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Williamstown Select Board Candidates Meet for Pre-Election Forum

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The three candidates for two seats on the Select Board each espoused a similarly thoughtful, inclusive approach to decision making in a pre-election forum sponsored by the local chapter of the League of Women Voters.
But their answers at the Tuesday event did reflect some differences on the starting points that each will bring to deliberations that may come before the board in the next three years.
On Tuesday, May 9, voters will decide whether to return three-term incumbent Andrew Hogeland for another three-year term and whether one or both newcomers in the race, Stephanie Boyd and Paul Harsch, will join the board.
The ballot in the annual town election actually will have four names running for the two available seats; Andrea Bryant announced earlier this month that she decided to pull out of the race after the deadline for candidate withdrawals.
The top two vote-getters from the remaining three candidates will join the five-person Select Board after the annual town meeting on May 16.
All three candidates indicated an openness to be persuaded on issues and a willingness to gather feedback from their constituents if elected.
"When faced with a challenge, many of you will know that I am quite a bulldog at trying to figure out what to do," Boyd said in her closing remarks. "I look at it from every angle. I talk to people. I research, read. I do analysis.
"And I know the most important issues that we are going to face on the Select Board will be complex and multifaceted."
Harsch attempted to put the same principles in action in real time at the candidate forum.
When a resident asked from the floor about what opportunities the candidates saw for more regional cooperation with Williamstown's North Berkshire neighbors, Harsch turned the question around.
"I'd be curious to hear from you as to what you had in mind by asking the question," Harsch asked the inquisitor, Catherine McKeen. "Did you have something in mind? Any particular areas where you'd foresee opportunities?"
When she answered that she was more interested in hearing the candidates' thoughts, Harsch said he agreed in principle to regional cooperation as a way to hold down the cost of municipal government, adding that, "If I was serving on the Select Board, I would welcome suggestions, and we'd investigate."
Hogeland talked about active listening in his opening comments and, when the forum concluded, said he appreciated hearing his fellow candidates' ideas at the event.
"I like to do things in a rational, deliberative, well-reasoned way," Hogeland said in his opener. "I learn from people. I like to listen to them attentively and see what they say. I don't like to win public arguments. I think the better result is to resolve them."
Hogeland returned to the theme of listening to constituents during a discussion about diversity and equity.
Harsch used his time on the topic to stress that he believes Williamstown is a welcoming place for people of different backgrounds.
"I think we're a pretty inclusive community," he said. "There's always room for improvement on any topic. But we cannot pretend that we can be all things to all people. I think people who want to come here from diverse backgrounds will seek us out. … I'm not lamenting anything about the town. I think it's a wonderful town. And not everybody wants to live here."
Hogeland said his experience over the last three years says otherwise.
"I think we want to be inclusive in town," he said. "I am not sure if you asked people, you would get universal agreement that we are inclusive.
"The last three years, I just have heard way too many stories from people who do not feel included. They feel frightened. They feel submerged. So we need to reach out because there are actually some problems out there we need to deal with."
Boyd pointed to the forum's venue as an indication that the town has work to do about being inclusive across all spectrums, not just race and ethnicity. She pointed to the sign in the hall that points to the "Selectmen's Meeting Room."
"Last week, we [on the Planning Board] had a public hearing in here where a number of people came with walkers, and it was so uncomfortable getting people in and out of this room," Boyd said. "I think physical accessibility, the signs, lots of small things we can do in our community. Spring Street is almost impossible to navigate if you have any kind of mobility aids. 
"I agree with all the things about getting people together, but we have to look at our physical infrastructure, too, and see what that communicates to our community."
One of the major topics at the Tuesday event was taxes. It came up both in multiple questions submitted to the League of Women Voters online and was raised again when moderator Jennifer Howlett opened the event to questions from the floor.
Harsch, who used an candidate Q&A to suggest an "across-the-board" cut to municipal budgets, reiterated that idea at Tuesday's forum.
"Could we possibly, unlike Congress, get together and look hard at the entire budget of the town and make some cuts? Harsch asked. "One equitable way to do that is an across-the-board 10 percent cut in all budgets. It's a tough thing to do, a tough thing to pass. But that's the alternative."
Boyd suggested there mechanisms the town can look at to lower the tax burden on specific classes of residents and said there may be ways to lower costs at the margins without impacting services, but she admitted that would be difficult.
"What we can do on lowering expenses is really difficult," Boyd said. "I've only ever heard people who want more things. But I've also rarely seen an organization that doesn't have some inefficiencies we can work on. That's probably even more challenging than getting some revenue."
Hogeland touted one mechanism for targeted tax relief that he worked on in the last year as a Select Board member. At town meeting, members will have a chance to expand a senior property tax exemption program by lowering the age eligibility and increasing the income and asset minimums to the maximums allowed by the commonwealth. He also talked about advocating for more state aid, referencing his work as president of the Massachusetts Select Board Association and on the governor's Local Government Advisory Committee.
At the end of the day, though, Hogeland said Williamstown's municipal budget, in recent history, has generated the least debate of any item on the floor at town meeting.
"The other thing to realize is we all go to town meeting, and we all vote for the budget," Hogeland said. "That budget turns into taxes. So if you're worried about the taxes, you should be worried about it a few months earlier when we vote for the budget."
One of the mechanisms that Boyd referenced for targeted tax relief is the commonwealth's Residential Exemption program, which allows communities to shift the tax burden away from moderately-priced homes to more expensive properties and second homeowners.
Harsch said he was open to persuasion on the topic but did not think shifting the tax burden is a "favorable path."
"One piece of educational information I got from our town tax assessor: He said this particular program was initiated around the Boston area, where property values are much higher," Harsch said. "It's not a concept that has been utilized much west of Boston."
Hogeland, who has joined the rest of the Select Board in rejecting the Residential Exemption each August or September for nearly a decade, cited that exact argument about incompatibility outside the Boston metro area. He also called the exemption program a "blunt instrument" that is not sufficiently targeted to residents in need because home value is not always directly linked to one's ability to pay property taxes.
Boyd, on the other hand, appeared the most open to considering the Residential Exemption as a way to make the town's taxation more progressive.
"It does, as Paul mentioned, shift the tax burden from lower valued houses to higher valued houses," Boyd said. "The reason this is important is because property tax is a regressive tax. There's all kinds of papers written on that: The people with the lowest amount of wealth pay more than people with higher wealth when we're just looking at property tax.
"There are a number of reasons that happens. One is we're not particularly good at evaluating high-end property values. Also people's wealth is not tied up in real assets like it was when we first invented property taxes. … Particularly if you're at the wealthy end, your house is a small percentage of your net worth."
The forum is available for viewing on the town's community access television station, Willinet.

