|Williamstown Prepares to Protect Potential Post-Election Protests|
|By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff |
02:12AM / Thursday, October 29, 2020
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Town officials are preparing to protect demonstrators who may take to the streets in the wake of next week's presidential election.
"In Williamstown, there is a long history of visible, responsible and safe civic visibility and protest," Town Manager Jason Hoch told the Select Board at its Monday meeting. "That may well be again something that is exercised next week.
"From a police and community response point of view, we are most well equipped to protect physical safety at the edges of events. If you think about events at Field Park, we can keep vehicles out of the way as appropriate. We provide people an appropriate and safe place to be safe from the physical harm of a passing vehicle."
But there are limits to what the Williamstown Police Department can do, Hoch said. And the town has been assessing what outside agencies it might need to call on to ensure public safety.
"Where we're less well equipped because there is only so much we can do with 10 or 12 of our people protecting those edges is what may happen as people pass through those edges [of protests]," Hoch said. "There are potentially risks of those from away who may have different opinions than those protesting. We have seen indications of that already with passers-by. We do share a concern about protecting people from the harm of comments coming out of a window or worse."
Hoch said that in a career spent in local government and thinking about elections, this is the first time he can remember spending more time thinking about what may happen after the polls close than the polling itself. And the town, Williams College and officials beyond the town line recognize those activities may extend beyond Tuesday, particularly given the potential that neither presidential candidate will be conceding until well after the wee hours of Nov. 4.
And he acknowledged that the election comes at a time when many in Williamstown, including many of those who may be inclined to take to the streets in protest, have lost faith
in local law enforcement. But he emphasized that the town and its police department prioritize public safety.
"We will never be in a position to tell people that they can't exercise their right to freedom of expression," Hoch said. "That's not anything we want to do. And even a caution is something that we do not take lightly.
"That said, I would say that if we have any credible indication that there may be a risk that we're uncomfortable being able to responsibly protect people from, we will share that advisory. I would ask that if we get to that point, people consider taking that advice. It's highly unlikely we do that, but I note this only to say that at any given moment, you may value our advice or be frustrated with us. But, setting part of that aside, if we find ourselves compelled to say something, it is out of a genuine desire to protect."
As for the election itself, Hoch told the Select Board that the town continues to see ballots come in either through the mail, the drop box on the steps of Town Hall or during early voting hours, which continue at Town Hall through Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
The town got just more than 2,500 applications for ballots that could be mailed back or dropped in the 24/7 drop box. As of Friday, nearly 1,800 completed ballots were returned, along with another 400 voters who did in-person early voting.
All those ballots are stored securely and will be run through the tabulation machines during polling hours, which are 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. at Williamstown Elementary School on Tuesday.
In other business on Monday, the Select Board heard a presentation from Cat Bryars, the senior planner at the Bennington County [Vt.] Planning Commission, about a proposal for a bicycle and pedestrian trail
from the town of Bennington, through Pownal and into Williamstown, where it would link up with the planned Mohawk Path, a long-awaited trail across town that someday will link to North Adams and beyond to the Ashuwilticook Rail Trail.
Bryars emphasized that the trail, which is in the early planning stages, is envisioned both as a recreational amenity and an economic driver.
"We have focused on figuring out the route to be a viable commuting corridor," Bryars said.
Noting the growing popularity of electric bikes, Bryars said one of her colleagues regularly makes the trip from Bennington to North Adams on an e-bike in 45 minutes. But U.S. Route 7 does not have adequate shoulders to provide safe access for non-drivers.
One of the chief challenges to the creation of a new path is gaining rights-of-way on private property, Bryars said. A preliminary survey of landowners conducted this year found that a little more than half were "not immediately open to an easement," she said.