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Williamstown Select Board Criticized for Inaction on Town Manager, Police Chief
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
04:08AM / Wednesday, September 30, 2020
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WILLLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Select Board continues to draw fire from its constituents about its handling of the town manager and police chief in light of a federal lawsuit naming both, along with the town, as defendants.
"Clearly, the one thing you could have done … was you could have put the police chief on administrative leave to send a signal that you don't agree with how this came down," Janice Loux told the board on Monday. "And you didn't do that. I hope you'll reconsider that thought and put him on leave."
Some in town have been calling for both Police Chief Kyle Johnson and Town Manager Jason Hoch to be put on leave — or removed from office — since the mid-August release of a job discrimination claim by a Williamstown Police Department sergeant that includes allegations of sexual misconduct and racial discrimination within the department.
On Monday evening, the Select Board gave updates on a series of steps it has taken to address the issue, including training for town employees in the prevention of discrimination and harassment and planned audits of both policies and procedures of the Police Department and the human resources procedures of the town.
Board Chair Jane Patton specifically announced that "no change to the town manager's status is being made at this time," a stance that generated continued discussion throughout a lengthy public comment period.
Both the board and Hoch acknowledged Monday that he should have informed the elected officials about a 2019 filing before the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination that was the precursor to the lawsuit Sgt. Scott McGowan filed on Aug. 12 in U.S. District Court in Springfield.
In the weeks following that Aug. 12 release, the Select Board has informed the town it knew nothing of McGowan's claims until the lawsuit was filed, even though the suit's most incendiary allegations were included in the MCAD filing.
At several junctures, including during Patton's opening statement, the board stressed that it has made it clear for Hoch and future town managers that the board expects timely communication about any such complaints.
"We are viewing this primarily as a communication failure," Select Board member Hugh Daley said. "I think there is a little bit of room in there, and I hope that the community will accept that there is a little bit of room in there for this to be a communication issue as opposed to creating the environment that is listed in the allegation. A good chunk of those allegations precede Jason's tenure.
"And I only say that as clarification. There's nothing in the allegation that anybody would want to associate themselves with."
Hoch himself told the community that he regrets not informing the Select Board at the start of the process.
"If I had to make the decision again, I would never have repeated it the same way," Hoch said. "I had a set of facts at hand … It should have been done differently.
"I truly hope that for the remaining time of my tenure here, we don't have any more filings at the MCAD. I'm hoping that this plan to ensure that we have communications on those issues — I would much rather not be in the position to have those [issues] in the future.
"I made a mistake."
"You made more than a mistake," Loux shot back. "You made more than a mistake. And I won't get into the long list of atrocities at that police station. But the answer is not satisfactory to me, but I do appreciate you answering it."
Hugh Guilderson agreed.
"What I have not heard is why Mr. Hoch and Chief Johnson are still here in their positions," Guilderson said. "What I have not heard yet is how and when this situation will change and how it will be fixed. I have to tell you I and others in town don't believe it will be fixed if the people who brought us to this situation are still employed by the town.
"It isn't a mistake. It's incompetence."
Neither Hoch's answer — or the board's response to what it perceives as a communications failure — satisfied Margot Besnard.
"I believe it was a breakdown of communication, but I also believe that isn't all it was," Besnard said. "I think it also is showing the lack of consequences that white people, especially white men, face when they make a mistake. The second chance that Jason's getting now is a second chance for the police officer who committed assault and battery against a resident [as alleged in McGowan's suit], a second chance for the police officer who hung a Hitler photo.
"The people who he arrests don't usually get a second chance, right? Even the people who get tickets at the parking lot [the local elementary school] don't get a second chance. You can believe in restorative justice, and I do too, but when the people who are violating our rights are police officers, they need to have consequences too because they give out consequences, and sometimes that means a person is dead in the street. And it's usually a black person."
The Select Board was repeatedly challenged for not taking strong enough action in the wake of the lawsuit. It also was criticized for sharing a special counsel with Hoch and Johnson in the McGowan matter.
"The question is a legitimate question," said Select Board member Andrew Hogeland, a retired attorney. "I've been in cases where one attorney has represented hundreds of clients or dozens of clients. And as long as their interests are aligned, that's an acceptable way to go forward. 
"At this point, I don't think our interests have diverged enough to warrant that. I think it's a good question. But as of today I don't think it's ripe to act on that. Fair question, but, so far, I don't see the need for that. And it is common for many defendants to have a common counsel."
Hogleand, who is taking the point for the Select Board in communications with the counsel representing the town, Hoch and Johnson, clarified that the board is directing the town's strategy. He cited Section 15, Paragraph K of the Town Charter, which reads, "The Town Manager shall, with the approval of the Selectmen, have authority to prosecute, defend and compromise all litigation to which the town is a party, and to employ special counsel whenever in his judgment it may be necessary."
"He's got the lead, but we need to know enough about it to approve it," Hogeland said.
Arlene Kirsch told the board the Town Charter itself needs an overhaul. She argued that Williamstown needs to flip the power dynamic away from its current strong town manager form of government and toward a strong Select Board, vesting more of the power with the elected officials.
"Any of you who think a strong town manager government is the way to go haven't lived in a town that has a strong town select board and town administrator form of government," Kirsch said. "The situation we're in could never have happened. It would not be able to have happened."
Select Board member Anne O'Connor disagreed.
"I entirely stand by the strong town manager form of government," she said. "I have confidence in our current town manager. I would not have supported him staying if I didn't have that confidence."
O'Connor also repeated a point that several of her colleagues have made in the weeks following the lawsuit: In their capacity of overseeing the town's response to the suit, the members of the Select Board have access to more information than they can legally disclose to the public.
"I certainly regret that what you're seeing from your elected Select Board is feeling like non-communication," O'Connor said. "As Jane [Patton] said, our tongues are tied. I want, very much, for the community to feel the board is listening and is connected and is hearing you, hearing the entire community. We are, even if we're not saying as much as we'd like to say in response.
"I want to say that I do stand by every decision I've made thus far in this process, personally. Not every decision has been easy, but with the material I have and everything I was deliberating, they were reasoned decisions, and I know my colleagues feel that way as well."
Patton said that while it can look like the board is inactive, in fact it is "chipping away" at the problem constantly. She appealed to the public to accept the slow progress but said she understood if members of the community cannot accept that.
"Nobody is shirking away from it, nobody is backing away from it, nobody is pointing fingers at anybody else," Patton said of the board. "We're going to right this ship. It's not going to happen overnight. We can keep saying, 'It sucks,' or we can say, 'What can we make better today?' What questions can we ask today? What policies can we do?
"I know that these five people, this Select Board, is going to do all the things we're telling you we're going to do, without question. It's up to you to slowly start to believe that or not. And I respect your decision either way."
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