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Williamstown Select Board Praises Community Spirit in Fight Against Pandemic
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
01:10AM / Wednesday, March 25, 2020
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — In an attempt to maintain some normalcy, the Select Board on Monday held its regular twice-monthly meeting.
But it was clear that things are anything but normal.
For starters, the board's five members held their first-ever virtual meeting, taking advantage of the commonwealth's recent temporary exemption to the Open Meeting Law and utilizing the Zoom video conferencing platform.
And the discussion focused almost entirely on the topic that is consuming their constituents and most of the nation, the global pandemic that necessitated things like virtual public meetings.
The night began with each of the board's members making an opening statement, which they used to praise those who are helping the community cope with the COVID-19 pandemic.
"It goes without saying that our community has little experience dealing with these kinds of circumstances," Chairman Jeffrey Thomas said. "There isn't a playbook. On the other hand, we are a strong community, we are well resourced and, in my opinion, we have strong leadership."
Jane Patton pointed to the volunteers who raised a weekend fundraiser for the Williamstown Food Pantry and reported that the group raised $2,500 in cash and checks plus "hundreds of pounds" of change that had yet to be counted in a three-day coin drop at the Williamstown Youth Center.
"For the last several years, all we did was bash social media … and now it's kind of diving in and helping keep us connected, as witnessed by this meeting," Patton said.
Andy Hogeland used his time to remind residents watching on the town's community access television station, WilliNet, that they need to continue following social distancing protocols.
"I think it's an irony that the best way for us to come together as a community is to stay apart from each other, but that's what we need to be doing," Hogeland said. "We live in a town with a lot of seniors. We need to stay apart from each other for a while and make it clear to people that it's reckless behavior not to obey these rules."
Anne O'Connor echoed that sentiment, praising Gov. Charlie Baker's decision earlier in the day to order a closure of all "non-essential" businesses in the commonwealth.
"My thoughts go out to our health care workers," O'Connor said. "We know in our area we're not overserved by medical professionals. … I care desperately that they all stay healthy and safe as well."
Helping keep the community safe and fed is the staff of the town and the local school district, Hugh Daley pointed out. He noted that as of Monday, the Mount Greylock Regional School District's "grab-and-go" lunch program distributed more than 100 meals.
"That's something the district has taken on quietly and efficiently and really has had an impact on this pandemic," Daley said. "There are folks right now who need food, and they can get it.
"I know there are people among us who favor smaller government. But occasionally government with a big 'G' can help out."
That said, local government will look a lot different in the weeks ahead.
Town Manager Jason Hoch Monday said that as of Tuesday, all town staff will be working from home unless there are critical operations that require them to come into town hall.
"Each department has figured out what the key things are that have to happen on site," Hoch said. "We're reachable by email and still reachable by phone."
Hoch said the town fortunately recently began using a new telephone system that allows voicemail to be forwarded, so residents can continue to use the regular Town Hall number to reach whoever they need to contact.
And a move over the last couple of years to migrate more town operations to the cloud facilitates the transition to telecommuting for town staff, he said.
He used Monday's meeting to deal with one piece of business, asking the Select Board to ratify a decision he made last week to temporarily suspend the requirement to use town bags at the transfer station. Hoch said he made the move in order to reduce the number of interactions for residents who need to purchase the bags either at town hall or one of the area retailers that sell them.
Hoch said the bags generate about $60,000 over a 12-month period to support the transfer station under the current pricing system; the bags were scheduled to increase in price effective July 1.
The board agreed with the short-term move in a 5-0 vote.
Hoch reported that the Council on Aging continues to provide twice weekly transportation to Stop & Shop for its early-morning senior shopping hours (reservations requested), and the COA is again participating in the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts' Brown Bag: Food for Elders program.
Two things that likely won't go as scheduled: the annual town election and town meeting.
Hoch said it is too soon to make any decisions about postponement, but he is following the progress of a bill in Boston intended to provide flexibility to municipalities, which normally must approve their fiscal year budgets by June 30.
"The legislation being considered would allow temporary spending at a 1/12th level," Hoch said.
"I would expect that as other towns confront these issues — there are towns slightly ahead of our traditional schedule — there will be more clarification."
Williamstown's election is currently scheduled for Tuesday, May 12, with the annual town meeting one week later.
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