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Williamstown Charter Review Committee Hones Report, Recommendations
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
05:03AM / Friday, January 05, 2024
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Charter Review Committee on Thursday neared completion of a final report it plans to submit to the Select Board on Jan. 22.
The review panel, which was appointed in 2022, has compiled a set of 10 proposed amendments to the 1956 document that provides a framework for town government.
Some of the proposed changes, like removing outdated references to the town's "Welfare Agent" and school committee, are a matter of updating the charter to reflect the current reality.
Others, like the creation of a recall provision for elected town officials and a new section on mechanisms for charter enforcement, are more substantive changes.
All 10 ultimately would need approval by town meeting — perhaps as soon as this May — and would go to the state Legislature for final approval.
On Thursday, the latter step was referenced in the context of a recommendation the Charter Review Committee will not be sending the Select Board this month: adding a ballot vote for final approval of measures debated at the annual town meeting.
The "split town meeting" approach that preserves the current open legislative body and adds a step that allows voters to go to the poll on a date after the physical meeting takes place has been widely discussed in town as a way to increase participation in town decisions.
As the CRC's draft report notes, the 2023 annual town meeting drew 380 of 5,071 registered voters (7.5 percent) while the annual town election, held one week prior to town meeting, drew 909 voters (18 percent of registered voters).
While members of the committee and respondents to the committee's townwide survey have expressed a preference for incorporating a ballot measure, there is one major reason why the committee is not recommending the town pursue such a model at this time.
"Since these options are not currently available, we are not recommending them at this time," the draft report reads.
CRC member Jeff Strait suggested that the final report emphasize that the obstacle to including a ballot option cannot be removed by the town itself.
"[The draft report] says, 'Under current law, votes on Town Meeting warrant articles are to be taken at Town Meeting itself,' " Strait said. "I'd emphasis that this under current state law, so there is no confusion that this is a local bylaw. And, to [Anne Skinner's earlier] point, note how difficult it is to get state legislation passed."
Earlier in the meeting, Skinner suggested that the committee beef up a section of its final report on the use of charter revisions versus bylaws to make local changes in government.
"In making these choices, we followed a preference for making changes in town bylaws as much as appropriate because these can be changed by Town Meeting without the need for legislative approval, which would be the case for changes in the Charter," the committee's draft report says on Page 10.
Skinner said that committee's preference is supported by a recent example of the difficulty in getting changes through the state house.
"I'd like to note [in the report] the inaction of the legislature," Skinner said. "Not that the gender language change is a big deal, but it is a change we want to make, and I'd like to re-emphasize the fact that if you send something to Boston for action, it can sit there for God knows how long."
In June 2022, town meeting sent to Boston a home rule petition that would remove gender-specific terms, like Board of Selectmen, from the 1956 charter. That petition is still languishing on Beacon Hill.
"I want to note that the Legislature can be very slow in responding to requests for charter changes," Skinner said.
That said, members of the CRC expressed alignment with residents who have advocated for a ballot vote dimension to town meeting decisions.
A couple members suggested that the final report include language that indicates the town should keep the idea on its radar if and when Massachusetts General Law provides an avenue for the model.
"I think Jeff [Strait] is technically accurate in that there are huge hurdles," Joe Bergeron said. "But to me, it would be worth noting that this is an area that can and should receive attention from the Select Board — what are other towns doing and could legislation make it more possible?
"Overall, it's the most impactful change that could come from all of this. It's worth noting that we should continue to pay attention to it."
Another change that the committee members and members of the public at large have expressed an interest in making faces a different hurdle at the state level.
The committee considered whether to recommend the town institute ranked choice voting in local elections.
Although committee members agreed with the principle of the system also known as "instant runoff voting," they decided it was best to wait until the idea is adopted at the state level; in 2020, a ballot initiative to implement ranked-choice voting in the commonwealth lost, 55 percent to 45 percent.
Strait suggested language for the final report that emphasizes committee members' support for the system in principle.
"I would say, 'The committee was persuaded that ranked-choice voting would represent voters preferences better but were concerned about the logistics of implementing it locally without broad statewide acceptance,' " Strait said.
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