Feb. 22 Select Board meeting: Board plans hiring process for interim police chief, town manager

Also: In annual review, Select Board praises Hoch for leadership of Town

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.  

At the Williamstown Select Board’s Feb. 22 meeting, board members said the Town’s top priority is to search for an interim town manager after Town Manager Jason Hoch ’95 announced on Feb. 19 that he would step down from the role within two months.

The search comes as the town is juggling efforts to fill other positions –– interim police chief, permanent police chief, and permanent town manager –– following the aftermath of a lawsuit against the Williamstown Police Department (WPD), which revealed allegations of sexual and racial harassment and caused uproar among residents. Hoch and Kyle Johnson, the former police chief who left in December, resigned from their positions partly due to the fallout from the lawsuit. The Select Board will select the permanent police chief after the board has selected a permanent town manager.

Also at Monday’s meeting, the Select Board delivered its annual town manager review, offering unanimous praise for Hoch with several members expressing their regret over his resignation.

Strategizing about interim positions

Prior to the meeting, Select Board member Andy Hogeland ’76 created a job description for the interim town manager position and began gathering names of potential candidates from the Massachusetts Municipal Association. 

Although Select Board Chair Jane Patton said that the board is in the “early days and in the name-getting process,” Hogeland said that there are already prospective candidates for the interim town manager position, and that one candidate has submitted a resume.

“These are all people who have been town managers for 15 or 30 years, so they have a qualification,” Hogeland said. “It’s just a matter of picking the one that we’re comfortable with.”

Select Board member Hugh Daley stressed the importance of installing an interim chief within 60 days of Hoch’s resignation, the amount of time Hoch has left in his role as town manager, in order to retain institutional knowledge of the position and to make the transition more seamless.

“One of the reasons that I think we’re doing this search on our own is [that] this is an operational role,” Daley said. “We can’t not have somebody in this seat. It will impact service delivery to our residents, and… we’re not going to let that happen.”

Hogeland said that finding an interim town manager is the Select Board’s top priority, followed by selecting an interim police chief. For the permanent town manager position, Hogeland said he hopes to onboard a search firm and form a search committee within two to four weeks.

At the meeting, Hoch also presented an outline of the interim police chief hiring process to guide the Select Board’s search. According to the outline, the board will aim to hire an interim police chief within the next 60 days. “The process is somewhat driven by time and [is] not necessarily … intended to be the manner that you would use for the selection of permanent chief later this year,” Hoch said.

Hoch said the interim chief search advisory committee will have a significant level of input and review of potential candidates, and that the committee should ultimately choose the interim chief.

Twenty-one people expressed interest in serving on the interim police chief advisory committee. Patton and Select Board member Anne O’Connor ’86 volunteered to help Hoch whittle the list of 21 volunteers down to a committee with six members, while a yet-to-be-determined member of the Select Board will serve as the seventh ex officio member. Hoch emphasized that, since the interim police chief advisory committee is an advisory committee to the town manager, its deliberations are not subject to the Open Meeting Law, which orders public bodies to provide adequate means of public access to their deliberations.

Board reviews Hoch, ratifies separation agreement

All members of the Select Board except for Patton voted to ratify Hoch’s separation agreement. “I just want to clarify that [my vote] has to do with … the terms of the agreement and not the separation,” Patton said. Patton did not respond to the Record’s request for comment on her vote.

The Select Board then delivered its annual town manager review, in which each member of the board reviewed Hoch’s leadership in Williamstown from 2020-2021. Members of the Select Board spoke highly of Hoch’s achievements as town manager and his contributions to the Town, and some forcefully expressed their regret over his resignation.

Patton remarked on Hoch’s composure in guiding the town during uncertain times. “For most of 2020, and continuing into 2021, we have been in the midst of a global pandemic and an internal crisis within the Williamstown Police Department as a result of a lawsuit filed by a member of that department in August 2020,” Patton said. “As a result of these two significant challenges, the town has experienced an unusual amount of turmoil. Through all of this, Jason has handled his duties admirably and gracefully.”

Select Board member Jeffrey Thomas also expressed gratitude for Hoch’s leadership over the past year. “I’ve learned a lot watching Jason operate under these circumstances. It’s just been so challenging, and he’s grace under pressure, oh my gosh,” Thomas said. “The thing that I’ve seen… is how deeply Jason is committed to this community.”

However, Patton also recognized Hoch’s lack of communication with the Select Board on sensitive matters such as the McGowan discrimination complaint, which detailed allegations made public with the August lawsuit. 

“I would be remiss if I did not also discuss the challenges associated with the Williamstown Police Department lawsuit and Jason’s decision not to inform the board of the lawsuit,” Patton said. “This has been a lingering problem… Past reviews have flagged communications with the Select Board as an area of meeting improvement, and this need continues.”

Nevertheless, O’Connor emphasized her continuing support for Hoch, and her anger over his resignation.

“My support for Jason has always been motivated by the belief that people should be allowed a chance for change and improvement,” O’Connor said. “What will our society become if we throw away every person who makes a mistake? Jason is paying a high price for the mistakes of past managers in this town.”

O’Connor attributed issues of Hoch’s tenure as town manager as shortcomings of the Select Board as well. “I have always believed this board should own up to its role in the failures of communication that have stained our record,” O’Connor said. “I deeply regret that the town is losing an employee of Jason’s caliber as a result of interpersonal pretensions and communication breakdowns. This board has committed mistakes, and has had structural failures of its own.”

Hogeland also implicitly rebuked town residents who have been vocal in their criticism of Hoch, calling their criticism “bullying behavior.”

“Over the last week or two, during the course of the assessment, we got some amazing tributes to Jason from members of the community he had worked with, from all the town staff,” Hogeland said. “But I’ve got to say to members of the community, things would have been different, I think, if people had spoken up against bullying behavior months ago. … We have behaved appallingly, as a community, we need to do better than this and I really regret that Jason did bear the brunt of this.”

Board temporarily suspends public comments

At the meeting, Kerri Nicoll, a social worker and a member of the town’s Diversity, Inclusion, and Racial Equity committee, said she hopes to plan and facilitate a “retreat of some kind… that would give [the members] an opportunity to collectively think about [their] roles as Select Board members, particularly in light of new levels of civic participation.” Although the board suspended the public comment portion of the Feb. 22 meeting, Patton suggested that Select Board meetings will resume public comments after board members meet with Nicoll. 

“While we go through this training… it’s not a question of not wanting to lean into hard conversations, it’s not a question of, you know, being uncomfortable,” Patton said. “I think all of us would be well served, members of the board and members of the community, to just take a step back and a breath, and recognize where we all have contributed to where we are today.”

Patton encouraged town residents with questions that were not addressed in the meeting to personally reach out to Hoch or a member of the Select Board.