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Williamstown DIRE Committee Members Question Review of Its Purpose
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
05:02AM / Friday, July 22, 2022
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Members of the town's diversity committee Monday pushed back against an effort by the Select Board to evaluate and, perhaps, recast the scope of work for the 2-year-old advisory committee.
Select Board Chair Hugh Daley began that effort with a joint meeting of his board with the Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity Committee on June 23 with an agenda that included, "Discussion of DIRE Committee purpose, process, personnel and performance."
"We are trying to make progress on the issues confronted by the DIRE Committee," Daley said in introducing the topic at the June 23 joint meeting. "In my belief, one way to frame that is we first need to determine our purpose. We need to determine, 'What are we going to do?' Then we've got to say, 'How are we going to do it?' And then we should say, 'Who should do it?'
"It's a distilling process that brings us to, hopefully, a place where we can have what I call concrete, material benefits for the people of Williamstown."
Daley characterized that session as the first of "many meetings" and, in subsequent discussions, has expressed a hesitancy to appoint applicants to fill vacant seats on the DIRE Committee until that "distilling process" plays out.
In its first meeting since the joint session with the Select Board, the DIRE Committee discussed its members' thoughts about a potential reset for the panel.
"I just didn't know what was going on with this meeting," Shana Dixon said of the joint session. "I felt like it was trying to pull apart something that I didn't feel was broken. I just feel like it could have been more organized, and I didn't have to be there because somebody already had a dialogue of what they wanted to hear and what they were giving out.
"I felt it was a very one-sided meeting. I just felt it was a waste of my time, to be frank about it."
Dixon attended the June 23 meeting along with DIRE Committee members Andi Bryant and Andrew Art. Randal Fippinger, who fills the Select Board seat on the DIRE Committee, also attended along with three other members of the Select Board: Daley, Andrew Hogeland and Jeffrey Johnson, who served on the first iteration of the DIRE Committee.
Art concurred with Dixon's assessment.
"An assertion was made [at the June 23 meeting] that the role of DIRE or the charge of DIRE was somehow unclear," Art said. "I don't find the charge to DIRE unclear. It's a written document. It provides specific actions for DIRE, which is to make specific, actionable recommendations to the town after hearing from a broad array of groups and people.
"I see the charge to DIRE as very clear. It's written out. The scope of the issues is somewhat non-defined, but the charge itself, what it is we're supposed to produce is, to me, clear."
Several people at Monday's meeting said they felt the diversity panel was being singled out in a manner that does not apply to other town boards and committees.
Resident Janice Loux, a frequent participant in DIRE Committee meetings from the floor, called the Select Board's current review "suspect."
"Why is the DIRE Committee the only one being subjected to this kind of review?" Loux asked. "Why is the addition of new members scrutinized in the way it is, and people from other committees are automatically renewed year after year? Some have been renewed for 20 years.
"I find the whole thing problematic. … The DIRE Committee moved difficult questions forward in this town, and now it seems we're going to start moving backward on it."
According to Dixon, Monday was not the first time a community member on the outside of the process has questioned the review.
"One thing that happened during the joint meeting was I got some messages from Facebook and other formats basically saying, 'Why question the DIRE Committee, and I never see this done to other committees?' " Dixon said. "People in the community are wondering why we were picked apart trying to figure out how to fix something that wasn't broken. That wasn't just my thought. I also got community input during the meeting."
Several of the committees appointed by the Select Board, including the Zoning Board of Appeals, Community Preservation Committee and Affordable Housing Trust, have duties and powers that are defined in Massachusetts General Law. The Select Board created the DIRE Committee in the summer of 2020 as an advisory committee to the Select Board.
Art recognized that the Select Board has the prerogative to change the scope of work for an advisory panel it created. But he expressed concern that some sort of change was pre-determined before the June 23 meeting.
"It's the Select Board's purview to change the charge of DIRE if they want to do that," Art said. "But there was this elaborate process [defined at the June 23 meeting] to get to where they already knew they wanted to go."
Dixon picked up on that point.
"When you sit down to do this Power Point that asks all these questions, and you already have all the answers, why the hell am I there?" she said. "So you can tell me what the answer is already? Or are you really asking me the question? Because there's a distinct difference."
DIRE co-Chair Noah Smalls, who was unable to attend the June 23 meeting, expressed his own concerns about the process that began that night.
"I wonder how the Select Board is evaluating the input coming in," Smalls said. "What were the questions going out and to who? The way those questions are worded and how they're presented … greatly impacts the responses and what the data ends up being. I wonder if that part of the process couldn't be more collaborative with the DIRE Committee.
"My second point is that DIRE, from what I can see, exists to fill a void that is not being met by any of the town committees, specifically the Select Board. And that is kind of a historical thing that's been present. It didn't just become a thing that was present in 2020, but it's a thing. And it's a thing nationally that continues to need to be dealt with."
The committee Monday did not decide on any next steps or whether or how it would continue to engage the Select Board on the process that began last month.
It did decide to take steps to inform and get to know Town Manager Robert Menicocci, who began his service to the town on July 1.
Art suggested, and his colleagues agreed, that a delegation from the DIRE Committee should meet with Menicocci to bring him up to speed on the committee's activities and its past recommendations to town government. After that meeting, Art suggested that Menicocci should be invited to brief the committee.
"To hear his view of the third-party, independent reviews done of both the Police Department and the policies and procedures of the town," Art said. "To hear what his takeaways are from those deliverables prepared by outside advisors and to hear what his priorities are in terms of implementing any follow-up actions to either of those initiatives."
In other business, Fippinger volunteered to help coordinate a conversation between Menicocci and the Mount Greylock Regional School's Gender Sexuality Alliance about a public art project that the student group has proposed.

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