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Williamstown Charter Review Panel OKs Fix to Address 'Separation of Powers' Concern
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
05:42AM / Thursday, April 25, 2024
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Charter Review Committee on Wednesday voted unanimously to endorse an amended version of the compliance provision it drafted to be added to the Town Charter.
The committee accepted language designed to meet concerns raised by the Planning Board about separation of powers under the charter.
The committee's original compliance language — Article 32 on the annual town meeting warrant — would have made the Select Board responsible for determining a remedy if any other town board or committee violated the charter.
The Planning Board objected to that notion, pointing out that it would give one elected body in town some authority over another.
On Wednesday, Charter Review Committee co-Chairs Andrew Hogeland and Jeffrey Johnson, both members of the Select Board, brought their colleagues amended language that, in essence, gives authority to enforce charter compliance by a board to its appointing authority.
For example, the Select Board would have authority to determine a remedy if, say, the Community Preservation Committee somehow violated the charter. And the voters, who elect the Planning Board, would have ultimate say if that body violates the charter.
In reality, the charter says very little about what town boards and committees — other than the Select Board — can or cannot do, and the powers of bodies like the Planning Board are regulated by state law.
Aside from a single section of the charter, Section 20, which addresses conflict of interest, it is difficult to see where the Planning Board could run afoul of the charter.
"I happen to think it would be very difficult for someone to violate the charter," Charter Review Committee member Anne Skinner said at Wednesday's meeting. "I think this is a solution in search of a problem.
"I'll go along with [the amended language] because I think the whole thing is a waste of time."
Hogeland said he shared Skinner's concerns and suggested that the committee could have not proposed a compliance provision at all.
But Jeff Strait was quick to point out that the compliance provision still has value, in part because it clarifies the Select Board's role in ensuring charter compliance by the town manager. The relationship between the manager and the Select Board is a primary feature of the charter.
"Article 32 does address accountability," Strait said. "That's something the people in the town were interested in having us do. Article 31 has the recall. Article 32 holds the town manager accountable."
Article 31 on this year's town meeting warrant would create a recall provision for elected officials in town (the Select Board, Planning Board, moderator, library trustees and Housing Authority).
The CRC also is proposing other amendments to the charter, mostly to modernize the document, which has not seen a major overhaul since written in 1956.
All charter amendments need approval by simple majority from May's annual town meeting to be sent as home rule petitions to the legislature in Boston, which approves municipal charter language.
The Select Board, at its April 8 meeting, made one other tweak to the amendment language that came from the Charter Review Committee: raising the required number of signatures needed to start a recall petition as specified in the process in Article 31.
The CRC draft specified that 50 signatures were needed on an application for a recall petition, which then would need to be signed by at least 10 percent of the town's registered voters to force a recall election.
Neither Hogeland nor Johnson joined in a 3-1-1 vote to amend that language to 200 signatures on the initial application. Hogeland voted against the amendment; Johnson abstained.
On Wednesday, Strait expressed disappointment that the Select Board chose to change the proposed charter amendment without consulting the committee that spent 18 months developing the proposals.
"Frankly, I think 200 [signatures] is creating busy work for whoever is initiating the petition," Strait said. "They'll eventually need 500 or so signatures [to force an election]. Two hundred to have the privilege of collecting 500 seems like busy work to me."
Strait said the committee worked hard and determined what it felt was a reasonable threshold to get a petition from the Town Clerk. But he said he planned to vote for the amended version at the May 23 annual town meeting.
"I don't want to tank the article," Strait said. "Let me put it that way. I just think changing it from 50 to 200 was a mistake."
Article 31 as it appears in the printed warrant will have the 200-signature requirement for the initial application.
Article 32, on the other hand, was amended after the warrant was sealed and went to press. On Wednesday, Hogeland and Johnson told their colleagues that the town likely will have a printed insert with the amended language included with the warrant copies that are distributed on the evening of May 23.
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