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Williamstown Town Meeting Includes Call for 'Equanimity'
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
04:14AM / Monday, June 20, 2022
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Two current and one former member of the Select Board used last Tuesday's annual town meeting to appeal for more civil discourse in town government.
The tone for the evening was set when Anne O'Connor received the Scarborough-Salomon-Flynt Community Service Award.
O'Connor, who served two terms on the Select Board before choosing not to run for re-election last May was singled out by the award committee largely for her efforts to promote environmental causes.
She acknowledged that in her remarks before speaking at length about the conversation the community has been having around issues of race and equity since the summer of 2020, when those issues came to the forefront nationally after the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and locally when a lawsuit alleged disturbing incidents in the Williamstown Police Department.
O'Connor said it pained her to see the divisive rhetoric that has played out in public and on social media in the years since the town began reckoning with both its historic legacy of racism and the way white privilege continues to play out in Williamstown.
"I don't think this is easy at all," O'Connor said. "It is a discipline. At a community level, it means practicing respect for our mutual humanity, where you and I never let ourselves objectify someone else. It means maintaining our equanimity, balance and connection, even in the midst of change, where you and I take a breath and calm down before we act.
"It means practicing open-heartedness, love and perseverance as a guiding principle, where you and I don't give up on hope or each other."
O'Connor argued that the community cannot overcome "systemic harm by inflicting more harm."
And she said she is hopeful that the love of community embodied by the Scarborough-Salomon-Flynt Award and its namesakes would show the town "a path out of trauma."
Two of O'Connor's former Select Board colleagues later echoed her words – consciously or unconsciously – toward the end of the 4-1/2 hour meeting.
At issue was a proposal brought by citizens petition to institute a small stipend for all residents who serve on boards or committees in town government.
Proponents argue that a stipend would remove a barrier to public service for those who cannot afford expenses, like child care, that would allow them to commit to several hours of night meetings each month.
Two current members of the Select Board countered that a commitment to respect the work of committee members would go further in encouraging participation on those panels.
"Quite frankly, the way to motivate people to be on committees and run for boards is to listen to them," Jane Patton said.
Andy Hogeland agreed, citing a study by the Select Board of current board and committee members that found money would not be a "motivation" for public service.
"The challenges to serving the public have nothing to do with $25.60," he said, referencing the specific per meeting stipend in the proposed warrant article. "It's the hours, it's the stress, it's the public comment periods. It's what we did tonight to the Planning Board, frankly, I didn't agree with what they did. But they have my sympathies for the amount of time they put in. I can't imagine anyone on that board saying, 'Oh, I'll do it over again for the 25 bucks.' It just makes no sense."
The warrant article's author, Huff Templeton, sought to clarify that the stipend proposal was not about creating a financial incentive for service but, rather, removing obstacles that impede those who already want to serve.
"This is not compensating people for their time," Templeton said. "We're trying to provide a stipend for the meals and extra expenses."
Select Board member Randall Fippinger spoke in support of Templeton's proposal, calling it "baby steps in the right direction" of helping make government service accessible to more residents.
As the Select Board's representative to the town's Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity Committee, Fippinger told the meeting that panel recommended the stipend proposal's adoption and had received testimony that the stipend would help less affluent members of the community participate on committees.
Another member of the DIRE Committee, Andi Bryant, said she at first had doubts about the idea but came to support it, and she was glad Templeton added a "sunset clause" that would have implemented the stipends for three years so the town could evaluate their effectiveness at that point.
Fippinger and Wendy Penner each emphasized a hole in the Select Board's survey: It was directed only to those already serving on town boards and committees. Hugh Daley, who conducted the survey for the board, acknowledged that shortcoming when he presented the survey results to the board earlier this spring.
Daley made a different point during Tuesday's debate, pointing to the stipend proposal's "opt out" clause that could backfire and serve to ostracize the very community members the stipend was meant to encourage.
"This would all be public record," Daley said, referring to records of who opts out and who does not. "I don't want to create an environment where people are talking about potential candidates and appointees in terms of, 'Are you going to take the money or not take the money?'"
The stipend proposal failed on a vote of 42-89, with just 131 of the 327 residents who originally checked into the meeting still around (40 percent). That 327 represented 6.7 percent of the town's 4,906 registered voters.
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