WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Select Board last week accepted the offer of a local social worker to help the panel better engage with members of the public.
Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts professor of social work Kerri Nicoll suggested that the board could benefit from training in light of the twin strains of a controversy that has engulfed the town over the last year and a pandemic that has forced a new mode of conducting meetings in a virtual environment.
"I would be willing to work to plan and facilitate a training/retreat of some kind that would give you all an opportunity to collectively think about your roles as Select Board members, particularly in light of new levels of civic participation," Nicoll said. "This is acknowledging the fact that this is not unique to Williamstown. I think a lot of elected bodies and public officials are rethinking how they interact with the public because the public is more engaged at every moment, in part because it is wonderfully more convenient for people to engage from their own home.
"But also because people have a heightened awareness of the issues facing their community."
Specifically, Nicoll talked about the board exploring different ways of listening to and engaging with the community during the "petitioners requests" or public comment portions of its twice-monthly meetings. In recent months, those portions of the meeting have led to at times heated comments from some residents and pleas for civility from the chair.
Nicoll, who serves on the town's Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity Committee, said that the Select Board members could lead by example in changing the tone of public discourse at the meetings.
"As we have thought about different ways of engaging in restorative practices or other possibilities for moving forward as a community and engaging with each other in different ways, this is one discrete step that can be taken, one thing you as town leaders can do to do something about the way you are engaging with the community," Nicoll said. "I say that's one piece because I don't think that the five of you can change everything in the community.
"But I do think if you demonstrate a commitment to wanting to engage with the community in different ways, other people may pick up on that."
Nicoll told the board members that they should reserve at least two or three hours for the kind of training she has in mind and that, usually, such training might happen over several sessions.
"I think in an hour, you'll barely break the surface of what you think and not get into different ideas," Nicoll said.
In the meantime, Chair Jane Patton announced she is suspending the board's usual practice of taking petitioners' requests until further notice.
"I think we're going to take a little bit of a pause in the public comment portion of the Select Board meetings for a bit while we go through this training," Patton said. "It's not a question of not wanting to lean into hard conversations. It's not a question of being uncomfortable. I think all of us would be well served, members of the board and members of the community to step back, take a breath and recognize where we all have contributed to where we are today.
"I spend a lot of time wondering how to manage that piece better so it's more productive and people have the opportunity to be heard … being mindful of everyone in the room, literally and figuratively."
Patton said the board would not be accepting public comment "maybe for the next meeting or so, "but that members of the public were welcome to reach out to any members of the board or the town manager individually with concerns that the whole board could address at its next meeting.
The first order of business on Monday was the board's ratification of an undisclosed separation agreement between Town Manager Jason Hoch and the town. Three days before, Hoch had publicly announced that he was giving the town 60 days' notice after 5 1/2 years on the job.
The board voted 4-1 to ratify the agreement with Patton as the lone dissenting vote.
"I want to clarify that [the no vote] has to do with the terms of the agreement and not the separation," Patton said of an agreement that was negotiated between Hoch and the board in executive session.
The Select Board then discussed its effort to hire an interim town manager who will be able to take the helm in the spring and the search the town is conducting to hire an interim police chief.
Patton said the former search would be handled by the five members of the board while the latter will involve a community advisory panel to make a recommendation to Hoch.
Members of the board emphasized the need to get an interim town manager in place quickly to allow a seamless transition when Hoch's term ends.
"This is really someone who is going to hopefully have a lot of experience with Mass General Law, understands the ins and outs of doing this," Patton said. "We hope to be able to find someone in the fairly near term. Because this is very much intended to be an interim search, we're just going to manage it as the Select Board and not with an advisory committee.
"Folks may be making suggestions and sending comments in. That's always fine. But in this case, no advisory committee, which is different from the interim police chief process."
Andy Hogeland said that he started the ball rolling by writing up a job description for the interim town manager for the rest of the board to review and reaching out to the Massachusetts Municipal Association, which maintains a list of qualified managers who are interested in an interim appointment.
It was noted that the town could be at a disadvantage given its geography, but in answer to a question from the board, Hoch said he thought an interim manager could do the job largely remotely without necessarily relocating to the northwest corner of the commonwealth full-time.
Per the town charter, the full-time town manager the board hires down the road does have to live in Williamstown.
The search for the town's next permanent town manager will involve a search committee and, more than likely, a head-hunter. Hogeland agreed Monday to get quotes for a town manager search from the recruiters the board is considering to help with a search for a permanent police chief.
As for the interim police chief search, Hoch informed the board that the town had 21 residents respond to a call to serve on an advisory committee to consider candidates and make a recommendation to Hoch. Patton and Anne O'Connor agreed to sit down with Hoch and find a half dozen or so who represent a cross-section of the community.
Hoch also clarified that since, by law, the police chief is hired by the town manager and the ad hoc committee would be technically advisory, it would not be subject to the commonwealth's Open Meeting Law. That does not mean the advisory group could not choose to make its deliberations public; it just means it would not be compelled to do so by state law.
"If the advisory committee reaches a consensus on a recommendation of candidates, I'll proceed with negotiating terms of employment with that candidate," Hoch said. "Again, I think it's important to note that my real desire on this is that the advisory committee is the source of coming up with their recommendation.
"I'm not looking for a recommendation of two or three viable candidates. … I'd like to take the direction with the comfort of the advisory committee."