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Gloucester native Robert Menicocci started his term on Friday as the town manager in Williamstown.

Q&A: Menicocci Begins Service as Williamstown's Town Manager

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Things were quiet in the corner office at Town Hall on Friday as Robert Menicocci settled into his first day on the job as the new town manager.
 
But as a close observer of the town — first as an applicant and, since early April, as the town manager to be — Menicocci knows that the last two years have not always been a quiet time for town government.
 
The national reckoning with institutional racism that came to the forefront in the summer of 2020 hit home in unique ways in this corner of North Berkshire, including the chain of events that led to the departure of the town's previous permanent town manager.
 
Menicocci brings an extensive resume in government service here in the commonwealth and in California where, most recently, he was the director of the Social Services Agency in Santa Clara County.
 
Reflecting on Williamstown's continuing efforts to address diversity, equity and inclusion, Menicocci said local government has a role to play in that effort.
 
"I think it's a great opportunity that government really does set the tone for any number of public policy efforts for the public good,” he said. Whether that's education, whether those are health care issues. Government has always played an important role in helping everybody navigate that.
 
I think, similarly, we can do the same. And I think what you see in a lot of government entities and jurisdictions is an effort to build around that work. Let's say we have a public health department that addresses health. Racial equity was something that was baked in and part of the work, but what I think what you're seeing now is a lot of government organizations are defining that as a piece of work – that there's actually offices for this type of work happening.
 
"There's really a deeper creation of a standalone area of expertise that we can all call upon. As part of our partnerships with working with our professional organizations or our public partners, we can definitely bring that knowledge back to the community. At that point, I think, we have a role to play in helping gather and convene people for that type of discussion around the specifics of what we do and what we touch. But also that can be a springboard for the community at large around the work that the community may want to do.”
 
Menicocci, who has a home in nearby Bennington, Vt., sat down with iBerkshires.com to talk about some of the challenges ahead.
 
Question: It's your first day, technically, but I'm guessing you've been laying some groundwork and doing some transitional work?
 
Menicocci: What's been interesting about the pandemic is government and its public process has pivoted to being very available. The meetings and such are now recorded and that kind of thing. Even as part of getting to know the town, thinking about the opportunity and whether to engage in that, there was ample opportunity to really get a very solid background from the board meetings as well as all of the committee meetings and such that were taking place.
 
Even well into the past, it was really a good opportunity to get to know the players, the town, the community to the extent that folks have been involved publicly – to really get a sense of who's who, the passions and, really, the direction that I think folks are hoping to head in.
 
That was a great leadup to it. And even over the past couple of months, viewing the meetings live or, if I couldn't, catching up with them, was really a great opportunity.
 
At the same time, I've certainly had a good opportunity to talk with some of the board members along the way around how things are going to be. At the same time, you want to make sure there are clear  lines of transition, and you don't want to muddy those waters by getting too involved too early.
 
This is great timing in terms of a benchmark for government, the turn of the fiscal year, that kind of thing.
 
Folks have been scurrying to get our finances all settled for the year and then kick off with a fresh budget.
 
And I want to work with the team here around all that is going on in the world. Obviously, there are economic concerns that everyone is keeping an eye on. It's a great time to be part of making sure this year goes well right from the get-go and making sure we get all the things in place to stay on top of the ups and downs of where the economy is going to lead us.
 
It's also a good time in the sense that this, generally for government, is a time when you've closed stuff down and you're gearing up. So everyone is taking a sigh of relief and taken a big breath to get going for the next fiscal year.
 
This is a time when folks also will take a little bit of time with the holiday to get recharged and ready to jump back. It's good for me, in the sense that it gives me a little bit of space and time to connect with people. There won't be a line out the door just yet.
 
It will be a way to ease into this in a way that's thoughtful.
 
Q: You mentioned the challenges in the economy. Do you have a sense of how those greater trends in the economy are maybe going to impact that fiscal year '23 budget and/or planning for the next fiscal year?
 
Menicocci: There will be some things we watch very closely. We're going to obviously watch the real estate market and what that's going to mean for property values. That's a big part of our income, and we want to pay close attention to that.
 
At the same time, we'll want to keep a close eye on costs. We're all feeling it. The town will feel it, too, in terms of having to look at energy costs and things like that that will potentially impact the budget.
 
Folks, I think, are very responsible in their budgeting and want to make sure we're conservative in how it's built. But you sometimes are just not prepared to hold up a lot of revenue and money in anticipation of a wild swing every year. We're going to need to watch that very closely.
 
