March 22 Select Board meeting: WPD officers suspended for illegal searches

Also: Board to interview interim town manager candidates tomorrow

Maddy Lawler and Ella Marx

Following public comment at the Williamstown Select Board meeting on March 22, Acting Williamstown Police Department (WPD) Chief Michael Ziemba addressed the behavior of three WPD officers who used the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) database to illegally access Registry of Motor Vehicle records of individuals not under criminal investigation.

The unauthorized searches violated Massachusetts law and CJIS regulations requiring law enforcement to use the database solely for purposes related to criminal justice. Several of the 20 individuals whose information was inappropriately viewed are vocal critics of the WPD.

Ziemba said at the meeting that the officers involved in the misuse of the CJIS database have been identified and suspended from the department without pay. In response to concerns from the Select Board, Ziemba also said all individuals whose information was illegally accessed have been notified and that no dissemination of personal or criminal offender record information occurred. 

Ziemba expressed disappointment in the officers’ conduct, which took place prior to the resignation of former WPD chief Kyle Johnson, and said that all WPD officers, himself included, would undergo retraining. Ziemba also added that the department intends to increase limitations on access to CJIS information and review user logs more frequently to prevent similar misuse from happening again. 

Additional action against the officers involved is pending; Ziemba suggested that findings of repeated misuse could result in termination. “If there were any missteps past this, I don’t see why we wouldn’t seek termination,” he said, adding that he is communicating with CJIS personnel to determine the extent of the violations. 

After allegations of WPD misconduct and Sgt. Scott McGowan’s lawsuit resulted in Johnson’s resignation, the Select Board hired attorney Judy Levenson to conduct an independent investigation of the WPD. The town’s investigation into the WPD will broaden to include this most recent incident.

“We look forward to the Levenson investigation,” Ziemba said.

Also at the March 22 meeting, the board discussed the selection processes for the interim WPD chief and town manager and broadened the scope of Levenson’s investigation.

Board discusses interim town manager and WPD chief searches

Two candidates for the interim town manager position will be interviewed by the Select Board tomorrow. One candidate, Robert T. Markel, is the former mayor of Springfield, Mass. and the other candidate, Charles T. Blanchard, retired from his position as the town manager of Palmer, Mass. in 2019, according to iBerkshires. The board will conduct public interviews with the candidates tomorrow, which will be broadcast live and posted on Willinet. 

The Select Board will choose the interim town manager at a special meeting session on April 5. There will be several weeks of overlap between the official resignation date of Town Manager Jason Hoch ’95 and the start date of the interim town manager to allow time for Hoch to train the new town manager.

Each interview will be about an hour long, and town residents may send questions to the board to ask the candidates during the interview, but there will not be time provided for public comment during the interviews. The two candidates have also already “interviewed with [the] Town Hall through [Town Planner] Andrew Groff and [Town Accountant] Anna Osborn,” Hogeland said.

Ten to twelve individuals applied for the position, and “six that seemed to be very well-qualified in terms of numbers of years of [experience being] town manager or interim town manager” were selected to proceed in the application process, according to Select Board member Andy Hogeland ’76. Two of the six remaining applicants later removed themselves from consideration for the position, and Markel and Blanchard were the final two candidates out of the remaining four. 

At the meeting, Select Board member Anne O’Connor ’86 also provided updates on the search process for the interim chief of the WPD. The interim WPD chief advisory committee has met twice as of March 22, according to O’Connor, and has created a job posting for the position.

“The advertisement for the job posting is going out [on March 22 and 23],” she said. “It’s been submitted to diverse professional associations in the law enforcement world.”

O’Connor said she feels that this selection process has been more diverse and inclusive of community input than past WPD chief searches. “My impression is that the hiring process for a chief has typically been a fairly closed process — less opportunity for community input — and in this process, our efforts to include diverse voices is robust,” she said. “It’s not just a committee of recruited members, it is a broad-based group of qualified volunteers from the community.”

Applications will be considered on a rolling basis, and the committee will perform a status check at the end of April to assess their progress with the interim chief selection process.

Select Board expands scope of independent investigation into McGowan complaint

The Select Board recently commissioned attorney Judy Levenson to investigate the allegations against the Town in the August lawsuit filed by McGowan. The investigation was set to begin several weeks ago, but Levenson will now slightly delay the start of her investigation to include WPD officers’ illegal searches of Town residents’ information as well as a recent employee complaint against McGowan.

Levenson’s investigation will be supplemented by work from a private investigator who will assist Levenson by “do[ing] some of the more specific police department practice parts in terms of looking at … what do you expect of officers,” Hogeland said.

As a result of this expansion, the cost of the investigation will increase. At the Feb. 8 Select Board meeting, Hogeland estimated the costs of Levenson’s services to be between $12,000 and $20,000, but he said he now estimates the cost of the investigation will be between $30,000 and $40,000.

The Select Board also discussed the following:

After hearing from several members of the Town Planning Board, the Select Board voted to move a proposed cannabis bylaw to a public hearing on April 19. On March 9, the Planning Board approved the bylaw after finalizing zoning issues and listening to public concerns.

The Select Board has hosted two listening sessions, during which the board engaged with and answered questions from town residents. The board plans to continue the listening sessions in weeks alternating with Select Board meetings, Patton said at Monday’s meeting. The board has also met with Kerri Nicoll, a social worker and a member of the Williamstown Diversity, Inclusion, and Racial Equity (DIRE) committee, for a “listening retreat.” Nicoll and the Select Board created guidelines for dialogue, which include acknowledging power differences, listening to each other, and avoiding generalizations.

Hoch detailed the timeline for the Town’s upcoming elections. The town election will occur on May 11, and the deadline to submit an application to vote by mail is May 5. The Town Meeting is scheduled for June 8 at Farley-Lamb Field at the College, and the deadline to submit warrant articles via petition for the Town Meeting is April 19.

Correction: This article was updated at 7:45 on April 5, 2021 to reflect that Charles T. Blanchard retired as the town manager of Palmer, Mass. in 2019, and that he is not the current town manager of Palmer. We regret the error.