|Williamstown Picks Police Investigator, Calls for Chief Advisory Board|
|By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff |
02:37AM / Tuesday, February 09, 2021
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Select Board on Monday agreed to hire Brookline attorney Judy Levenson to conduct an investigation into the allegations raised in a discrimination lawsuit filed against the town last year.
In a separate conversation, the board and town manager agreed to extend a search for volunteers to serve an advisory committee to help Town Manager Jason Hoch select an interim chief for the Police Department.
The investigation was sparked by a lawsuit filed in August by Police Sgt. Scott McGowan. The suit subsequently was dropped in December, and the board decided this winter to proceed with an independent, third-party probe into the issues McGowan raised, some going back 10 years.
Andy Hogeland took the point for the board on soliciting potential investigators. On Monday, he shared the responses from interested firms to questions raised by the board at its last meeting.
One of those questions was about the firms' estimate for the number of hours they expect an investigation to consume and the potential cost to the town.
Hogeland noted that any cost estimate would be based on preliminary expectations about hours, and nothing is set in stone.
"I get numbers between $12,000 and almost $20,000," Hogeland said for calculations of cost based on estimates of hours and the rates firms might charge. "Mid-teens is where I'd center it.
"The real variable here is witness availability and witness loquaciousness. Some [witnesses] may be there two or three hours because they were central to the allegation."
Hogeland said all four of the firms indicated they could begin work on the investigation in the near future. He said one mentioned it would take a couple of months to complete, and he suspected that would be true for all of them.
Select Board Chair Jane Patton said she trusted Hogeland's judgment in making a recommendation among the four candidates, a sentiment that Jeffrey Thomas echoed.
"Andy has been close to this," Thomas said. "He has a legal background, which is relevant here."
Hogeland indicated once again that all of the firms could do the investigative work. He said Levenson had the edge because she appears to be better positioned to give the board a second part of its ask: an assessment of current conditions at the department.
"One cost-efficient and effective means to achieve a broad-based climate assessment within the Williamstown Police Department concerning issues of diversity, racism, sexism, etc., would be to distribute a written survey to all members of the Department (full-time and reserve officers, dispatchers, support and administrative staff) to be completed anonymously," Levenson wrote in her memo replying to the board's request for more information. "The survey questions would include, but not necessarily be limited to, issues that are raised in the course of investigating allegations contained in the [Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination] charge."
Hogeland agreed that the assessment of current conditions is a high priority.
"I'd be more inclined to go with Levenson because she has more capability on the current assessment side," Hogeland said.
Based on his recommendation, the board voted 5-0 to enter into a retainer agreement with Levenson's firm.
The issue of the Police Department came up again during the petitioner's request portion of the meeting, when resident Janice Loux took the floor and claimed, based on conversations with an unnamed friend of hers, that Hoche was "in the final stages of signing a contract" with an interim chief.
Loux identified the person by name and gave his current place of employment as Berkshire Community College. She went on to say the individual had a "horrible record of policing," in an upstate New York community.
Later, resident Arlene Kirsch supported Loux by citing newspaper accounts that referenced the candidate's tenure in the New York community.
Based on Loux's report, several other residents said they were "blindsided" by the news that the appointment of an interim chief was imminent and wanted to know what happened to the creation of an advisory committee that Hoch talked about at the board's Jan. 25 meeting.
"As you know, there is an ongoing situation, a lack of trust," Margaret McComish said. "People are concerned for their safety and security. Tonight, there was information about conversations about an interim chief. I haven't heard a response about what this process will be and has it changed?
"I'm concerned things will happen without a public, deliberative process."
Hoch said he has not hired an interim chief but has had one conversation with a prospective candidate. He said his call for volunteers for an advisory committee fell on largely deaf ears and he was under the impression the Select Board wanted him to move forward with finding a candidate to relieve staffing concerns at the Police Department.
"At our last meeting, I outlined a process asking for help in having input from people interested in making a recommendation on an interim chief," Hoch said. "After 10 days, I had one inquiry of light interest. I advised the board of that, and the encouragement was to proceed with identifying candidates.
"I had conversations with at least one person who expressed interest in the position to outline what it could be. … After moving in that direction, I received more interest from people in being on the committee after preliminary guidance from the board was to move at a different pace. That's kind of where we are now."
Several residents who addressed the board from the floor of Monday's virtual meeting said they would be happy to serve on an advisory committee, and at least one said they did not understand from the Jan. 25 meeting that there was a 10-day "deadline" to express interest.
Based on Monday's discussion and given the urgency the board has expressed to fill an interim position, Hoch set a Friday, Feb. 12, deadline to submit an application to serve on the advisory group.
Patton suggested that applicants for the committee — who can email either Hoch or a member of the Select Board to express their interest — provide some information about their background and any life or professional experiences they can bring to the conversation.
Thomas expressed a concern that any discussions about candidates for interim chief respect the privacy of applicants.
"I would expect anyone on this [advisory] committee to uphold that confidentiality," Thomas said. "That being said, there is the possibility that information about candidates could be leaked. I want to suggest to this group that if information is leaked and someone tries to bring it up to this board, we can't comment. We can't acknowledge they’re a candidate or anything."