Jan. 25 Select Board meeting: Two Williamstown employees resign after misconduct complaint

Ella Marx and Kevin Yang

As part of its expanding coverage of Town news, the Record will report regularly on the Williamstown Select Board’s meetings with meeting summaries every two weeks. Suggestions and questions about our coverage can be sent to [email protected] and [email protected].

Two Williamstown employees resigned after a complaint about employee conduct was made to the Town earlier this month, Williamstown Select Board Chair Jane Patton announced at Monday’s board meeting.

Patton did not say which Town department the complaint was made against, nor did she discuss the nature of the complaint or whether the conduct of the two employees was the subject of the complaint. She said in her opening statement that the former employees were part of “another department,” although it is unclear what departments she was distinguishing between. 

The board will not be making any further public comment as long as the investigation is ongoing, Patton said. 

Also at Monday’s meeting, Select Board member Jeffrey Thomas announced that he would be stepping down, and the board discussed next steps in the Town’s investigation into Williamstown Police Department (WPD) misconduct and the search process for a new police chief. Here are the main takeaways from the meeting. 

Thomas to step down from Select Board

Thomas announced that he will step down from the Select Board after the upcoming town election in May, one year before his term officially ends.

With the three-year term of Select Board member Anne O’Connor ’86 ending in 2021, two Select Board seats, including Thomas’ seat, will now be on the ballot during the May election. O’Connor has not yet announced whether she will run for re-election in May.

Thomas told iBerkshires that his growing professional responsibilities at Lever, the North Adams-based nonprofit that he leads, as well as the expanding obligations of serving on the Select Board, led him to make this decision. 

“This past year has been particularly demanding because of the pandemic and the controversy at the WPD,” he wrote to iBerkshires. “We’re now on solid ground in both areas, so it’s a good time for me to step away.”

Thomas, along with several of his Select Board colleagues, has faced criticism for previously supporting the retention of former WPD chief Kyle Johnson, despite local police accountability organizers’ calls for Johnson’s removal. 

Select Board moves towards independent investigation into WPD 

The Select Board discussed how it would conduct an investigation into allegations of racial harassment and sexual assault within the WPD, with members sharing their criteria for selecting an independent investigator. It previously announced its decision to pursue an independent investigation during a special meeting on Jan. 6.

The board has received resumes from five investigators interested in being retained to conduct the investigation, but has not yet settled on a candidate. 

Select Board member Andy Hogeland ’76 advocated for employing an investigator who would provide a narrative report on its findings and an assessment of current conditions, as opposed to a report that simply summarized the facts. 

Citing the possibility of extensive redactions in the investigative report, Select Board member Hugh Daley expressed interest in selecting an investigator that would produce a forward-looking report, rather than one that focuses on past incidents of misconduct.

“Some of these things happened 20 years ago,” Daley said. “We can’t fix 20 years ago — we need to find out what’s going on right now.” 

The impending investigation follows the withdrawal of a lawsuit filed by WPD Sergeant Scott McGowan this August, which initially raised the allegations of WPD misconduct, some of which have since been confirmed. The Town’s Diversity, Inclusion, and Racial Equity Committee (DIRE) and President of the College Maud S. Mandel previously called on the Select Board to commission an investigation into these allegations. The Select Board initially declined to do so, indicating in August that it would not begin an investigation while the lawsuit was pending.

During the meeting, Town resident Janice Loux asked the Select Board to hire a firm with no connection to the Town attorneys, citing her concern that the investigation might not be fully independent.

“I will say that I strongly object to any attorney on that list who has been recommended by the Town attorneys or any connection to the Town attorneys. And I’d like you to be transparent about it,” Loux said. “You need to get an attorney that is free of those conflicts. Let’s do it right.”

Select Board discusses selection process for new police chief

The Select Board and Town Manager Jason Hoch ’95 discussed how the Town would hire a new police chief, following Johnson’s resignation in December. After Hogeland presented two options for the search process, an apparent consensus formed around hiring an interim chief before the search for a permanent chief begins. 

“The goal is you would have an interim chief and have a much longer time for the community conversation before you pursue the permanent chief,” Hogeland said. 

The other option would mean starting the search for a permanent chief immediately without hiring an interim chief. In either option, the investigation into allegations of WPD misconduct would begin as soon as possible, and acting chief Michael Ziemba would continue in his position until replaced.

Hoch, who will ultimately decide which option to pursue, said that he was “leaning towards” the interim chief option. Daley, O’Connor, and DIRE committee member Kerri Nicoll also expressed support for hiring an interim chief. 

For Nicoll, a key advantage of the interim chief option is the extended period for community conversations on Town policing needs. 

“I understand the desire to bring in a permanent chief soon… We are going to find a police chief who will come in and be a part of that process,” Nicoll said. “But I think that needs to happen after the time and space has been provided for the community to process, understand, and envision what it means.”

Hiring an interim chief would also allow findings from a Town-commissioned policing needs assessment to be incorporated into the search process for a permanent chief. 

According to Nicoll, a professor at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts who helped to organize the needs assessment, the social work researcher hired by the Town to complete the study will begin working full-time on Feb. 15. The study will be a “full-scale research project conducted based on best practices and researched by a professional in this field,” Nicoll said. It is not simply some social workers going out to chit chat with people.”

The authority to hire the new police chief ultimately lies with Hoch. However, if he moves forward with the interim chief option, Hoch said he would assemble a committee to advise him as he selects the interim chief. 

“[I would] invite people who would like to be part of that to send me a note or give me a call, and I’ll try to put together a manageable group and think through the process,” he said. “This is really just for the interim. I want to be clear that the selection of a selection committee for the permanent chief is going to be a more time-consuming engagement.”

The Select Board also discussed the following:

• Hoch reported that seniors over 75 should be eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine starting Feb. 1, following Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker’s announcement on Jan. 25. The next group eligible to receive the vaccine should be seniors between the ages of 65 and 74, although the vaccine schedule is subject to change as COVID conditions evolve. 

• The Select Board will conduct its annual evaluation of the town manager by Feb. 15, and the complete evaluation will be posted before the Feb. 22 Select Board meeting. Each board member will evaluate Hoch in six categories: general management and leadership, personnel management, financial management, planning, interorganizational collaboration (including with the Select Board), and community outreach. Hoch will also submit a self-assessment.

• The Select Board unanimously approved a wine and malt license for Korean Garden, a restaurant serving Korean and Japanese cuisine that recently moved to Williamstown from North Adams.