May 10 Select Board meeting: Blanchard chooses Ziemba as interim police chief, board discusses role of DIRE committee

Joey Fox 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.

Blanchard selects Ziemba as interim WPD chief; search committee member decries process

At the Select Board’s May 10 meeting, Interim Town Manager Charles Blanchard announced that after receiving six applications, he had chosen Acting Williamstown Police Department (WPD) Chief Mike Ziemba as interim police chief. 

Ziemba had been serving as acting chief since former chief Kyle Johnson resigned in December following reports of misconduct within the WPD.

“I think [Ziemba has] really demonstrated his ability and capability to perform the job, so I look forward to working with Chief Ziemba and his staff during my time here as your interim Town manager,” Blanchard said. “I’d like to thank everyone for the process, and hopefully we’ll move forward positively from here.”

“Mike [Ziemba] is well known, well respected — he’s been a rock ever since he was asked to take over,” Select Board member Andy Hogeland ’76 added. “He was clearly ready to remain in this role throughout the year, so I’m glad he’ll be able to keep the ship going for quite a while.”

During the meeting’s public comment section, however, Town resident Aruna D’Souza expressed strong dissatisfaction with how the decision was made. D’Souza was a member of the search’s advisory committee, which was created by the Select Board to make recommendations on the Town manager’s selection of an interim chief, until she resigned on Monday morning. 

At the meeting, D’Souza said she resigned from the committee “not because of my opposition to the candidate who was announced this evening, but because of my deep disappointment in the way in which the former Town manager, the interim Town manager, and the Select Board member who took on the role of facilitator of the committee bypassed the process that had been laid out in writing by [former Town Manager] Jason Hoch [’95], without any attempt to realign the process, to discuss changes to the process, or, in fact, to adhere to the process.”

D’Souza noted that while she believed the committee likely would have recommended hiring Ziemba anyway, she took issue with Blanchard’s role in the selection and what she characterized as his poor job screening candidates and his neglect of the search committee’s opinions.

“Having community input into the hiring decisions that are going on now… are merely facades,” D’Souza said. “If the Town manager can unilaterally overrule the vote of these committees, then I want to know what the purpose of these committees are.”

Select Board member Anne O’Connor ’86, who oversaw the advisory committee, responded by affirming Blanchard’s decision and noting that the committee was never meant to be the final word in the hiring process. “In this instance, an advisory committee is advisory, and that’s what this was,” O’Connor said. “I profoundly regret that the impression was given that the committee could simply state their will and the Town manager would march in lockstep.”

Search committee member Jay Merselis also voiced his support for the hiring process later in the meeting’s public comment section. “I emerged from the process with my head held high, feeling that I was heard,” he said. “I personally was not dissatisfied in the outcome or the process.”

Ziemba will serve as chief until a permanent chief is selected. O’Connor told the Record that the search for a permanent chief will likely begin in the fall, once a permanent Town manager has been chosen. 

Residents criticize board for sidelining DIRE committee

Early in the meeting, the Select Board addressed its relationship with the Town’s Diversity, Inclusion, and Racial Equity (DIRE) advisory committee, noting that members of the DIRE committee have felt dissatisfied with inconsistent communication from the Select Board. “The DIRE committee had a meeting a week ago where they spent a lot of time troubled by the communications from the board,” Hogeland said. “I share the concern. I think we all could have done better on that.”

The Select Board created DIRE in July to advise the board on fostering diversity, inclusion, and racial equity in the Town. The nine-member committee has published advisory resolutions on, among other issues, the lawsuit alleging WPD misconduct, racially restrictive covenants, and the police chief and town manager searches.

DIRE committee member Bilal Ansari, who is assistant vice president for campus engagement at the Davis Center, raised his hand during this section, but Hogeland chose to move on to another item on the meeting’s agenda before hearing Ansari’s comment. “I want to get through the other business stuff that we have,” Hogeland said. “We do intend to recognize you — just give us a moment. We’re not far from being ready for [comment].”

When the public comment section began, Ansari shared his frustration at being held back from speaking, especially after other Town residents had been allowed to speak on different issues earlier in the meeting. “Two [other] people… were allowed to speak when a topic was concerning them,” Ansari said. “But then I was dismissed. I was not treated equally. That hurts.”

Ansari then announced his resignation from DIRE, saying that the board was not treating him and the committee fairly. After being urged by Hogeland to reconsider, he said he would think further on whether to remain a member of the committee.

In an email to the Record sent May 13, Ansari said he would complete his one-year term on DIRE and then depart the committee. “I am going to devote my attention and time to two amazing grassroot groups of local activists, artists and organizers, Williamstown Racial Justice and Police Reform and Grey Matter TV,” he said.

Following Ansari’s statement, other members of the Town community criticized the Select Board’s interactions with DIRE. Former Interim Director of the Davis Center justin adkins said he was disheartened that Ansari’s comment had been delayed, especially given the sensitive nature of the Town’s discussions on racial justice. 

“These slights are part of what systemic racism is about,” adkins said. “It’s not about individuals, it’s about the system… especially in those formal moments.”

Town resident Wendy Penner similarly expressed that she felt “very concerned with the tenor of dialogue in the community about depictions of DIRE that [she believes] are very unfair and very unwarranted.”

“I haven’t seen any of [DIRE’s] resolutions discussed at your meetings, and as voices in the Town are trying to delegitimize the work of DIRE and it’s becoming quite heated and divisive, I really unfortunately feel that the Select Board bears some responsibility for that,” Penner said. “I don’t understand why you created an advisory committee — and they passed resolutions which are advisory in nature — why those were never discussed.”

Select Board member Hugh Daley expressed a commitment to improving the board’s communication with DIRE in the future. “The DIRE committee… was formed by [the Select Board] for a purpose — we should be working together,” Daley said. “There is no world in which the Select Board succeeds and the DIRE committee fails. We will rise and sink together. Anything we can do to increase… how we work together is a very strong first step.”

Board approves two warrant articles ahead of Town meeting

The Select Board unanimously approved two warrant article recommendations, both of which will now go to a vote at the Town meeting on June 8. The first, Article 26, would commission a study on the “feasibility of paying stipends… to members of various Boards and Committees of the Town that are currently unpaid.” The article came about after Select Board member Jeffrey Thomas suggested instituting a stipend at the board’s March 8 meeting, a proposal which was met with skepticism by other board members.

The other article, Article 30, concerned rezoning a portion of East Lawn Cemetery and Clover Hill Farm from industrial use to residential use. It had previously been unanimously approved by the Planning Board, a separate elected body that oversees the Town’s land use issues.

During the discussion on Article 30, Daley noted his hesitation to weigh in on land use issues that the Planning Board has researched more extensively. “Is this something that [the Select Board] should be reviewing in this manner?” he asked. “In general, they’re fairly complicated issues with fairly involved legwork on them.”

The Select Board also discussed the following:

Daley said that he and Select Board Chair Jane Patton are assembling a list of Town residents for the permanent Town manager search committee and will bring the final list to the Select Board for ratification. Daley added that he hopes to have a broad range of community voices, including a member of DIRE, on the search committee.

The board edited the Select Board Guide at the meeting and then unanimously approved the guide as amended with attachments.

Monday’s meeting was both Blanchard’s first Select Board meeting and O’Connor and Thomas’ last; newly elected incoming members Jeff Johnson and Wade Hasty will begin their terms at the May 24 meeting. “I appreciated serving with all of you,” O’Connor told the board at the end of the meeting. “It has been a pleasure, but most of all I want to thank the community for allowing me to serve.”