Skinner steps away from politics

When most first-years were just beginning kindergarten, Anne Skinner, senior lecturer in chemistry, ran for her first term as a town selectman. The four-term member of the Board of Selectmen will not be seeking re-election this year on May 14th; after twelve years of town meetings, committee discussions, planning sessions and bureaucratic proceedings, Skinner is yielding her position to someone new.

“You need on any board a mixture of new people and experienced people,” Skinner said. “And if you stay on a board too long, you begin to feel that you’re very indispensable. You begin to feel that anybody who disagrees with you just doesn’t have any real sense.” Such conflicts weaken the Board’s capacity to reach consensus, and they are detrimental to the position of the selectman, said Skinner.

The five-member Board of Selectmen is the governing executive branch of the Town of Williamstown. This publicly elected group is a policy-making entity that responds to the priorities expressed by the populace at the annual town meeting and “also set some of those priorities,” said Skinner.

In addition, the Board of Selectmen oversees construction projects that modify and improve Williamstown. Skinner mentioned the makeover of Spring St., the building of a new town garage, library and elementary school and the construction of a Veteran’s Memorial at Field Park as major projects that the Board has undertaken during her time on it.

At moments in her career as a selectman, Skinner was required by state law to sit out of proceedings having to do with construction of new College buildings. “Any decision that has a significant effect on the well-being of my employer,” said Skinner, is prohibited for her consideration. When the Morley Science Center was under construction, Skinner could not cast her vote as a selectman for approval or disapproval due to the obvious conflict of interest.

“It’s a little frustrating, but I sympathize,” said Skinner. “I did have a direct interest in [the Morley Center construction], and it really would not have been appropriate for me to push any changes that might have made room for chemistry.”

“One nice thing about local politics is that you can be a selectman without giving up your day job,” said Skinner. She became interested in Williamstown government through the local chapter of the League of Women Voters. “Their slogan is: ‘Democracy is not a spectator sport.’” So Skinner got off the sidelines, and became active on the town finance committee, eventually launching a campaign for the Board of Selectmen because she “wanted to deal with non-money issues.” Over the course of four terms, she has juggled (along with her academic duties) membership on the cable TV advisory board, participation as chairman of the Board of Selectmen and her position as a liason for groups such as the Hoosic water quality district and the Yankee Rowe nuclear power plant.

With a keen sense of New England’s democratic tradition, she takes her duties seriously. “You do have to be careful not to decide that your opinion is worth more than anybody else’s,” she said. “I have no right to say, ‘As a selectman, I feel this building is ugly.’ I could only say that as a selectman, the Board has decided that this building is ugly.”

Currently, the Board is immersed in possibilities for the development of surplus property in Williamstown. “We have surplus property and we think it can be used by the private sector more efficiently,” Skinner said.

One controversy which has surfaced in the past and that Skinner expects will reappear in the campaigns for the Board of Selectmen this spring is the role of Williams College in Williamstown. For the most part, she said, the town and the College cooperate to avoid unnecessary hassle. “There’s always been compromise,” said Skinner.

However, some Williamstown residents, and one candidate for the Board of Selectmen, believe that the College has brought Williamstown increased financial obligations, which it does not do enough to alleviate. For example, “one of the concerns is that we have a police force that spends a fair amount of time on student problems,” said Skinner. “Finding underage drinkers in a college town is like shooting ducks in a barrel,” she added, “but that does not mean that the College is costing the town anything for police protection. Other towns the same size have similarly sized police forces without the College.”

Skinner pointed out that without the presence of Williams College, Williamstown would not be home to the Clark Institute. Nor would the town be able to boast such a stately town hall. The town hall was originally a College fraternity house. When the Greek system was abolished in 1963, one fraternity sold its headquarters to the town for one dollar rather than acquiesce to the College’s demands.

“Most of the people in town recognize this; the benefits [of Williams College] far outweigh the costs,” Skinner said.

Skinner retires from the Board of Selectmen with hopes for its future as an instrument for positive change in Williamstown. “I would hope to see the Board of Selectmen continue to be active,” she said. Skinner cited development as the most challenging issue currently facing the town. “Over the years, we have seen ourselves as a residential community where the only things that mattered were houses and open space,” she said. However, the combination of an emphasis on property taxes and restrictive zoning laws has created a situation in which small businesses and professional offices are deterred from developing in Williamstown. Reasonably priced residences also become a rarity when property taxes are too steep for new families to afford.

“You can’t have a town that’s really one large gated community, and that’s where we’re headed if we don’t find ways to construct affordable housing,” Skinner said. If Williamstown cannot create a greater variety of housing options through means of economic development, the town will be unaffordable. “Residents will be retirees from New York City,” she predicted. “We won’t have the kind of socio-economic diversity that makes for a viable town.”

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