The Williams Record

Editorial: The Select Board election is a referendum on racial justice. Treat it as such.

Editorial Board

On May 11, Williamstown voters will have the chance to vote in “a referendum about the Town’s willingness to choose a direction on racial justice,” said Chair of the Williamstown Diversity, Inclusion, and Racial Equity (DIRE) committee Mohammed Memfis ’21.

While it won’t, of course, be a literal referendum, the outcome of the local election will determine the Town’s approach to racial justice for years to come. Several seats will be contested in this local election, including two on the Town’s Select Board.

Last fall, the Record urged the College community, especially those of us who can vote in Williamstown, not only to pay attention to Town politics but also to consider the actions of the Select Board’s members as they run for re-election. With this election now upon us, even with no members running for re-election, we’re renewing that call for attentiveness and accountability.

The Select Board is Williamstown’s executive body. Composed of five elected members, it oversees the executive functions of municipal government, appoints the Town manager, and fulfills various duties in accordance with the Town charter. Two of the five seats are up for election this May, one held by Anne O’Connor ’86, who is not seeking re-election, and the other held by Jeffrey Thomas, who is stepping down a year early.

The elections come as Williamstown confronts a year of tumult, much of which has revolved around a lawsuit alleging racism, antisemitism, and sexual misconduct in the Williamstown Police Department (WPD). The sergeant who filed the lawsuit was later himself accused of perpetrating sexual and racial harassment in an employee complaint — but the allegations in the initial lawsuit are still deserving of scrutiny, even if it turns out his claims were hypocritical, as they illustrate a pattern of misconduct in the WPD.

In October, three members of the Select Board advocated retaining Kyle Johnson as WPD chief, despite the claims against him and calls for his removal by local police accountability organizers. Their support for retaining Kyle Johnson was wrong, and it illustrates the need for change on the Select Board. Hoch, who had the legal authority as Town manager to remove Town employees, said he chose to retain Kyle Johnson in large part because of the Select Board’s decision. Hoch said in November that he “deliberately took a very back seat listening role” to the Select Board in the process of making this decision.

As O’Connor and Thomas depart from the board, the open seats they leave behind present an opportunity to make the Select Board more progressive.

The incoming Select Board will likely decide on the permanent Town manager, who will in turn hire the new police chief. Given the Town’s recent reckoning with racism and police misconduct, as well as the ongoing national conversation surrounding police violence, this election is about more than just a shifting bureaucracy — it’s about ensuring racial justice for the Town’s BIPOC residents. And there are tangible differences between the candidates in this regard.

Jeff Johnson and Wade Hasty have both committed to making racial justice one of the Select Board’s paramount concerns. Tony Boskovich ’74 and Albert Cummings, however, have both invalidated calls for racial justice by characterizing activists as “divisive.” As a Town, we cannot afford to revert to a status quo where BIPOC community members’ experiences of racism are discounted or overlooked.

We as a Record board discussed whether we wanted to give an official endorsement to any of the candidates. We decided against it. We felt it was not our place to tell people how to vote when most of us will not be able to vote in this election. But we do want to emphasize the stakes of this election, which will shape the Town’s approach to racial justice for the next few years. 

We hope that the College faculty and staff who live in Williamstown will vote on Tuesday, because this election matters. We hope that the small number of students who are registered to vote in Williamstown, and are educated on the issues at stake, will vote, because this election matters. And we hope that all students pay attention to Williamstown government going forward. We go to Williams, but we live in Williamstown. Town government is our government.

Editorials represent the opinion of the majority of the Record editorial board.

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