Williamstown Select Board rejects both finalists for town manager, restarts search for permanent hire

Ella Marx

The Select Board announced that it will start a new search for a permanent town manager in January. (Photo courtesy of Willinet.)

The Williamstown Select Board has decided to hire neither of the two candidates who were selected as finalists for the town manager position during a months-long search, which followed the February 2021 resignation of former town manager Jason Hoch ’95.

Instead — with one month left in the tenure of interim town Manager Charlie Blanchard — the Select Board will commence another search for a permanent town manager, Select Board Chair Andy Hogeland ’76 announced at a board meeting on Friday.

The town manager, who manages the town’s day-to-day affairs, is appointed by the Select Board, an elected committee of five Williamstown residents that oversees the executive functions of Town government.

The two finalists — Debra Jarvis, a diversity and inclusion consultant and former fire chief, and Richard Downey, the village administrator of Kronenwetter, Wis. — were interviewed by the board ahead of its Friday meeting. That same day, the board resolved to hire neither candidate and to begin the search over again for a new town manager.

Each finalist showed proficiency in different aspects of the town manager position, Select Board member Hugh Daley said on Friday, with one excelling in Town administration and the other at advancing values of diversity and inclusion within the Town. But neither candidate fulfilled all of the Select Board’s requirements for the job, Daley added.

“It’s imperative to me that we get someone that can both operate the Town and heal the Town,” he said. “Getting one that can operate it but not heal it, getting one that can heal it but not operate it, we [as the Select Board] are not doing our job.”

The Select Board’s most pressing concern is hiring an interim Town manager to succeed Blanchard, whose term expires in late November, Hogeland wrote in an email to the Record. This new interim town manager will hold their position until the permanent town manager is instated.

The Town will again retain the services of GovHR — the consulting firm the Town employed to conduct the original search for a town manager — to field new candidates for the permanent position, according to Hogeland. “Our consultant advises us that it would be more productive to start [the permanent town manager search] in January,” Hogeland wrote.

“Until then, we will be reflecting on how our experience in evaluating the two recent candidates may make us rethink some features of the town manager position.”

Hoch, who began his tenure as town manager in 2015, resigned in the wake of public uproar over an August 2020 lawsuit filed by Williamstown Police Department (WPD) Sergeant Scott McGowan against the Town. In the lawsuit, McGowan claimed that Hoch did not adequately investigate alleged instances of sexual assault and racial harassment within the WPD. Hoch also came under scrutiny from Town residents for his decision not to fire former WPD Chief Kyle Johnson after the August 2020 lawsuit implicated Johnson in claims of sexual assault and racial harassment.

Once the Town installs a permanent town manager, the search for a permanent WPD Chief will likely begin. Until then, interim Chief Michael Ziemba will continue to lead the department.

To Select Board member Jane Patton, renewing the search for a permanent town manager will allow the town to reconsider what the position should look like in the future. “I think this is going to present us an opportunity, if we have the courage and the resolution and… tenacity, to really take a hard, hard, hard look at what it is that we’re after,” she said. “There’s too much… ‘finance, finance, finance,’ ‘diversity, diversity, diversity,’ and the reality is we’ve got to solve for both.”