Feb. 8 Select Board meeting: Town Manager Hoch slows hiring process for interim chief after criticism

Also: Select Board picks attorney to investigate WPD misconduct

Kevin Yang and Ella Marx

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].

The Williamstown Select Board is an elected committee of five Williamstown residents, each of whom has a three-year term. The board oversees the executive functions of the Town government, and appoints the town manager. It also fulfills various statutory duties in accordance with the town charter.  

Town Manager Jason Hoch ’95 said at the Feb. 8 Select Board meeting that he would slow down the search for an interim police chief after several Town residents sharply criticized him for fielding candidates without first assembling an advisory committee. The board also unanimously selected Judy Levenson, an attorney from Brookline, Mass., to conduct an investigation into allegations of Williamstown Police Department (WPD) misconduct raised in a federal lawsuit filed this summer. 

Hoch faces criticism over interim chief hiring process

Hoch and the Select Board had previously decided during the Jan. 25 Select Board meeting that the town would hire an interim chief before embarking on a longer search process to hire a permanent chief. Former WPD chief Kyle Johnson resigned in December after public uproar over allegations of sexual assault and racial harassment committed by him and WPD officers during his tenure as chief.

At that meeting, Hoch had asked for volunteers for an advisory committee that would guide his selection of an interim chief. According to Hoch, after 10 days, he had received only one inquiry of “light interest.” After informing the Select Board about the apparent lack of interest, Hoch said that the board encouraged him to proceed with identifying candidates.

Town residents criticized Hoch at the Feb. 8 meeting for what they saw as a lack of communication about the formation of the advisory committee and for going ahead with the interim-chief search without involving community members. 

“I don’t know by what means you communicate with the public to let them know which volunteers are needed for which purpose and what the timeline is,” Town resident Erin Keiser-Clark said of the advisory committee formation process. “And I’m disappointed that there was no check-in to say, ‘Please know, our top priority is to connect with our community and to make sure our community is involved in this process.’” 

Samantha Page, a Town resident, expressed confusion over Hoch’s timeline for accepting volunteers for the committee.

“I don’t think anybody expected that there is a 10-day deadline for submitting interest in the committee,” Page said. “I guess going forward, it is helpful to know exactly what your own timeline is for gathering that input.”

By the end of the Feb. 8 meeting, Hoch said he would extend the hiring process and once again accept volunteers for the advisory committee. He asked that anyone interested in contributing to the search for an interim chief contact him or a member of the Select Board by Feb. 12. 

“I’m happy to slow it down a little bit, and bring some more people into the conversation — I welcome the interest,” Hoch said. “I’m sad that my sense of urgency was not as clear at the last meeting as it apparently should have been.”

Twenty-two people have expressed interest in joining the interim-chief-search advisory committee as of Feb. 15, Hoch told the Record, “a significant jump from the one that had expressed interest in the previous two weeks.”

“Needless to say, with so much interest, we’re going to have to regroup a bit to think about how best to move forward,” he said. 

Potential WPD chief candidate criticized by residents

Criticism of Hoch also centered on town resident Janice Loux’s claim that a candidate who “had a horrible record in policing” was in the final stages of signing a contract to be the WPD chief. Hoch and Select Board Chair Jane Patton strongly denied that any contract was being signed. They emphasized that Hoch was only in preliminary discussions with the person who was named. 

“We’re investigating a candidate in a pool [and] seeing who else may be in the pool,” Hoch said at the meeting. “They are not making a definitive commitment, yet assumptions have been made. People who have expressed interest in the position are being publicly attacked… It’s something that’s not even a final decision..”

At the meeting, Town residents said that the person under consideration was previously the police chief of a city in upstate New York and had left that position after his department had mishandled evidence. Select Board member Anne O’Connor ’86 objected to residents’ criticisms of the candidate and argued that his privacy should be respected, though the information shared at the meeting was already public. 

“I’m also extremely uncomfortable with people sharing publicly impressions of a person who’s working in our county already,” O’Connor said. “It’s extremely disturbing to me that this kind of stuff is happening in our public meeting.” 

Hoch and the Select Board said they expect residents who will serve on the advisory committee to maintain candidates’ confidentiality. After all, they said, police chief candidates employed elsewhere may not want their employers to know that they have expressed interest in another opportunity.

In addition to privacy concerns, O’Connor said that a recent state police reform bill further complicates the hiring process. According to new state regulations promulgated in the reform bill, a police chief needs to have previously served in Massachusetts to be hired, so Hoch and the Select Board will not be able to perform a nationwide search. 

“I honestly wonder if we’re going to get candidates who want to come here right now,” O’Connor said. “Life in government, life as a public official in this town, is almost unbearable right now.”

Board chooses Levenson to conduct WPD investigation

The Select Board unanimously selected Judy Levenson, an attorney from Brookline, Mass., to investigate past WPD misconduct and approved entering into a retainer agreement with her. Levenson will examine allegations of racial harassment and sexual assault by WPD officers raised in a lawsuit brought by WPD Sergeant Scott McGowan against Johnson, Hoch, and Williamstown.

The board had previously narrowed down the search for an investigator to two candidates: Levenson and Judy Kalisker, an attorney based in Natick, Mass. In Levenson’s proposal, she wrote that she would conduct both an investigation of past misconduct and an assessment of the current workplace environment, whereas Kalisker said that she would not conduct the workplace environment assessment. Hogeland estimated the costs of Levenson’s services to be between $12,000 and $20,000.

Levenson’s ability to conduct both services simultaneously appealed to members of the Select Board. “I sort of leaned towards the efficiency of having one person do it, because as long as she’s on the phone with you, and goes through the dirty laundry from years ago, it’s convenient to do it,” Hogeland said. 

In Levenson’s application to the Town, she wrote that independent investigations are one of her main areas of practice. She has completed the certified training course of the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (MCAD), according to the application, and she is on its referral list for discrimination investigators.

The Select Board also discussed the following:

After a presentation from the Carbon Dioxide Lowering (COOL) committee, the Select Board voted unanimously to enter an agreement with the fire district that will approve the transfer of streetlight jurisdiction from the fire district to the town. This vote allows the town to proceed with planning to replace the 553 high-pressure sodium street lights currently in use with more efficient LED lights. The payback period for the lights will be three and a half years, according to Hoch, and the town will save $60,000 annually on the costs of running the lights, as the LED lights will be more energy-efficient and provide a better quality of light.

Additionally, Hogeland shared a draft of a Select Board Handbook, which outlines the powers and authorities of the board, as well as protocol for town meetings and elections. The draft of the handbook also discusses the history of the Select Board and a description of the town manager’s responsibilities.