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Updated April 20, 2024 10:44AM

Williamstown Charter Proposal Sparks Concern over 'Separation of Powers'

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
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Updated on April 20 to reflect a decision to withdraw a town meeting article submitted by the Conservation Commission relative to the Spruces Park.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Select Board and Planning Board this week clashed over a proposal that would add to the town charter a mechanism to ensure compliance with the foundation of town government.
The Select Board on Monday night finalized the warrant for the annual town meeting.
Most of the 42 articles on the agenda for the Thursday, May 23, meeting were recommended by the Select Board for passage with little or no comment. The primary exception was Article 32, one of five articles to result from deliberations of the Charter Review Committee.
The review committee spent about a year and a half reviewing the 68-year-old charter, which has not received a major revision over the last seven decades.
In consultation with consultants from the Collins Center for Public Management at the University of Massachusetts Boston and after reviewing best practices from municipalities around the commonwealth, the Charter Review Committee developed a number of recommendations to town meeting.
Most of the proposed revisions clarify existing charter language and bring the document in line with town practices that have evolved over the last half century (Article 30). Two of the articles resulting from the CRC are not actually charter changes at all but town bylaw proposals (Articles 33 and 34).
Two proposals would make substantive changes to the charter: adding a recall provision (Article 31) and creating a mechanism to enforce the charter (Article 32).
The latter generated most of the discussion at Monday's Select Board meeting, and that conversation continued into Tuesday's Planning Board meeting.
Stephanie Boyd, a former Planning Board chair who was elected to the Select Board last May, pushed her colleagues at Monday's meeting to amend Article 32 to address her concern that it would mean, "a fundamental change to our town government."
Boyd said she was sorry that she did not raise the issue with the Charter Review Committee and understood that last-minute changes to the article were not ideal.
But she suggested that Article 32 would somehow give the Select Board and town manager "authority" over the Planning Board, Milne Library Board of Directors, Housing Authority and other elected bodies.
Article 32 seeks to create a mechanism to ensure compliance with the charter, a provision left out of the 1956 document.
Specifically, it sets up a process where the town manager reviews any complaint of non-compliance and, after discussion with the party accused of non-compliance, brings the issue to the Select Board to determine a response. If the complaint is against the town manager, the Select Board alone will address the complaint as part of its existing supervisory duties over the manager.
On Boyd's suggestion, the Select Board did make a couple of minor amendments to Article 32, including one that entitles the party accused of noncompliance to submit a written response to the accusation.
But it voted 4-1 against her motion to strike the language of "to determine the appropriate response" from paragraph "b" of what would become Section 25 of the Town Charter if enacted.
And Boyd was on the losing side of a 4-1 vote to recommend town meeting approve Article 32 as drafted; like all charter revisions, a positive vote at May's meeting sends the matter to Boston for approval of the state Legislature in the form of a home-rule petition.
During Monday's discussion at Town Hall, current Planning Board member Roger Lawrence joined Boyd in pushing for an amendment to the article.
"The difficulty we'd have is it ultimately makes the Planning Board subject to the Select Board through the town manager," Lawrence said from the floor of the meeting. "Really, the Planning Board is responsible to the voters. It's an independent board for that reason. If we leave the wording the way it is right now, it would erode the independence of the Planning Board."
Article 32 deals specifically with the issue of compliance with the charter. It is unclear from reading the charter how ensuring compliance would affect a board's "independence."
Section 6 of the Town Charter specifically recognizes that "boards, commissions and committees" have "powers, duties and responsibilities ... provided by any applicable law, bylaw or vote of the town." The Planning Board, in particular, is enabled by Section 81 of Chapter 41 of Title VII in Massachusetts General Law.
The majority of the charter deals with the duties of the town manager and how that manager is supervised by the Select Board.
The only apparent compliance issue for town boards and committees arises in Section 20, which prohibits elected or appointed members of town government from "directly or indirectly, [making] a contract with the town, or to receive any commission, discount, bonus, gift, reward or contribution, or any share in the profits of any person or corporation making or performing such a contract, unless the official concerned, immediately upon learning of the existence of such contract, or that such contract is proposed, shall notify the select board in writing of the contract and of the nature of their interest therein and shall abstain from doing any official act on behalf of the town in reference thereto."
If Article 32 passes and ultimately is incorporated into the charter, the Select Board would be responsible for determining a response to violations of the Section 20 conflict of interest clause, but it is not clear what other authority the Select Board would have over other boards and committees in town.
"I think the practical impact of [Article 32] is minimal," Planning Board Chair Peter Beck said at Tuesday's meeting. "I think the structural impact is significant."
Earlier in Tuesday's Planning Board meeting, Beck said Article 32 would give the Select Board "oversight responsibility" over other boards. Another planner, Cory Campbell, suggested that the charter compliance provision, "could be abused by the Select Board."
"They're entitled to say, 'We want to change the charter so we can hire someone to oversee the Planning Board,' " Beck said, but he noted that the Planning Board was entitled to argue against that proposal at town meeting.
"Major amendments on the floor of town meeting are messy," Beck said. "It's better to vote something down and try again next year."
On Thursday morning, reached out to both Boyd and Beck to ask what other "oversight," beyond Section 20, was at issue.
Boyd wrote back that the proposed charter amendment would give the Select Board jurisdiction over, "a complaint about a perceived charter violation" with the word "perceived" bolded for emphasis.
"In addition, we should also consider potential future impacts," Boyd wrote. "Article 32 sets up an approach to authority and governance structure that would establish how future new charter articles are enforced."
Beck, like Boyd, drafted his own version of Article 32, which, he said, "[goes] with the spirit of what they were going for but [makes] it so it stays within the boundary of separation of powers and authority in our town."
The Planning Board on Tuesday voted, 5-0, to bring amended language to the Select Board in hopes that the latter body will decide to offer its own amended version of Article 32 to town meeting.
The other addition to the Town Charter resulting from the Charter Review Committee's deliberation is Article 31, which establishes a recall provision for elected officials.
The Select Board unanimously recommended town meeting adopt this measure after making an amendment on Monday evening.
The proposed charter amendment sets up a two-stage process for forcing a recall election. The first step is an application for a recall petition, which then must be signed by at least 10 percent of the town's registered voters (the town had 5,068 registered voters as of last May's annual town meeting).
The draft from the Charter Review Committee called for the initial application, step one of the process, to be signed by at least 50 registered voters. On Monday, Randal Fippinger and Jane Patton suggested that a 50-signature bar was too low.
Fippinger noted that the commonwealth requires 200 signatures on a petition to call a special town meeting and suggested that is a more appropriate threshold.
"Randy, don't fall out of your chair, but I agree with you 100 percent," Patton joked. "I think it's hard enough to get folks to stick their necks out and run [for public office].
"It really, to me, might prevent people from wanting to run and serve knowing that if they upset someone about something, the next thing you know there's a recall petition with your name attached forever.
"These are people who are volunteers. They're not paid. And they're always going to come down on the side that 50 people don't like. … It's not really about me. By the time all this came about, I'd be two meetings away from being done [on the Select Board]. It's about all the ways we should mindfully make it an appealing option to run and serve the town."
Andrew Hogeland and Jeffrey Johnson, who co-chaired the Charter Review Committee, said they did not recall the committee's members being particularly wedded to the number 50.
Johnson abstained from a vote to amend the number to 200 signatures on the initial application. The amendment that passed, 3-1, with Hogeland voting against.
The town meeting warrant was trimmed slightly from the draft provided to the Select Board prior to Monday's meeting.
Town Manager Robert Menicocci announced that the petitioners from Sweet Farm Road had withdrawn their request that the town accept the road as a public way.
All but two of the remaining 42 articles were recommended for passage by the Select Board.
Article 41, which was drafted by the Conservation Commission, would place the Spruces Park land under the control of the Con Comm. Members of the Select Board were critical of the proposal when it was presented to the board in February. On Monday, it voted unanimously to recommend against its passage.
On April 11, the Conservation Commission voted unanimously to pull Article 41 from the annual town meeting warrant and, "call upon the Select Board to establish a task force made of representatives of bodies such as the Select Board, Conservation Commission and Agricultural Commission to review existing studies of the Spruces, examine the current situation and propose future management."
Article 43, placed on the warrant by citizens petition, would require the town to place 1.2 acres of town land off Luce Road into permanent conservation. The town acquired the property in 2004 using Community Preservation Act funds for the purpose of conserving open space. Menicocci told the Select Board that his office needed to explore the issue with town counsel in the weeks leading up to town meeting; the Select Board opted to take no advisory vote on the article.