And we're going to need to think about that from the standpoint of a labor perspective and a collective bargaining perspective of how is everyone being impacted, and what does that mean for our labor costs and things like that, to be able to address people's needs and their livelihood. We definitely have that in the mindset right off, and we'll be keeping a close watch on those things to make sure we're planning appropriately.
 
Q: Collective bargaining, also the town just authorized a salary review for town employees.
 
Menicocci: Exactly. Good government and good governance is that we do that kind of work and make sure we're taking care of staff and making sure that we're mindful of when we've looked at these sort of things and making sure we're in alignment with what's reasonable and what people need to take care of themselves and their families and such.
 
I think that's a really important step to ensure that our staff feels treated well but also that there's confidence from the public that what we're doing here makes sense and that it has an important review – whether that's external or having partners participate in those assessments and evaluations.
 
Q: You alluded earlier to the priorities of the residents. Obviously, the one big priority that has been top of mind here for the last two years has been issues around equity and inclusion and that sort of thing. As you're aware … the Select Board has committed to new training for town employees. Also there's a human resources policy review that is hopefully coming to a conclusion soon. Aside from things that directly impact town employees, where do you see the role for town government in those sorts of efforts, that conversation?
 
Menicocci: I think it's interesting. This sort of work is a collective effort. I think in government, what is a really important role that we have and an opportunity we have is the fact that we can help set a tone and really help bring clarity to issues that are complex. I think that's a role that government can play in the best of circumstances.
 
I think what is good about that is, from a very broad sense, the town itself is not the only government entity. There are hundreds and hundreds of government entities across the nation and across the world. And everybody is really thinking long and hard about this.
 
What I think we can bring is from the work that we do, we can bring back to the town what our colleagues are doing. We can share the wealth of effort that is happening, whether that's here in the commonwealth with what the state is looking at doing, what other cities are looking at doing – but across the country, and bringing those perspectives in.
 
… As you mentioned, we're doing our own work, internally. But we're looking forward to also being a strong partner with the rest of the community to forward this work because we all know it's an incredibly complex issue with a long, deep history. Some of it is rooted in the injustices of our economic system, our justice system, even our education systems and things like that. The solutions don't all rest within our purview, but some of it does, and that's where we can bring that partnership to the table.
We're excited to be a strong partner in that work.
 
Q: I don't need to tell you one of the things that came out of that conversation and really drove a lot of that conversation around here was the turmoil in the police department that led to the chief's departure. Do you have a timetable in mind for finding a permanent chief?
 
Menicocci: I think I really want to make sure we do two things: that we're thoughtful, and that means I mean to take a little bit of time hearing from folks and thinking about how we're going to put together the right body of people to help support the conversation and the input … That being said, this has been a long, outstanding issue, and I really think folks are ready for remedy and ready to move forward.
 
I want to definitely assure folks that there's an urgency to moving on and getting this to be a settled matter. But, also, understand that we do want to be thoughtful, and I ask for everybody's indulgence and a little bit of patience of making sure I have the time to reach out to the community and get to have some good conversations with folks.
 
These processes are always difficult. We know that law enforcement in general, very broadly, our community neighbors, are having some real challenges recruiting.
 
I won't make any promises around what a recruitment process will turn into. But I think it's really important that we get that started very shortly, after the next, let's say, four to six weeks of getting me some time to have conversations and then get something going.
 
Q: I think I heard you say in there 'getting input from other people' during that process. Are you envisioning a committee?
 
Menicocci: I think what I'd like to do is talk with folks here because there are already different bodies of work that have happened. I think at this stage of the game, we may be in a good position to take that work that may have been part of public process and move it away from the Select Board, perhaps, and have an advisory committee that I can work with directly.
 
Like I said, I don't have any preconceived notions of how it should go, but there are some options, and I look forward to hearing from folks for a consensus view of what folks are going to be most comfortable with.
 
Q: I mentioned the statement the Select Board put out [on diversity training]. I referred to you as the new 'interim town manager.' I understand the reasons why and the charter [Williamstown town meeting last month agreed to send to Boston a request for a charter revision to allow non-residents to serve as town manager]. Does it bother you at all? Put another way, does it affect your ability to be an effective leader at this point that you still carry that tag?
 
Menicocci: I don't think so. I certainly won’t speak for folks. As I walk around the community, having conversations with folks, if they express some grave concern around that, maybe I would start to share that. Maybe I'd say, 'How do we assure folks that this is something that is in the works of being a resolved issue?'
 
