Williamstown Select Board Finalizes Charge for Charter Review Panel

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Select Board on Monday approved the marching orders for the first comprehensive charter in more than six decades.
It also sought to temper expectations about the scope of the Charter Review Committee that the board hopes to appoint next month.
"This is not just the charter," said Andy Hogeland, who drafted the charge with Jeffrey Johnson. "This is the state laws and bylaws that affect the structure of town government – so not a substantive thing but a mechanical, structural review is our focus.
"We added in here a couple of sentences that this review is not about non-structural things. This is not about diversity, equity, sustainability. Those are legitimate things. If they come into this committee, we're going to refer them out to committees where they more properly should be looked at like the Comprehensive Plan Committee or DIRE or the Affordable Housing Trust or the Planning Board. I think it will be easy to be distracted by having way too many social issues come up, and this really isn't designed to handle those.
"This is more about, ‘If you have an issue, how would you go about deciding it?' rather than deciding it."
The charge approved unanimously on Monday night calls on the committee to discuss "how well the structures of government are working and identify options for modifying the structure that might improve the functions of government."
Among the topics suggested for discussion by the Charter Review Committee: whether Williamstown should consider a representative town meeting form of government instead of its current open town meeting format; how authority is divided between the Select Board and town manager; and whether the charter should allow for recalls and/or referendums.
Hogeland and Johnson have agreed to serve on the review committee, and the Select Board is seeking five more members of the community to make a seven-person body. Hogeland Monday reiterated that the board wants applications or nominations to serve on the committee submitted to Town Manager Robert Menicocci by Monday, Aug. 15.
The charge calls on the review committee to compile a draft report by January 2024 with the possibility of any changes to the charter to be sent to town meeting that May.
What that town meeting might look like is a question for a different Select Board initiative.
On Monday, Randal Fippinger updated his colleagues on his efforts to review the operation of the town meeting to see how the current open meeting format can better serve residents.
Fippinger said he has been engaging newly elected Moderator Elisabeth Goodman and that he plans to get input from past moderators and the town clerk before eventually holding a public hearing to see what if any changes have buy-in from the community at large.
Among the possible changes Fippinger mentioned on Monday are breaking the annual meeting into two different sessions to prevent marathon meetings like June's, when complex zoning bylaw amendments were taken up relatively late when some meeting members may not have been able to fully engage, using electronic voting devices (clickers) to tally votes in order to both speed the process and allow members a measure of anonymity and providing child-care for residents with young children who want to participate.
Fippinger noted that one issue with the "multiple meetings" solution is the cost to set up for the event in either Williamstown Elementary School's gymnasium (its traditional location) or Mount Greylock Regional School's gym, where the 2022 meeting took place. He said he and Goodman are exploring other potential locations, specifically noting Mount Greylock's auditorium.
The auditorium has a capacity of 445 people. The WES gym's capacity is 800 people; Mount Greylock's gym has a capacity of 1,500. At June's meeting, 327 of the town's 4,906 registered voters checked in.
The Select Board made quick work of a relatively light agenda. It approved Mendicocci's appointment of Barbara Robertson to fill a vacant seat on the Conservation Commission and OK'd the 14th running of the annual Williamstown Community Chest 5K Fun Run and 1-mile Walk on Sept. 17 at 8:30 a.m.
And the board discussed its continuing effort to assess the role of the Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity Committee the board created in 2020.
Fippinger, who occupies the Select Board's seat on the DIRE Committee, reported some of the responses he received from community members during a listening session at Saturday's grand opening celebration of the Chef's Hat restaurant on Simonds Road.
"We had a lot of feedback that some people said they liked the smaller Dire Committee because it felt more intimate and could get more work done," Fippinger said. "A lot of people appreciated being able to see both DIRE and the Select Board at sessions like the Chef's Hat and the [Aug. 2] National Night Out event. They encouraged both committees to do more of that."
Fippinger reported that the current members of the DIRE Committee were interested in seeing the Select Board appoint new members to the diversity panel and noted that it could not hold its planned Aug. 1 session due to the lack of available members to form a quorum.
The Select Board has expressed a hesitancy about making new appointments before a review of the committee's purpose and process is completed.
Select Board Chair Hugh Daley, who has been leading the board's efforts to review the DIRE Committee's charge, said he understood that the panel's current members might feel in limbo while the process plays out.
"I think we need to talk about coming up with the beginnings of a draft purpose document to start giving us something to talk about," Daley said. "In order to bring this to a conclusion, we do have to actually commit to a charge. Odds are it has some new language in it."
Daley and Johnson were tasked with developing a draft for the DIRE Committee's charge along with members of the latter committee.

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Williamstown Committee Begins Review of Town Charter

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The town's first Charter Review Committee began its work on Thursday with a reminder of what its mission is and, as importantly, what it is not.
"The only thing I want to make us conscious of is part of the charge says we don't want to become a discussion ground for current social issues," Select Board member Andy Hogeland told the group at its morning meeting at Town Hall. "Things may come in the door about sustainability or equity. That's not what the Select Board wants us to be looking at.
"We want to check over the engine of government. It will be the vehicle through which people can make changes. If those issues come up, we'll refer them to the Comprehensive Plan Committee or the DIRE Committee."
Actually, as the Charter Review Committee noted on Thursday, the charter is just one of the engines that drives town government. Other forces include town bylaws, votes of town meeting and, of course, Massachusetts General Law, which sometimes compels or overrides actions at the local level.
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