Williamstown Committee Begins Review of Town Charter
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.
Understanding the intersections of those drivers is one of the committee's first orders of business. But the engine in the shop, as it were, has not had a tune-up since it was adopted in 1956.
Some parts of the charter clearly are out of date, like Section 5, which lists which positions in town are elected but does not include the Planning Board, which was converted from an appointed to elected body by an act of town meeting in 2007.
The '56 Charter also lays out the powers of the town's School Committee, a body that has since been replaced by the Mount Greylock Regional School Committee.
Then there is Section 10, which prohibits an elected officer of the town from holding any other town office by election or appointment. Select Board members Hogeland and Jeffrey Johnson being on the Charter Review Committee alone shows how anachronistic that clause has become.
And the enabling legislation that created, for example, the Community Preservation Committee requires it include a "one member of the board of park commissioners" but, in Williamstown, the Select Board serves as the parks commission. A Select Board member therefore serves on the CPC.
Hogeland on Thursday morning pointed to other areas of town government that might need to be clarified.
The town's Historical Commission, which has statutory authority under Massachusetts General Law, was created by an act of town meeting but is not mentioned in the town's bylaw, let alone the charter, Hogeland said.
Of course, many of the inconsistencies stem from the fact that town governance has changed in ways not contemplated by those who drafted the charter. That is why the Select Board called for the tune-up in the first place.
Once the door is open to potentially changing the charter, the committee and, later, the town will have a multitude of options to consider.
Hogeland said the Charter Review Committee should engage in bench marking to see how other municipalities conduct their affairs and may want to consider a paid consultant. At the very least, he said the committee should take note of a webinar on charter changes being held next month by the Massachusetts Municipal Association.
"I think we need more help on, 'What are other towns doing?' on open meeting versus [representative town meeting] or recall provisions," Hogeland said. "We need some outside expertise."
The Charter Review Committee, which includes volunteers with decades of experience in municipal government as both employees and volunteer public servants, is slated to sit for about a year and a half with plans to make any recommendations for change in time for the May 2024 annual town meeting.
For the next meeting, Hogeland tasked the committee members with drafting questions that the group wants to ask of stakeholders, including town employees and committee members, about what concerns they might have about the local government structure.
Johnson pointed out Thursday that it is a review committee, not a revision committee.
"I have no expectations," Johnson said. "It's a review. It takes us where it takes us. Obviously, parts of the charter are very well written."
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