I have been around government forever, all of my career. I know how government works, and there are peculiarities of government. I also was a former resident of Massachusetts. I was born and raised in Massachusetts. And I participated very much in the town meeting process in the communities I lived in. And I absolutely respect what that's all about and the fact that the town has the ability to establish how they want to go about their business and the requirements they put forth as part of their town charter. I have an immense amount of respect for that.
 
We also recognize that time changes. When the charter was written, being far away was probably more of an issue that it is today.
 
I think there are advantages to making the changes in terms of offering a little more flexibility. There are two sides of things. Folks may say: It's important to have skin in the game as part of the community. I definitely assure folks that as a student of government and doing this for years, my heart is deep in it and deep in the work that I do.
 
But I also think what we realize more and more is there's a greater desire for transparency for things like that. So I'm glad that town has the opportunity to discuss this and vote on it.
 
And I do think there's the other side of advantages of having some kind of separation. Not having skin in the game is sometimes important to be able to objectively look at things and really have the public confidence a decision is being made for the correct public policy reasons versus one of some self-motivation or anything like that.
 
I think there's an understanding that this is, at this stage of the game, a technicality. The fact that the town voted means there's a good understanding of that at this stage.
 
Q: You mentioned you watched some meetings. I take it you watched the town meeting as well.
Menicocci: Yes.
 
Q: Any impressions of the night? A long night, though, it might have worked better in your time zone at the time.
 
Menicocci: I was out west at the time, so it wasn't as much of a late night as it was for the folks here.
A couple of things … I think, once again, I absolutely, as that student of government, I love what town meeting represents. But I think this year raised the deeper challenges of access and things like that. It's certainly an opportunity to have conversations around how we can honor what town meeting is meant to be but also think about how we can improve participation and access. That was certainly raised as a concern from a broad perspective.
 
Clearly, there was some deep conversation on how to move forward on certain issues. Housing is obviously a big issue and the different tools we have – one of those tools being the planning piece of what we can do. There was some lively and robust conversation around that, and I think there were some very good points brought to that.
 
I think there were some lessons learned about being able to understand what a community needs in terms of communication to have the right level of understanding of things. I was always taught and coached around communication that you need to over-communicate, and when you think you've done that, do it five more times. Because it's definitely challenging.
 
I think when we talk about equity and inclusion, we need to understand that people communicate in different ways and have different ways of hearing things and different styles of that and different tools they use to do that. I think there's work we can do to ensure satisfaction in that realm.
 
And we can really think about ways we can continue to have a thoughtful and lively discussion around what it is we can do moving forward.
 
Democracy is a pretty amazing thing, but it can be messy. I think there was a little bit of that in the sense of some good discussion. … I really enjoy having a collaborative style in terms of the work getting done, and I love to hear from folks.
 
I think you hear in meetings a lot of times: We've discussed this at length, but there's frustration at times that only a handful of people were informed as part of the ongoing conversations. That's an opportunity for us to think about how we can do deeper sharing and a deeper level of communication to ensure that folks who don't have the will, the means, the availability to attend every meeting that there is still opportunity and outreach.
 
Sometimes we say, the town meeting warrant is published, so there's your opportunity. But there is more opportunity there.
 
Other than that, the topics and everything are similar to many other communities that are having the same conversations. Really, what came out of that to me was some very passionate and engaged folks and voices. I love that because it really makes doing this job easier in the sense you're not trying to figure it out alone. You have a lot of great thought partners. That's exciting to me.
 
What I shared with the Select Board through the selection process, one of the things that is so exciting about this community is its level of conversation and thoughtfulness around things. Certainly, nobody is abdicating and saying, 'You take care of this.' There's lots of opinion and lots of input. I'm very excited about that.

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Williamstown Fire District Seeking Treasurer

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Williamstown Fire District is in the market for a new treasurer after Cory Thurston announced at last week's Prudential Committee meeting that he plans to step down from the office.
 
Thurston has served in the capacity since he was elected in May 2019 to what, at the time, was the district's clerk/treasurer position.
 
A lot changed in the three years that followed. The district broke the clerk and treasurer roles into two separate jobs, and it moved them from elected offices to positions appointed by the five-person Prudential Committee.
 
"That was changed from an elected official a few years ago to make sure the district had a qualified candidate," Thurston reminded the committee at its September meeting. "Because it is an important job. And the state requirements tend to grow exponentially as time moves forward."
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