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Williamstown Select Board Studying Stipends for Town Committee Members
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
05:43AM / Wednesday, March 30, 2022
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Select Board is moving to fulfill a mandate from last May's annual town meeting to study the issue of compensation for town board and committee members.
 
But the issue is complicated, and the budget ramifications extensive, according to the board member taking the lead on the project.
 
Hugh Daley told his colleagues that there are 110 active seats on various committees in town. Some are held by more than one person, like Select Board member Jeffrey Johnson, who also serves on the Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity Committee, but, for argument's sake, he assumed at Monday's meeting that each seat might carry a stipend in any compensation plan.
 
"If everyone got $1,000, it's $110,000," Daley said. "If you dial it back, you have to make decisions about who does get compensated. Do we say, 'Hey, Sign Commission guys, we love you, but we're not going to pay you,' which seems weird.
 
"Or with the Select Board, there are some communities that pay them upward of $4,000 [each]. Do we say, 'The Select Board gets $4,000 but the Planning Board gets, meh, two grand'?"
 
Former Select Board member Jeffrey Thomas introduced the concept of compensation last year, and the Select Board put a question on the 2021 town meeting warrant asking whether the town wanted the board to do a study and present results prior to the 2022 meeting. That article passed on a voice vote.
 
Thomas argued that compensation was an equity issue. If service to the town is entirely on a volunteer basis, only more affluent members will tend to engage as members of town boards and committees.
 
Daley said in his analysis of the question, he gravitated toward a cost reimbursement model where committee members would not receive a standard stipend but instead submit receipts to the town for reasonable costs associated with town service, like child care on nights when committee meetings are held or upgraded Wi-Fi service to facilitate participation in meetings remotely.
 
"At 110 members, that's a lot of paperwork, a lot of checks to be written, a lot of warrants to be prepared to figure out how to get money to everyone," Daley said. "That's something to think about. When you create a chain of work, is it actually productive? And how much work will it be to get this money out the door?"
 
Daley also said the board needs to clarify with town counsel whether all committee and board members would be eligible for compensation. The town charter specifically mentions that the town may choose to compensate Select Board members (it does not), but that is the only body mentioned in the charter.
 
Daley said the first part of his study is to survey current board members about the monetary costs associated with their service to the town and what, if any, compensation, might incentivize them. But he admitted the difficulty of reaching those who potentially might serve and might be incentivized by a stipend but are not currently engaged in town government.
 
He also expressed concern that any compensation plan could change the relationship between residents and the board members who serve them.
 
"If someone says, 'I'll mow your lawn for you while you're out of town,' " Daley analogized. "You come home and it's done. It's not done exactly as you'd like it, but you don't yell at him, right? But if you pay the guy to do your lawn and it's not done the way you like it, you might say, 'Hey, what are you doing?' And it changes the tenor of the conversation.
 
"Then it gets into whether the compensation is enough to have that change in tenor be acceptable."
 
While Daley hopes to be able to report to the Select Board on the results of his survey this spring, the board does not plan to have a proposal ready for this year's town meeting, assuming it ever decides to make such a proposal.
 
One issue of compensation the meeting members will face is a budget proposal for a comprehensive compensation and classification study for all town employees. Interim Town Manager Charlie Blanchard has proposed a $35,000 expenditure to conduct such a study, last done in the 1990s.
 
Blanchard said the need for a wage study was brought up in a human resources audit the Select Board commissioned last year.
 
"Great Barrington had done a wage study last year, and we were one of the peer communities they looked at," Blanchard said. "It looks like, in general, our wages are in pretty good shape compared to the other communities around here, but it also showed that we don't really have good classification steps within the various positions."
 
The Select Board on Monday began its review of that and several other articles on an extensive annual town meeting warrant, but it did not make any advisory votes. The board hopes to complete that step at its April 11 meeting, although Select Board Chair Andy Hogeland recognized Monday that not all the Planning Board zoning proposals will be locked in by that date; the Planning Board last week continued its public hearing on its proposed bylaw amendments to April 12.
 
Along with the usual budget items, Community Preservation Act expenditures and a longer than usual list of proposals from the Planning Board, residents who attend the May 17 annual town meeting will be asked whether to send several pieces of special legislation to Boston for action on Beacon Hill.
 
Two would amend the town charter.
 
Article 29 on the draft town meeting warrant asks for a change to the charter to remove two requirements for the job of town manager. According to the charter as enacted in 1956, the town manager needs to be a resident of the town and "shall not, during the 12 months prior to his appointment, have held any elective or appointive office in the Town of Williamstown, other than the office of Assistant Town Manager, if any."
 
If approved by town meeting, and ultimately passed by the state legislature, holders of town offices could be considered for the corner office. Both that and the residency requirement came up as impediments during the ongoing search for a new town manager.
 
Another part of that town manager job description also may become a thing of the past: its use of the word "his."
 
Article 30 of the draft warrant asks residents to send to Boston a home rule petition to make the charter gender neutral. That would eliminate the use of gender-specific pronouns, replace the term "chairman" with "chair" and formally change the Select Board's title from "Board of Selectmen," an appellation the board stopped using years ago.
 
A third potential ask for special legislation would see whether the town wants to petition Boston to raise the number of wine and malt licenses allocated to the town.
 
Blanchard explained that licenses are based on a municipality's population, and Williamstown currently has granted its limit of licenses to businesses that sell alcohol for consumption off site. The local non-profit that recently purchased the Store at Five Corners in South Williamstown is asking for town action that would enable the store to obtain a license, which it had in prior iterations; subsequent to its closure in 2020, the Select Board issued a license to a new store planned on Water Street.
 
Blanchard did not present the Select Board with a completed warrant article but mentioned that the commonwealth's Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission tends to look favorably on home-rule petitions that attach specific addresses to requests for "extra" licenses.
 
That raised fairness concerns for a couple of members of the board who, while supportive generally of the idea of seeking more licenses, asked whether the town should be giving special consideration to a particular operation.
 
In the end, the board agreed to authorize Blanchard to draft warrant article language and bring it back for the April 11 meeting.
 
This story was changed on Wednesday morning to correct a quote from Select Board member Hugh Daley from Monday's meeting.
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