Williamstown Year in Review 2020: Police, Pandemic, Pot

Residents of the neighborhood called Colonial Village led a movement to strike that name and strike the racist covenants that were part of the deeds on their properties.

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — There was a global pandemic that reached into the North Berkshire town and claimed more than a dozen lives in two months’ time.

There was a four-hour town meeting dedicated mostly to a contentious issue that could not be resolved that night and sparked debates that continued throughout the year and beyond.

And neither was the top story in Williamstown in 2020.

Even as the national conversation was dominated by a new public health crisis, an old, intractable societal ailment, racism, was a major story across the country and the No. 1 topic of conversation in the Village Beautiful.

The Black Lives Matter movement exploded in the national consciousness after Black Minneapolis resident George Floyd was killed by members of the city’s police force on Memorial Day.

Williamstown residents were quick to join that effort, holding weekly rallies at the Field Park rotary and calling on the Select Board to take action to address racial equity in the town. Those talks led to the board creating a new town committee to study what Williamstown can do to promote diversity and inclusion.

Then, in mid-August, a federal lawsuit was filed that raised allegations of racial discrimination and sexual misconduct in the Williamstown Police Department. For the next four months, McGowan vs. Williamstown drove the public dialogue.

Williamstown’s Top 10 stories of 2020:

1. Lawsuit Shakes Confidence in Town Government

The announcement of Sgt. Scott McGowan’s federal discrimination suit against the town, its police chief and its town manager hit Williamstown like a mid-summer tsunami. In the blink of an eye, the veneer that racism and police misconduct were the problems of “other places” was shattered for many town residents.

Those for whom the BLM cause already was a high priority were, perhaps, less surprised to read the disturbing allegations in the suit, but they also were the most angry.

That anger manifested itself in repeated calls for the town manager to fire the police chief and for the Select Board to fire the town manager. Many who did not espouse those extreme steps called at the very least for the town to launch an independent, third-party investigation into the incidents chronicled in the lawsuit.

The Select Board members repeatedly said they could not talk about those allegations, let alone launch an investigation, while the lawsuit was active. They did take steps to launch a thorough review of WPD policy. After it was revealed that McGowan made the same allegations in a complaint to the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination in November 2019, the Select Board announced that, going forward, the town manager will apprise the elected body of similar complaints in real time.

Neither of those steps quieted the calls for the chief’s or town manager’s removal. Neither did Select Board members’ acknowledgement of residents’ pain, nor apologies from Police Chief Kyle Johnson and Town Manager Jason Hoch.

In the fall, the WPD’s union issued a statement claiming the environment in town was hostile to law enforcement, and some residents began to post lawn signs with a blue and black motif and the single word “Enough” to signal their contention that criticism of the local police force was going too far.

Nearly four months to the day after the lawsuit was filed, Hoch announced that Johnson was stepping down from his post because the chief had become “an obstacle to genuinely engaging in a constructive healing process between the community and its police department.”

That same night, McGowan announced that he was withdrawing his complaint in federal court because, “I believe it will be hard to make progress as a police department in the shadow of a lawsuit.”

While the twin announcements dramatically changed the story, they far from ended it. Moments after Hoch announced the town was in the market for a new police chief, some residents were still calling for change at Town Hall.

2. COVID-19 Hits Home

It was saddening but, in retrospect, unsurprising that the tragedy of COVID-19 touched Williamstown at the skilled nursing and rehabilitation center Williamstown Commons.

Long-term care facilities have been epicenters of infection throughout the country and famously here in Massachusetts, at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, where an outbreak killed 76 residents.

By late April, 17 deaths were linked to the novel coronavirus at Williamstown Commons, and officials were working round the clock to institute new protocols to keep the remaining residents safe.

As of December 17, the state had recorded just seven more COVID-19 deaths in the subsequent eight months for a total of 24 at the 180-bed facility.

Meanwhile, the town as a whole — including its long-term care facilities — has seen 136 COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic.

Town officials pushed hard early to encourage public health measures and, by and large, they were embraced by town residents. Early incidents of non-compliance with the commonwealth’s face covering order were rare enough to warrant comments — and the occasional “mask shaming” — on social media.

