley said. "I think I'd like to ask the town if they're open to [compensation]. I know it sounds like government work, but, [Town Manager Jason Hoch] is right, the first thing you do is study it. Then you come back with a plan to deal with it. I think that would, like Anne said, be a very good project for this committee and the DIRE Committee to work together on to bring something forward [for town meeting 2022].
"I personally think there will be some resistance from the town in general to compensating board members. I know I personally feel a little awkward. This was a public service thing when I took it on, and I recognized the cost. … I would recast this as, 'We're going to take a look at this and come back next year and propose this.' And if our bosses vote down the study, they're not open to compensation of board members, and that closes the question."
Hogleand and Thomas agreed to work together to draft an article that will put the question to those "bosses" at the meeting, currently scheduled for June 8 at 6 p.m. at Weston Field.
As with most annual town meetings, the majority of the business to be conducted will concern fiscal articles that allow for the operation of town government. The Finance Committee provides the primary check on reviewing the line-item details of the town's spending plan, and the Select Board on Monday generally concurred with all of the Fin Comm's recommendations.
One point of disagreement: a $56,000 allocation of Community Preservation Act funds to support the purchase of a Agricultural Preservation Restriction on 18 acres of farmland owned by the Galusha family.
Select Board Chair Jane Patton, who occupies the body's seat on the Community Preservation Committee, repeated the no vote she cast against the proposal in March at the CPC.
The Select Board voted, 4-1, to recommend town meeting approve the CPA grant, but, despite ultimately voting affirmatively, Thomas expressed concerns about the idea.
"In the years I've been involved in town government, it seems like most years we put a few hundred acres, on average, into permanent conservation or agricultural restriction," Thomas said. "And we can't find a place to put affordable housing because there's so little available land. That's my reason for feeling ambivalent about this. I don't know if that resonates with anyone else."
O'Connor was quick to respond.
"No, it doesn't resonate with me," she said. "I think it's really misguided to think we're putting aside too much land, particularly for agricultural purposes and also for conservation, in the face of pressures of climate and so on.
"The fact that we still have land that can grow food that could sustain us if there were collapses of agricultural industries in other parts of the country is significant. But even without painting such a dire picture, which is not fantastical at all but conceivable, I feel the overwhelming pressure on Williamstown property is from development of large, large houses for wealthy people. I'm tired of seeing valuable farmland get cut up for these McMansions."
O'Connor ended up being the lone member of the Select Board to vote to recommend passage of the Planning Board's bylaw amendment to regulate cannabis cultivation in the town.
After a 45-minute discussion that included testimony from three consistent critics of the bylaw proposal and a brief presentation from the Planning Board chair, the board voted 4-1 to recommend against passage.
Hogeland, Patton and Daley expressed reservations similar to those the Planning Board has been hearing from residents per months, especially around the potential for 2.3-acre marijuana plantations within 150 feet of the Mount Greylock Regional School property.
Thomas expressed a concern not heard as often in town: that the Planning Board proposal goes too far in restricting cannabis production by doing things like requiring a 150-foot setback and requiring vegetative screening for the security fences that are required to enclose outdoor growing areas.
"My view of the current version of the warrant article is that it restricts the opportunity to grow marijuana in Williamstown so it makes it harder to grow marijuana here than it is in other communities," Thomas said. "So it will discourage people from the activity. They'll just go to Cheshire or New Ashford so they can play by the same rules that all the other communities are who are using the state regulations."
Monday's meeting marked the final time Hoch will be participating in a Select Board meeting in Williamstown. Each of the members took the opportunity to thank him for his years of service to the town. Hogeland noted that service has continued at full speed since Hoch announced his decision to step down from the position.
"I didn't prepare a speech today," O'Connor said, "but I've commended Jason in the past. I think you've done invaluable service to the town. It's really sad to see you go. Thank you so much. I've really appreciated six years of working with you."
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UPDATE: Williamstown Forest Fire Fight to Continue into Sunday
By Stephen DravisiBerkshires.com Sports Updated 05:20PM
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. -- Fire officials pulled crews off East Mountain mid-afternoon on Saturday when it became clear that shifting winds were creating hazardous conditions and the battle against a brush fire deep in the woods would go into at least a third day.
"The wind was picking up up there very much," Williamstown Fire Chief Craig Pedercini said. "There were beyond manageable wind conditions, and that just intensified the fire.
"Unfortunately, in unsafe conditions, we pull people out. It's not worth getting hurt for this."
Bilal Ansari later said he would reconsider and pray on his decision about whether to continue with the Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity Committee after he received an apology from the vice chair of the Select Board.
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That committee's role was called into question on Monday when one of the residents appointed to serve announced on Facebook that she was resigning over concerns with the process that led to Ziemba's appointment.
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