|Behind Closed Doors, Williamstown Officials Pushed for Leadership Change at WPD|
|By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff|
04:10AM / Wednesday, October 06, 2021
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Eleven months ago, the then-chief of the Williamstown Police Department appeared at a virtual meeting of the Select Board.
Kyle Johnson apologized for "tolerating and participating in" workplace behavior at the police station that came to light in a federal whistle blower lawsuit three months earlier.
In his first public remarks since the lawsuit came to light, Johnson said he was the person to help rebuild trust in the department.
"I believe I am capable of doing the job," Johnson said in response to a question from a resident. "I've been a Williamstown police officer since 1992. I have a lot of background and knowledge of the town."
At the time, it appeared that Johnson was trying to persuade the community at large that he deserved to stay on the job.
Now, it looks like he had an audience of five.
Even as Johnson talked about his disappointment in past conduct at the police station, the five-person Select Board was pushing hard to see him leave the service of the town, recently released documents show.
Eventually, on Dec. 14, the town manager announced Johnson's resignation
under a separation agreement that leaves the town on the hook
for his salary through June 30, 2023.
But at least as early as Sept 8, 2020, the Select Board was encouraging Johnson to move on, according to the minutes of an executive session of the board held on that date.
According to the minutes released to iBerkshires.com in response to a request for public records, the board in early September held a "lengthy discussion" about potential "next steps" for Johnson.
Much of that discussion is redacted to privacy concerns for town employees, but the conclusion, just before Johnson left a little more than an hour into the meeting, was, "The Chief was encouraged to continue to think about his future with the Police Department in light of the current conflicts."
That Sept. 8 meeting appears to be something of a turning point in the board's management of a crisis that began on Aug. 12 with the release of a lawsuit by Police Sgt. Scott McGowan against the town, Johnson and Town Manager Jason Hoch.
Just after Johnson left the virtual session, the minutes show the board began a discussion with Hoch about "concerns of a lack of communication between the Town Manager and the Board about the litigation."
Again, the heart of that discussion is redacted, but it appears to have lasted for more than an hour and ended with the following note:
"Town Counsel described the options available to the Board and Town Manager, in terms of moving forward in the decision making process regarding the Town Manager's continued service," the minutes read.
By mid-February, five months after that Sept. 8 meeting and two months after Johnson left the town's service, Hoch was announcing his resignation
The Sept. 8 meeting, which lasted nearly three hours on a Tuesday afternoon, was not the longest or the second longest or even the third longest of 14 executive sessions held by the Select Board between Aug. 17, five days after the lawsuit was announced, and Dec. 4, a week before Johnson's departure was announced.
In total, the five-person volunteer board met behind closed doors for about 37 hours over a four-month period. Most of the executive sessions were held under two exceptions to the commonwealth's Open Meeting Law: to discuss the "reputation, character, physical condition or mental health, rather than professional competence, of an individual, or to discuss the discipline" and "to discuss strategy with respect to litigation."
McGowan ended up dropping his lawsuit in December, the same day Johnson's departure was announced.
In March, three months after the lawsuit was dropped, iBerkshires.com requested the minutes of meetings to discuss strategy about the lawsuit; that request was denied because the town claimed the minutes still were protected. On Aug. 20, iBerkshires.com resubmitted the request, and after two Select Board executive sessions this fall to review the redactions of minutes that were adopted in the spring, the town released the minutes on Friday.
Though frequently and sometimes heavily redacted, the minutes paint a picture of a board much more interested in removing the police chief than was evident in the panel's public meetings.
A number of times in the months following the lawsuit's release, residents in the board's public comment period called for the chief to either resign or be fired. Until late October, the board members repeatedly declined to be dragged into that line of discussion even while publicly expressing their own disappointment over the allegations raised in the suit. It was not until the Select Board's Oct. 26 meeting that two members, Jane Patton and Andy Hogeland, said they would have preferred to see Johnson gone.
Behind closed doors, that sentiment had been growing:
• Sept. 14, the board discussed hiring a consultant to find an interim police chief.
• Sept. 18, it discussed the "political impact of resignation of Chief" and "impact of cost and payout and community reaction." … "The consensus was that [Hoch] ought to continue to engage in negotiations with the Police Chief regarding a mutual separation of employment."
"The sense of the Board is that the sooner an announcement can be made regarding the Chief status [i.e. at the next — 9/28/2020 — meeting] the better, if negotiations are complete," the minutes read.
• Sept. 25, the minutes say, "The Board is extremely frustrated regarding the lack of urgency on the resolution of this matter."
• Oct. 8, after the Sept. 28 public meeting came and went without the announcement the board was looking for, Hoch told the board he, "has had lengthy conversations with the Chief about the impacts of staying, how things must change, and how hard the job will be." The town's counsel told the Select Board members, "Board does not have just cause for [Johnson's] termination." The board told Hoch to continue negotiations with Johnson over a separation agreement.
• Oct. 13, the board talked with Johnson for more than an hour; the notes of that conversation are completely redacted. After Johnson left the virtual meeting, the board discussed his Civil Service status with town counsel and had, "a lengthy discussion of options around Chief's continued employment and impacts of same, as it relates to the litigation."
• Oct. 15, the board discussed with Johnson a plan to increase "engagement and communication with the community." After Johnson left the meeting, board members, "had several questions for Town Counsel about [the board's] ability to effectuate employment or disciplinary decisions in response to the lawsuit.
• Oct. 21, the board discussed issuing a statement, "regarding Chief Johnson's continued employment." Five nights later, the minutes of the board's public meeting reflect a statement from then-Chair Patton that, "The town manager and the chief are committed to restoring trust and look forward to a shared process for an improved future."
• Nov. 30, in a meeting not attended by Johnson, Hoch tells the board, "he is considering removing the Police Chief, which may impact defense of current litigation and incur future litigation costs." Again, the board discussed a process for hiring an interim chief.
Two weeks later, Johnson's voluntary departure was announced.