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Williamstown Board Looks to Build Community Among Other Goals
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
11:23AM / Wednesday, September 14, 2022
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Select Board is hoping to put "unity" back in the community.
At its Monday meeting, the board discussed the goals for 2022-23 that it compiled at an off-camera meeting last month at the Williams Inn.
The board identified five initiatives for the year that concludes with May's town election. The only one with all five board members' names attached is labeled "Community Building/Outreach."
"This was a broad topic brought up at the retreat," Chair Hugh Daley said. "After so many years of feeling sequestered in our houses … we felt as a board we should engage harder with [events like the July 4 festivities and National Night Out] to make sure we pull people together. The best way to learn about each other is to meet with each other, talk to each other, to be present with each other.
"This is going to be the year of coming together. We are one community."
The "retreat" (actually just another posted meeting with no antecedent in state law; the word retreat appears nowhere in the Open Meeting Law) is regularly held by the board off its regular meeting cycle, often in the morning and beyond the eye of the town's public access television station, Willinet. The meeting has a bare bones agenda and board members are encouraged to brainstorm about priorities they would like to explore in the coming year.
A couple of years ago, a board member complained about the presence of a reporter at the so-called retreat. A different member after this year's Aug. 25 session at the Williams Inn asked a reporter not to divulge the identities of residents who said they did not feel welcome in town whom the board member mentioned by name during the meeting. At Monday's meeting, on camera, a member of the board pointedly chose not to share personal anecdotes that he talked about freely during the "retreat."
In addition to determining that the board should foster efforts to build the community, its stated goals include reviewing the Town Charter and town meeting process, developing a strategic plan to foster diversity and exploring opportunities to add to and/or enhance the town's public recreation spaces.
Jane Patton, long a proponent of fostering such public spaces, said public venues for recreation can bolster the "community building" goal.
"Whether it's pickleball courts or basketball courts … places for people to gather and play pickup games, that's where community building happens," Patton said.
Patton and Andy Hogeland are identified as the point people for the recreation goal. Developing a diversity strategic plan was a task primarily assigned to Randy Fippinger and Jeff Johnson. Fippinger and Patton were tasked with looking at the town meeting process, and the charter review is the bailiwick of Johnson and Andy Hogeland.
The board made concrete progress on the latter goal on Monday night, when it appointed five residents to serve with Hogeland and Johnson on the Charter Review Committee. Joe Bergeron, Nate Budington, Mary Kennedy, Anne Skinner and Jeff Strait were named to the committee.
Each brings a wealth of experience in municipal government, including: Bergeron, a former Williamstown Elementary School Committee member; Budington, who has served on the Conservation Commission, Historical Commission and Community Preservation Committee; Kennedy, who served as town clerk for 29 years; Skinner, a former member of the Select Board and Finance Committee; and Strait, who served on the Fin Comm from 1993 to 2010.
"This team has 80 or 90 years of [combined] experience in town government," Hogeland said. "I can't think of a way to get more experienced people than what we've got."
Johnson thanked all residents who applied for the committee and said the unsuccessful candidates or any other members of the community could reach out to Charter Review Committee members one-on-one to share thoughts about the review process, which the Select Board hopes will conclude by the winter of 2024, in time for potential changes to be brought to town meeting in May 2024.
As for town meeting itself, Patton reported that Fippinger, who could not attend Monday's meeting, met recently with Town Moderator Elisabeth Goodman to discuss the functioning of the annual town meeting and that Goodman and the two select board members plan to meet again this week.
On the goal of developing a strategic plan for the town's efforts in diversity, equity and inclusion, Daley Monday presented his colleagues with a draft statement of purpose for a new committee to develop that plan with an operating budget of up to $20,000 for hiring a consultant.
"I've come to the conclusion that we don't have the infrastructure in place or what I call the ladder to climb," Daley said. "The idea is to task our diversity committee with the development of a diversity strategic plan.
"There are professionals in the field who can help bring us tools we don't even know about and help us create that ladder to climb."
The draft action plan was previously shared with the co-chairs of the town's existing Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity Committee but does not mention the DIRE Committee by name. Daley said he wanted to present the draft document to the Select Board before forwarding it to the full DIRE Committee for discussion.
Johnson and Fippingner — through a statement read by Johnson — cautioned against presenting the draft as a fait accompli but instead continuing to work with the current DIRE Committee members on a new mission.
Daley said he hoped the DIRE Committee would continue the work it had in progress but not take on new initiatives until the strategic plan is developed.
He emphasized that the strategic plan could institutionalize the work already underway in the town under the auspices of the DIRE Committee, which was created in the summer of 2020.
"It has to be a continual improvement process [for the town] that survives multiple Select Boards, multiple town managers," Daley said. "It has to be baked into town government."
In other business on Monday, Hogeland again asked residents to review and submit comments by Sept. 30 on a draft human resources policy for all town employees. And Town Manager Robert Menicocci asked residents to contact him about serving on an interview panel to assist in hiring a new police chief.
Hogeland clarified that the panel Menicocci is looking to name will not vote a recommendation on the town manager's selection but rather sit in on interviews and provide feedback to the manager.
In answer to a question from the board, Menicocci said a request for proposals has been published by Adams, North Adams and Williamstown for a shared human resources director. Responses are due by the end of the month.
Finally, Menicocci announced that as of Sept. 26, Town Hall will again be open five days per week during regular business hours.
"COVID is still with us and not letting go, but we're at a good point in knowing how to manage this and be safe," he said.
Updated at 7:45 Sept. 14 to correct that the draft strategic plan was shared with the co-chairs of the town's DIRE Committee, but they did not respond to Daley in time for Monday's Select Board meeting.


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