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Williamstown Select Board Forming Charter Review Committee
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
04:30AM / Wednesday, July 27, 2022
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — A month after town meeting took small steps to amend the town charter, the Select Board is commissioning a full-scale review of the 1956 document that provides the structure for much of town government.
At Monday's meeting, the board issued a call for nominees for a charter review committee that will be asked to engage in a more than year-long process to review and, potentially, recommend changes to the governing document.
Andy Hogeland, who along with Jeff Johnson formed a working group of the board to look at charter review, said the board would like nominations submitted to Town Hall by Aug. 15 with the hope that the Charter Review Committee could be up and running as early as September.
It would be the first time the town has undergone a comprehensive charter review since it was enacted more than 60 years ago. But last month, town meeting did approve two articles asking the Legislature to OK alterations to the charter: one to remove gender-specific language (chairman, for example) and another to strike a requirement that the town manager must be a town resident and cannot be elevated from another position at Town Hall.
Hogeland noted that the town charter is just one control on town government, albeit an important one. The structure of local government also is subject to Massachusetts General Law and the town code.
He noted that there are provisions in other towns' charters that Wiliamstown residents may decide they want to adopt.
"Some towns have a referendum process, which we don't have," he said. "Some towns have a recall provision."
Johnson and Hogeland estimate that the initial charter review committee would work from this fall until January 2024 with any potential changes that emerge heading to the annual town meeting that May. After that, Hogeland said they would recommend regular reviews every five to 10 years – less time consuming tasks that would ensure the charter keeps up with the town's needs as they evolve rather than waiting for six decades.
"We need to have minds open to the 'no action' alternative," Hogeland said. "We may decide everything is wrong and we change everything, we may decide to change nothing, and there's everything in between. Everyone has to check their biases at the door."
Johnson agreed.
"Review doesn't necessarily mean change," he said. "It means look at what we have. We want to know best practices. We want to be informed."
Hogeland said the town may want to hire a consultant well-versed in those best practices for local government in Massachusetts to advise the charter review committee.
"A consultant might give us expertise on what are the pros and cons of a particular item," he said. "For example, we have two 'judicial' boards, the Zoning Board and the Conservation Commission. The Select Board appoints one and the town manager appoints the other. Why?"
The board did not decide Monday on a size for the Charter Review Committee, though Hogeland recommended capping it at seven because larger groups can be difficult to schedule. The Select Board asked that nominations be submitted to Town Manager Bob Menicocci or his assistant Linda Sciarappa by Aug. 15.
In other business Monday, Randal Fippinger gave his colleagues a report from the Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity Committee on the panel's response to a Select Board-driven process to review DIRE's purpose and processes.
Several members of the Select Board emphasized that the review process does not have any predetermined outcomes and that they hope to be able to work collaboratively with the DIRE Committee members to reflect on the advisory body's mission.
"The big thing is we're trying to work together," said Johnson, who served on the DIRE Committee before his election to the Select Board in 2021. "As a two-time member of the DIRE Committee, one thing I felt we were missing [recently] was a trained facilitator.
"I don't think, in any way, the form of that [June 23] meeting was: You need to do what the Select Board says. Dire has the autonomy to work on its own projects, and we were trying to focus DIRE on things we need help with."
Hugh Daley, who established a framework for discussion at the June 23 meeting, said he was disappointed by the DIRE Committee members' reaction to what he conceived as a team building exercise.
He also said he thought the Select Board in the summer of 2020 did a disservice to the DIRE Committee by giving it an overly broad scope of work and noted that DIRE was created to be an advisory panel to the Select Board.
"Not once did I hear any DIRE Committee members say, 'How can we help the Select Board?' " Daley said.
"We're trying to bring the DIRE Committee into a set of focused areas … so we'll be able to look back at the end of the year and say we accomplished something."
Daley set a listening session for Thursday from 5 to 7 p.m. at the Log at 78 Spring St., to solicit public input on the purpose of the DIRE Committee.
"One of the things we want to hear is, 'How has DIRE benefited you?' " Daley said. "Let's find those out and say: Do more of those things."
The Select Board took the relatively rare and often routine action of sitting as the town's Cemetery Commission and considering a request for a non-resident to be buried in one of the town's graveyards.
It ultimately approved the request, but not before a couple of members expressed concerns about the process and policy involved in granting such requests and whether the town's cemeteries have the capacity to continue accepting non-residents. The board asked Menicocci to bring back more information on the latter question.
The Select Board made two appointments to town committees on Monday.
In a joint meeting with the current trustees of the David and Joyce Milne Public Library, the two bodies appointed Tamanika Terry Steward to an open seat on the Milne board. And the Select Board appointed Patrick Izidro to the Municipal Scholarship Committee.
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