WILLIAMSTOWN — Town Manager Jackie Higgins won’t be terminated, the Select Board is suddenly short-handed, a controversial ATV ordinance cleared a key hurdle and municipal budgets voters will be asked to approve on Town Meeting Day are now set.
Monday was a busy night in Williamstown where a standing room only crowd packed the high school library and watched the board rescind last week’s, 3-2, vote in favor of taking steps to terminate Higgins.
Monday night’s vote came moments after one board member — Chris Wade — resigned “effective immediately” and another — Jessica Worn — fought back tears while acknowledging she had seriously considered doing the same amid hostile blowback over last Wednesday’s split decision.
The latter decision didn’t last long, but it wasn’t curiosity over Higgins’ job security that attracted more than 100 people to a public meeting that was sandwiched between executive sessions.
The draw Monday night was the ATV ordinance, though those for and against that proposal had to wait until after latest local government drama played itself out.
The first-year selectman made a very early exit after reading a prepared statement announcing his abrupt resignation with more than a year left in his two-year term.
Wade lamented his failure to bring “positive change” to a community he argued has long been plagued with systemic problems and bemoaned the toxic nature of social media. That, he said, includes a local Facebook page that morphed into a forum for “… rumors, lies and misinformation” in the wake of last week’s vote to find cause for Higgins termination.
“I have learned just how hateful the community of Williamstown has become,” said Wade, who initially supported the motion that was rescinded Monday.
So did Worn, who tried to contain her emotions while complaining she was the target of “adult bullying” that prompted her to consider stepping down.
Worn didn’t and joined Chairman Matthew Rouleau and others in urging Wade to reconsider his decision to resign.
Wade politely refused, suggesting he wasn’t willing to subject his family to petty small-town politics.
“I knew this was a thankless job when I ran for it, but never in my wildest dreams … did I think we would get to the point that we have,” he said before leaving the meeting library.
Board members accepted Wade’s resignation, which means three of the board’s five seats will be filled by voters in March.
Wade’s departure came after Rouleau said he’d reconsidered last week’s decision to move to terminate Higgins, who isn’t going any where.
Acting on the advice of their lawyer, the remaining board members unanimously voted to rescind last week’s finding there was “just cause” to terminate the veteran town manager for “… creating a hostile work environment (and) violating the town’s harassment policy.”
Following a brief, meeting-ending executives session — the second of the evening on the subject — the board unanimously voted to direct Higgins to seek human resources training and training in personal relations. Included in that motion was the suggestion all town employees do the same.
That’s how the meeting ended.
It began with Wade’s resignation, followed by the board’s reversal with respect to Higgins’ termination, as well as a harsh critique from local lawmaker Rodney Graham.
Graham, a former selectman, blamed the board’s “veteran” members — Rouleau and Francis Covey — for botching the handling of Higgins’ hearing last week.
“Maybe if you were better prepared and knew what the policies and the laws were so that you could … explain to the new members how things work this may have never escalated to what it did,” Graham said.
“When you can’t follow policies, this is what happens,” he added.
Rouleau and Covey, who were both on the short end of last week’s, 3-2, vote, accepted the criticism and moved on.
What the board planned to do about Higgins, who is still in the first year of a three-year contract that runs expires in 2022 wasn’t the main attraction Monday night. Whether the board was willing to adopt an ordinance that could open up 18 miles of town roads to ATVs was.
Though the controversial question filled the room and both sides were well represented the discussion was both brief and surprisingly tame.
It’s also probably not over, according Rama Schneider, who served as the non-voting chairman of a board-appointed committee that spent the last several months working on the issue.
“I personally do not believe this is a settled question,” Schneider told board members when delivering the committee’s promised report.
Schneider said the panel stopped short of recommending the board adopt an ordinance, but agreed that if one is approved it should mirror language contained in its report.
Schneider told the board adopting the ordinance and providing opponents with the opportunity to petition for its reveal might be “the most democratic path forward.” It is one he said that opened the door to ATVs legally using designated town roads while giving those who object to the idea the opportunity to close it during a special election.
The board went with that logic and passed an ordinance Rouleau predicted would be tested at a yet-to-be-petitioned for town vote.
Opponents of the ordinance provided the board with 125 signatures from residents who object to the ordinance and if they are able to circulate a petition signed by 115 town voters in the next 44 days a special election will be scheduled.
Rouleau said that was likely and would be the best barometer of how much support the idea enjoys in the community.
Due to warning requirements Higgins said the issue couldn’t be scheduled for a Town Meeting Day vote in March and the scheduling of a vote would be dictated on whether and when a valid petition is presented to the town.
If no petition is filed the ordinance will go into effect in 60 days and would be annually reviewed by the board.
Opponents of the ordinance started collecting signatures moments after leaving the meeting where they appeared to be outnumbered by those who support the change.
Meanwhile, the board took care of an important piece of business approving general and highway fund budgets and a draft warning for Town Meeting Day.
The board is proposing a $1.5 million general fund budget to pay for the day to day operations of the town. That budget reflects a spending increase of roughly $115,000, or 8 percent. Nearly half of the proposed increase is tied to computer related upgrades.
The $1.2 million highway fund budget is up roughly $167,500 over the current year, an increase of about 16 percent. The cost of a part-time summer position, $60,000 in additional funding for the road rehabilitation reserve, and increases for winter salt and crushed ledge are largely responsible.
If both voters approve both budgets in March, Higgins estimated it would add roughly 8 cents to the local tax rate. That would add about $160 to the tax bill for a home assessed at $200,000, or $8 for every $100,000 of assessed value.