Tags: candidate forum,   election 2023,   town elections,   

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GET LOUD: A Celebration of Banned Books

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — On Sunday, Oct. 1, the Williamstown League of Women Voters in collaboration with the David and Joyce Milne Public Library and the Friends of the Milne Library are presenting Get Loud: A Celebration of Banned Books.
A group of nine authors, performers, teachers, and local individuals will read aloud selections from books currently or previously banned in US libraries and schools. Introducing them will be authors Karen Shepard and Jim Shepard, both on the English faculty of Williams College.
This performance was initiated by the Williamstown League of Women Voters with the goal of bringing together organizations and individuals with a strong interest in the importance of free speech and artistic freedom. 
The event is intended to raise awareness of the history and practice of government censorship, and to give the community an opportunity to experience firsthand the power and joy of good writing.
"One of our goals is to dramatize the importance of the books that have come under attack historically and also recently in some schools and public libraries," said League representative Jane Nicholls. "We hope bringing together an impressive group of artists will help remind us all that the freedom to write and to read is crucial to all other freedoms."
Participants selected their readings from a list supplied by Milne Library Director Pat MacLeod, which cataloged books being  banned from some school libraries and reading lists. The selections include passages from "The Bluest Eye" by Toni Morrison, "Bridge to Terabitha" by Katherine Paterson, "Ceremony" by Leslie Marmon Silko, "The Color Purple" by Alice Walker, and "Dear Martin" by Nic Stone.
Mt. Greylock Regional High School teacher Rebecca Tucker-Smith will read from "The Color Purple," and also recite excerpts from her students’ responses to the book.
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