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Williamstown Select Board Discusses Climate, Diversity Plans
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
05:14AM / Wednesday, September 27, 2023
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Select Board on Monday heard presentations on work the town can do locally to address two of the most intractable global issues facing the nation: climate change and systemic racism.
First, representatives from the town's Carbon Dioxide Lowering (COOL) Committee discussed initiatives that are underway and action that is needed to realize the net-zero carbon emission goal that town meeting endorsed in June 2021.
Then, members of the Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity Advisory Committee the Select Board created in 2020 presented its recommendations for how the town can create a strategic plan to make Williamstown a more welcoming community for all of its residents.
The Select Board charged the DIRE Committee with creating a "Diversity Strategic Plan" with "specific recommendations on how best to structure future task forces and working groups last October.
Committee members Shana Dixon and Andrew Art presented the group's thinking about how those task forces could be organized and what goals those task forces might want to address.
Art explained that the DIRE Committee took as its model the strategic plan created by Andover, an Eastern Massachusetts town of about 36,000 people. Art noted that while Williamstown does not have the full resources of Andover — where, for example, more than 100 members of the community are working on a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) strategic plan — the framework provided a valuable guide.
"Maybe you'd need 20 people, not 100, to do the task force work," Art said.
Those task forces would be focused on seven areas, according to the DIRE Committee's report: enhancing dialogue among residents of diverse backgrounds; creating townwide events to foster cultural awareness; increasing diverse participation on town boards and committees; increasing diversity in town workplaces; creating sustainable methods to continue the town's DEI efforts; supporting youth; and supporting the Stockbridge-Munsee community.
For each of the seven task forces, the DIRE Committee suggested potential short-term, ongoing and, occasionally, long-term objectives. Those goals included action items like "Publicize community programs and events to raise community awareness," "Train chairs of government boards and committees on how to encourage inclusive conversations within meetings," and "Identify barriers to diverse, equitable and inclusive hiring practices," to name just a few.
Art emphasized that those specific action items are a draft; the actual goals will spring from the task forces themselves.
The DIRE Committee members each acknowledged that any strategic plan and any specific goals are going to require resources and planning to put into action.
Art mentioned a couple of times that the Andover plan the DIRE Committee identified as a model is in the middle of an 18-month implementation phase, a process that is supported by two members of town government tasked with DEI work and a line item in the town budget.
"The big challenge we have is that we have an implementation question of how we're going to get this strategic plan done," Art said. "What does it mean to go beyond the paper and actually implement the objectives that are identified?"
The Select Board had earmarked $20,000 in the fiscal 2023 budget toward DIRE's creation of a strategic plan with the idea that the panel might benefit from a consultant. Art said the DIRE Committee agreed that the town's money would be better spent on implementation efforts.
"Do we think that $20,000 is enough?" Jane Patton asked Art and Dixon.
"To do all the work in the plan? Not even close," Art said. "You can establish plans on paper that go nowhere, but I don't think that's in any of our interest.
"We wanted to present [the plan] back as a draft and to highlight that, to do this work, you're going to need to figure out how we're going to implement it. And that's going to take money and professional resources, probably, to help. … I think that's a question for the Select Board to discuss, given this was a request from you."
Dixon elaborated.
"Without funding, any volunteer work is unsustainable," she said. "We are in need of administrative help and other financial resources. At the moment, we are looking at other grants we can apply for to help reach the goals and hold events that we have ongoing, like the talks we have and the Holiday Walk that's coming up in December.
"So, we are trying to find our own resources, but we are looking for more input."
Likewise, the COOL Committee representatives said if the town wants to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions — a goal ratified by town meeting two years ago — it may want to hire a sustainability coordinator who can write grant applications and manage grant money that is received to address goals in the town's to-be-drafted Climate Action Plan.
Nancy Nylen and Wendy Penner of the COOL Committee suggested that the town could explore a shared-services agreement with neighboring communities to fund such a sustainability position — a model Williamstown recently followed with Adams and North Adams to hire a human resources director to serve the three municipalities.
The move would be about more than just sharing costs, they said.
"If we have a regional sustainability coordinator, we can take a regional approach," Penner said. "That's exciting because it would have a greater impact. We think it's a really good use for a shared position."
The COOL Committee members highlighted steps the town already has taken, like installing LED street lighting, entering into an electricity aggregation plan and assessing town buildings for energy efficiency.
Targets for future initiatives include encouraging owners of homes — which account for about a third of the town's greenhouse gas emissions — to increase energy efficiency and choose electric options for heating, cooling, hot water and stoves.
Other items for the Climate Action Plan that the 2021 town meeting vote called for include promoting electric vehicles by installing charging stations, promoting public transportation and reducing use of plastics.
From a town perspective, the work will include upgrades to and/or replacement of infrastructure.
"We're working on the Green Communities grant right now," Nylen said. "That is identifying the projects that the DPW, the library, the parks and cemetery have identified where there are opportunities for weatherization and heat pump technology."
Town Manager Robert Menicocci, who serves on the task force working on the action plan, said the Select Board will be engaged in "high level" discussions mapping out the town's strategy.
"A good example is we've been having the conversation about the [Milne] library, the fact that it needs some stabilization," Menicocci said. "We'll be spending some capital funds on that just to get it stabilized. But, ideally, there would be a framework behind that that we would have applied some principles to to say, 'If we're going to touch this, this is what our standard is.' Or, we say, 'We're not going to touch it. We're just going to bulldoze it because it's not tenable to have this building any longer.'
"That concept is down the road at this point. But I think it's establishing the foundation of: Whatever business we do, what confidence does everybody have in what we're doing?"
Members of the Select Board expressed their thanks to the volunteers working on both the DEI issue and the climate action plan, and Chair Jeffrey Johnson promised that both initiatives will remain priorities going forward.
Johnson noted that the DIRE Committee's strategic plan framework will be informed by a planned Oct. 16 presentation from the Community Assessment and Research, or CARES, project, whose report is slated to be posted on the town's website in early October.
Johnson, Stephanie Boyd and Menicocci all agreed to the dialogue with the grassroots COOL Committee in hopes of producing an action plan before the end of the year.
"This is what we need to do," Johnson said after the greenhouse gas presentation. "If you want to breathe, it's pretty simple. I think it's at that level."
Later, after the DIRE Committee presentation, Johnson pointed out the link between the two discussions.
"The theme of tonight is, 'It's time to get moving,' " he said. "It's time to work and do. They say, 'Talk is cheap, but it takes money to buy rum.' It's time to get some rum.
"In my view, initially, we were going to have DIRE and CARES on at the same time. Those are two different things, but speaking to prioritization, I hope we get a little more about what comes first. … I'm thrilled with what we have here. It takes time to get a good product.
"I'd love to look at the CARES report and see what prioritization our residents have made and then transfer that into prioritizing what we have for goals here."
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