Even the widely feared return of Williams College’s students for their fall semester proved to be a “non-spreader” of the virus. The college launched an aggressive program of testing and quarantining for returning students and tested students and staff weekly throughout the term.

As of Dec. 22, the college had conducted 49,061 tests since Aug. 17 with just 13 positive results (seven students and six faculty/staff) for a minuscule positivity rate of 0.026 percent.

While schools around the country were making headlines for high rates of COVID-19 spread, the Select Board in December talked about how it could best express its gratitude to undergrads at Williams for their compliance with social-distancing and face-covering guidelines.

A sign posted on Spring Street by the Board of Health reminds everyone to keep up the work to stop the spread of COVID-19.

3. COVID-19 Hits the Bottom Line

On March 11, Williams College was among the first in the nation to close its campus to in-person instruction, a move that soon would become the norm throughout higher education in much of the country.

For a college town like Williamstown, the move, though widely regarded as prudent, had the potential to devastate the local economy. Some North County businesses were able to take advantage of federal assistance like the Paycheck Protection Program, but few, if any, Williamstown businesses escaped the pain of a spring without Williams’ commencement and reunion weekend and a summer without the Williamstown Theatre Festival or, for much of the season, the Clark Art Institute.

Some of that impact showed up in the rooms and meals tax revenue numbers reported by the commonwealth’s Department of Revenue. From April through September, Williamstown’s lodging establishments were taxed at a rate that indicates a 57 percent drop in revenue for those businesses. It was the same story for local eateries, which saw their business drop off 56 percent compared to the same period in 2019.

4. DIRE Committee Created

Named for an 18th-century slave-owner and hero of a war fought against indigenous Americans (and their French allies), Williamstown long has had a reputation as an enclave of privilege.

In 2020, town residents began to reckon with the historical legacy and contemporary reality of that privilege and exclusivity.

Conversations that were inspired in part by incidents like the death of George Floyd led to the formation of the town’s Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity Committee. The panel, which met weekly for months, became the focal point for discussion of how everything from exclusionary zoning to microaggression has created an atmosphere where people of color are not welcome.

At no time was that atmosphere more pronounced than when a member of the Williams College community received an October letter targeting them based on their race and sexual orientation.

The committee’s meetings have included emotional testimony from members of the public and the committee members themselves. And the group, which was conceived as an advisory committee to the Select Board, already has made a few specific recommendations, including that the Select Board contract with a third-party investigator to look at allegations arising from the McGowan lawsuit and that the town re-evaluate its “markers, monuments and monikers” in light of historical significance of the land to the Mohican people.

5. Regime Change at Mount Greylock

On a Saturday afternoon in July, the Mount Greylock Regional School District announced that its superintendent was stepping down from the post in the middle of her contract.

The announcement from the district referenced only the superintendent’s health concerns. While those concerns were very real and very legitimate, the statement did not reference the petition the School Committee received complaining about the administration or the abrupt resignation of the then School Committee chair in February. It also did not mention that the School Committee discussed Superintendent Kimberley Grady’s job status and a succession plan at a series of closed-door meetings in the spring and early summer or that a committee member at one of those meetings indicated Grady was “working with a school committee where the majority of committee is not supportive,” according to the executive session minutes.

Before the year was out, a second member of the seven-person School Committee had resigned, and with three members electing not to seek re-election in November, the panel saw four new members join in less than a month’s time.

Against the backdrop of this upheaval and with an interim superintendent in the corner office, the district negotiated an agreement with its teachers union to begin the school year with remote learning and to later start bringing children back into its school buildings — for the first time since March — with a hybrid model that saw all students in physical classes for less than 50 percent of their time on learning. By late fall, changing public health conditions in the region forced a return to fully remote instruction.

6. Cannabis, Cannabis, Cannabis

The issue of how to regulate the production of cannabis in the town has consumed its Planning Board for most of the last two years.

The board started the 2020 calendar year with a bylaw amendment that would have prohibited all outdoor commercial pot production in the town. The proposal came in response to strong opposition to outdoor grows from residents who felt outdoor plantations would produce noxious smells that would impact both the quality of life and property values for abutters.

