Williamstown Charter Review Committee Meets with Consultants

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Charter Review Committee on Thursday heard a largely favorable review of the current document that establishes the structure of town government.
Staff from University of Massachusetts at Boston's Collins Center for Public Management met virtually with the committee to share insights about both the Williamstown Charter, which was enacted in 1956, and some common themes in town charters around the commonwealth.
Collins Center associate Marilyn Contreas said the Williamstown charter was forward thinking for its time.
"What you have now is a pre-Home Rule charter via special act," Contreas said. "It is a pretty good special act. There was attention to a lot of issues. It was prescient in some ways in terms of giving the town manager significant responsibility but also authority to carry out that responsibility.
"Because it's 50-plus years old, it is getting a little outdated. Both state law has changed and your way of working has changed with the introduction of technology."
Contreas and her colleagues walked the committee through a number of trends that they have seen in charters around the state, including a reduction in the number of elected officials, centralization of management under a town manager or administrator, a requirement to develop and maintain a capital plan and the adoption of a recall mechanism for elected officials.
She noted a pair of emerging trends that align with charter modifications approved by Williamstown residents at the 2022 annual town meeting: removal of gender-specific terminology and the residency requirement for the town manager.
The consultants said the committee could focus on a couple of priority issues with the current charter and identify questions for further review and study after the current review committee's work is concluded.
One issue that came up in Thursday's meeting was a question that is not specifically addressed in the charter: the form of town meeting.
Concern about lack of participation and perceived inefficiencies in the town's current open town meeting format have led some to suggest Williamstown adopt a representative town meeting, like that in the nearby town of Adams.
The Collins Center presenters said there are advantages and disadvantages to both forms of meetings.
Open town meetings, like Williamstown's, provide direct representation and access to all registered voters in a community. But they also can lead longer meetings, necessitate more special meetings and, by definition, disenfranchise residents who are unable to attend due to work or family commitments.
On the other hand, the representative town meeting, while not allowing every resident a vote on each issue, does allow residents who cannot be heard at the meeting itself to be heard through their elected proxies.
Committee member and longtime Town Clerk Mary Kennedy said her understanding from former colleagues in other towns is that it can be difficult to get enough people to run for the representative town meeting positions – set between 45 and 240 according to the website of the Massachusetts secretary of state. Adams has 150 town meeting members. 
Another committee member, Nate Buddington, said that, in his experience, representative town meetings can lead to coalition building to elect candidates based on specific issues, giving residents on one side or the other an outsized voice in the resulting assembly.
He also said that from what he has seen of the representative meeting format, it does not necessarily produce meeting members who are any more informed than those who attend open town meetings.
Patricia Lloyd of the Collins Center said there are potential benefits to using the representative form.
"In theory, town meeting members who are elected are there to be informed on all the issues, and perhaps they are a little more insulated from whatever the issue of the day is," Lloyd said. "As a 15-year town meeting member, I had to sit through all the zoning issues that may not have been as exciting as whatever the issue of the day was.
"I think it depends on the particular community and the particular member."
Another issue raised at Thursday's meeting was the role of the town manager, which figures prominently in the existing town charter with nearly five dozen references in the seven-page document.
Hogeland noted that the town manager's authority became an issue in the town in the last couple of years when some residents became aware that the manager is the town's hiring authority, as specified in Section 15, paragraph C of the charter. That authority was much discussed when allegations of racist activity and sexual misconduct in the Williamstown Police Department led many town residents to call for the removal of the chief.
While the Collins Center consultants said the trend in Massachusetts was for towns to "centralize" power under a single executive, they noted that the Williamstown charter could do more to spell out the authority of the Select Board and the hiring authority for the town manager.
Committee member Anne Skinner said that, as a fellow member of the Select Board, many of the people who have served on the body are glad that it does not micromanage the day-to-day of town government.
"On that point, a lot of charters recently devote some text to making that differentiation — to the benefit of both the manager and the selectmen, so they have time to focus on strategic planning," Collins Center Director Michael Ward said. "We see some that start out saying the Select Board shall be the policy-setting, goal-setting body.
"In my quick read, I did not see much on the Select Board's role in your charter, so that could be a place to clarify things."

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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. -- Arianna Gerig scored 13 points and shot 8-for-10 from the foul line in the fourth quarter for Williams in a 49-48 come-from-behind win over Trinity on Friday night.
Williams (15-7, 6-2 NESCAC) outscored the Bantams, 25-19, in the fourth quarter to finally erase the remains of a 12-point lead Trinity grabbed in the first period.
Gerig finished with 19 points and eight rebounds.
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