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Williamstown Select Board candidates, from left, Jane Patton, Randall Fippinger and Bilal Ansari, campaign at the town's transfer station on a Saturday morning.
Updated May 06, 2022 09:29AM

Williamstown Select Board Candidates Make their Pitches

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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This story was updated on May 6 to provide more context about an assertion by candidate Bilal Ansari.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Faced with three Select Board candidates who each have served on the town's diversity committee and made equity and inclusion a cornerstone of their respective campaigns, some town residents may have trouble picking just two when they go to the polls next Tuesday.
One of the trio offered some helpful advice.
"If you're deciding between myself and Jane [Patton], please vote for Jane," Bilal Ansari said last week.
Ansari made the comment during a candidate forum hosted by the local chapter of the League of Women Voters.
He later clarified that he was not running against Patton, the lone incumbent on the ballot but rather running for the seat currently occupied by Wade Hasty, who chose not to file for re-election after winning a race last spring to fill out the remaining year of an unexpired term.
Ansari also said the five-person Select Board should include a woman. If Patton is unsuccessful on Tuesday, it would mark the first time since 1982 that all five members are men.
The two top vote-getters on Tuesday, May 10, will earn the right to be sworn in for a three-year term on the Select Board.
Randall Fippinger offered a different approach for voters trying to decide among the three names on the ballot.
"The Select Board over the next three years will face issues that we don't even know about," Fippinger said during his closing statement last week. "You need to zoom the lens out to say: Who do we want representing us? What person is going to reach out to marginalized communities? Who handles themselves under pressure? All these things.
"I encourage all of you to go to Willinet [and watch old meetings]. I encourage you to look at that and see how we are and see if we resonate with you."
No matter who wins on Tuesday, the next edition of the Select Board will be the first where a majority of the members have served on the town's Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity Committee. Jeffrey Johnson, who was elected to the Select Board last year, was appointed to the DIRE Committee in the summer of 2020.
Patton filled the DIRE Committee seat reserved for a member of the Select Board while serving as chair of the latter. Ansari was one of the first residents appointed to the DIRE Committee at its inception. Fippinger was appointed last year and currently chairs DIRE.
For Fippinger, the appointment to DIRE was his first brush with service on an official town committee but not his first experience serving the community.
"I look at the Select Board work as bringing together a lot of the community work I've done since I've been here," he said. "I was on the [Northern Berkshire Roots Teen Center] board for a number of years. I do education programs at Brayton Elementary. I bring world-class artists to Mount Greylock [Regional School]. I've had the opportunity to do indigenous people's projects, the last two at Field Park."
Ansari served on the town's Affordable Housing Committee during the period when it pushed for the Highland Woods senior housing project and laid the groundwork for the 330 Cole Ave. apartments. In last week's forum and in his answers to a series of questions posed to all three candidates by, Ansari emphasized the need for affordable housing in the town.
Patton is the candidate with the most years of experience on town boards, having served on the Select Board the last nine years and, through that service, on DIRE, the Community Preservation Committee and as co-chair of the recently completed Town Manager Search Advisory Committee.
In an era when many of the town's most politically active residents are pushing for change in town government, Patton addressed the potential issue of her incumbency head on in last week's forum.
"I think what I bring is a certain level of experience, especially what I've taken away in the last 18 months and have taken in and, in my own way, have tried to put back out into the world," Patton said. "There were nights when I was on Zoom calls for five hours straight – hard calls.
"I am anxious to be part of the group that is making some headway. I want to see us move the needle. We're going to take steps sideways and backwards, but I echo Bilal's comment about compassion. I believe in the next three years we can get where we want to go."
Patton acknowledged that the pace of change can be frustrating – even to her – but she listed a number of a steps the town has taken in the last couple of years, including the creation of the DIRE Committee itself, the departure of the former police chief and town manager, a review of the town's human resources policies, the acquisition of a grant to pay for a shared HR director with other Northern Berkshire communities, the Williamstown Police Department's push for accreditation and the WPD's participation in the Department of Justice's Strengthening Police and Community Partnerships program.
Not surprisingly, both Fippinger and Ansari argued that more change is needed.
"I was so frustrated so many times when conversations wouldn't happen or conversations were stalled or there wasn't follow up on certain things," Fippinger said. "I want to make a commitment to the town that if I say I'm going to follow up on something, I will follow up."
Ansari renewed his call for the Select Board to show more leadership.
"Accountability," Ansari said. "I think the town was witness to a lack of that. … To be honest, Jane [Patton] voted the right way. Andy [Hogeland] and Jane voted to do the right thing, but they were outvoted, and the momentum went one way."
Ansari did not specify the vote he was referencing. Many of the decisions the Select Board made in 2020 and ‘21 – after the release of a whistleblower lawsuit by a then-member of the WPD – were made in executive session and without the kinds of roll call, on-the-record votes required by the Open Meeting Law. A review of the publicly available minutes from open Select Board meetings from August 2020 (when the lawsuit was released) through February 2021 (when the town manager's departure was announced) does not show any public votes where Hogeland and Patton were in the minority of a split decision.
In October 2020, in the midst of a series of closed-door sessions where decisions apparently were made without recorded votes, Hogeland and Patton, in a public meeting, said that they argued in executive session for the removal of the police chief.
While Ansari twice said during last week's forum that he hopes voters return Patton to the Select Board, he also was clear about his passion for the work at hand and said he felt compelled to run for the board in this cycle.
"I don't have to reach out to the marginalized," Ansari said. "I've lived it. I feel it. I'm going to be that voice of listening because I was amongst those growing up who were part of the unheard. This is why I'm running for accountability. We all know what we've gone through in this town.
"I have, from day one in this town, served the poor and the working class – whether it's affordable housing or whether it's fighting for police reform or fighting against a racist deed."
Fippinger laid out a vision for where he wants the town to go.
"I'm running for Select Board because there are issues I care passionately about," Fippinger said. "And I want to be part of that conversation. Just three of those issues are police reform, affordable housing and supporting our seniors in a way that they don't feel they're being supported right now.
"I want to make the DIRE Committee obsolete. The values of diversity and inclusion should be part of every decision at Town Hall."
Patton ended the forum by talking about what she values.
"My promise to the residents is really pretty simple," Patton said. "As I have done for the last nine years, and especially the last two, I will be here every single day. It doesn't matter how hard or challenging it is. … Whether people like what I have to say or don't like what I have to say, I will be here.
"I love my home. My entire life is here. My wife, my children and my friends. I love Williamstown, just as I love the people in my life. My experience and steadfastness will be a benefit to the board as we welcome a new town manager … and hire a new police chief."

Tags: election 2022,   town elections,   

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