The town’s Agricultural Commission had a different take, namely that production of the drug that the commonwealth decriminalized in 2016 was a potential revenue stream that could help the town’s struggling family farms remain in business.

The town meeting warrant ended up with competing bylaw amendments: one from the Planning Board and one drafted by the Ag Commission and placed on the warrant via citizen’s petition that would have allowed outdoor grows by special permit in all three of the town’s Rural Residence zoning districts.

After hours of discussion and multiple amendments, neither proposal achieved the two-thirds “super majority” vote needed for passage at the meeting, which essentially dropped the issue back in the lap of the Planning Board, whose members were actually more sympathetic to idea of allowing well-regulated outdoor grows than their own bylaw amendment implied.

Throughout the fall, the Planning Board and Ag Commission discussed what sort of bylaw might win over enough voters at the 2021 annual town meeting. In December, the planners received the formal proposal they sought from the Ag Commission and appeared ready to finalize bylaw amendment language early next year, in time to get it on the warrant for a hoped for town meeting in May.

7. Colonial No More

At least the sign is down. The painful legacy of restrictive covenants remains in the neighborhood formerly known as Colonial Village.

Current residents of the subdivision off Main Street (Route 2) led a movement this summer to simultaneously acknowledge and strike the racist covenants that remained a part of the area’s land deeds long past the point where restrictions against Black ownership were allowable by federal or state law.

In addition to hosting a march from Field Park to the sign that previously marked the entrance to “Colonial Village,” the residents petitioned state Rep. John Barrett III, D-North Adams, and state Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield, to introduce legislation that will allow homeowners throughout the commonwealth to easily excise the defunct language from their deeds.

As the clock ticked down to the end of the legislative session in Boston, that bill was pending.

The neighborhood was not waiting. At the end of that July 18 march from Field Park to the Colonial Avenue turnoff, some residents replaced the “Colonial Village” sign with one that read “Black Lives Matter.”

8. Just One Word: Plastics

A thousand words could not begin to tell the long, winding tale of Mount Greylock Regional School’s efforts to decide whether to install a synthetic turf athletic field at the middle-high school.

The town’s top story in 2019 easily earns a spot on the 2020 list.

Like the police story, this one took a dramatic turn late in the year. But, like the police story, it is far from over. Though the School Committee has agreed to spend $44,000 to put the project out to bid, it will not have those bids back for months and will have to make a final decision when the responses to its request for proposals are in hand.

9. Progress, Innovation on Affordable Housing

Long an issue for town government, the question of how to make the town more affordable to a wider range of residents saw a couple of major developments this year.

This summer, major construction got underway on 41 units of subsidized housing at 330 Cole Ave., the site of the former Photech Mill. Berkshire Housing Development Corp., of Pittsfield is developing the formerly town-owned property and hopes to have some units ready for occupancy as soon as June 2021.

Meanwhile, the town’s Affordable Housing Trust moved to address a crisis for current town residents brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. The trustees partnered with Berkshire Housing to create an emergency rental assistance program that uses town funds to help residents impacted by the pandemic stay in their homes while lessening the economic impact on their landlords.

At year’s end, the trustees were looking at how they could replicate that program to help homeowners struggling from the effects of the pandemic make their mortgage payments.

Delayed from May until August and held outside, the annual town meeting featured a long debate and a stalemate on the issue of cannabis production.

10. Democracy Delayed

That town meeting where voters grappled with the cannabis production question? It took place in August, not May, and it was held outdoors at Williams College’s Weston Field, not Williamstown Elementary School.

Thank you, COVID-19.

One of the first things impacted by the pandemic was the annual town election and town meeting, both usually held in May. The former was moved to June 23, and, establishing a pattern that would be repeated for the statewide primary in September and general election in November, most of the ballots cast were either mailed in or dropped off ahead of election day.

The town meeting was postponed even further, to August. And with Mother Nature cooperating, 361 residents checked in to participate under very pleasant skies at the college’s football/lacrosse venue.

The town’s MVP at the stadium — and at three different elections held during the pandemic — was first-year Town Clerk Nicole Pedercini, who managed all four events without incident.

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