Tags: annual town meeting,   charter review,   town warrant,   

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Williamstown Town Meeting Passes Progress Pride Flag Bylaw Amendment

By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff

Mount Greylock sophomore Jack Uhas addresses town meeting on Thursday as Select Board member Randal Fippinger looks on.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — By a ratio of nearly 2-to-1, town meeting Thursday passed a bylaw amendment to allow the Progress Pride flag to be flown on town flag poles.
The most heavily debated article of the 40 that were addressed by the meeting was decided on a vote of 175-90, amending a flag bylaw passed at last year's town meeting.
Mount Greylock Regional School sophomore Jack Uhas of the middle-high school's Gender Sexuality Alliance opened the discussion with a brief statement, telling the 295 voters who checked into the meeting that, "to many, the flag is a symbol that, in our town, they belong."
The speakers addressing the article fell roughly in line with the ultimate vote, with eight speaking in favor and four against passage.
Justin Adkins talked about his experience as, to his knowledge, the only out trans individual in the town of about 7,700 when he moved to Williamstown in 2007.
"Most people, when I moved here, had never met a trans person," Adkins said. "Today, that is not the case. Today, many people in this room are free to say who they are.
"LGBTQ-plus youth still face a world where their basic being is questioned and legislated. … Flying a flag is, really, the least we can do."
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