Williamstown's DIRE Committee Questions Need for New Purpose

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The town's diversity committee Monday talked about plans for conversations it wants to hold over the next few months while members pushed back against a suggestion that the body "conclude or pause" its work in order to focus on a yearlong effort to create a strategic plan.
 
The Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity Committee has been engaged with the Select Board throughout the summer in a discussion of the purpose and direction for the advisory panel the Select Board created two years ago.
 
That discussion has not always gone smoothly.
 
Earlier this month, the Select Board agreed on a draft outline for the purpose and process that could guide the DIRE Committee in its third year of existence.
 
Select Board Chair Hugh Daley has said it is his intent to clarify the DIRE Committee's "purpose and process" before the board appoints two new personnel to fill vacant seats on the seven-person panel.
 
Most of the five current members Monday continued to question that approach, saying, in effect, that the DIRE Committee already has a purpose and a process.
 
"The Select Board made a point at its last meeting that this is the beginning of a conversation of how to think about adding structure to DIRE," said Randal Fippinger, who fills the Select Board's seat on the DIRE Committee. "They said multiple times that they want our input. They want us to rewrite it, keep it, whatever we want to do."
 
That said, Fippinger joined his colleagues on DIRE in questioning the potential ramifications for the committee of the Select Board's draft purpose/process proposal.
 
"What I took away is it is asking us to stop what we're doing and focus on working with a consultant to write a strategic plan," DIRE Shana Dixon said.
 
"I'd argue it's even more broad than that," Fippinger replied. "The request is to offer more recommendations on how best to structure future task forces or working groups. To my ear, I don't hear where DIRE is at the end of this [strategic plan process]. Does DIRE exist at the end of that?"
 
DIRE Committee co-Chair Noah Smalls said he read the draft proposal as "kind of a canceling of the DIRE Committee."
 
Quoting from the draft, which does not mention the DIRE Committee by name, Smalls pointed to a line that says the town's diversity, equity and inclusion work "should be intentional and with planed purpose."
 
"To me, this suggests the work we're doing is not intentional and not with planned purpose already, which I do believe it is," Smalls said.
 
"This is as violent as a purpose document proposal could be in some ways. I'm happy to work with this, but this basically sends us all packing unless we want to stop doing DIRE and start doing work that sounds like it should be done by the Select Board."
 
Andrew Art said he did not get the impression from the draft that the Select Board was looking to end the DIRE Committee, but he did raise a question about who the "strategic plan" envisioned is for -- town government or the town generally.
 
"Is the main intention to reform DIRE or is the main intention to focus on DEI efforts for the town?" he said.
 
Art noted that the DIRE Committee's August 2020 charge from the Select Board was to make "actionable recommendations" to the board. The committee has done that, and "there hasn't been a lot of discussion about those [recommendations], to be honest," Art said.
 
At the end of the meeting, it was unclear what next steps the DIRE Committee would take on the draft forwarded from the Select Board. Fippinger suggested a delegation from the committee could meet with one or two Select Board members, including Jeff Johnson, who served on the first incarnation of the DIRE Committee.
 
Smalls said he preferred to have all five current DIRE Committee members engaged in that process with as many members of the Select Board as might like to attend.
 
No meeting date was discussed for such a joint meeting.
 
The committee did discuss some people it wanted to invite to future meetings to discuss DEI efforts in the town.
 
Specifically, the panel agreed to bring in the new town manager, Bob Menicocci and representatives from Williams College's Office of Accessible Education and Williams Vice President for Institutional Diversity Equity and Inclusion Leticia Haynes.
 
Most committee members also agreed with the idea of inviting interim Police Chief Mike Ziemba. But resident Janice Loux addressed the committee from the "floor" of the virtual meeting to say she believes it would be unfair to give Ziemba a platform with the DIRE Committee when he is a prospective candidate for the permanent chief position.
 
Committee member Andi Bryant replied that it was appropriate for the panel to speak with Ziemba as the person currently leading the Williamstown Police Department, not as a candidate. Fippinger agreed but pointed out that any conversation with the committee could take place before interviews begin for job.
 
On the topic of that candidate search, Art reminded his fellow committee members that DIRE weighed in last year with recommendations on how to conduct searches for both the town manager and police chief positions that opened up in 2020 and '21.
 
According to the town's website, Menicocci is accepting applications from residents interested in serving on an interview panel as part of the police chief search.

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