Understanding Williamstown Politics

Created by Milo Chang ’24, CLiA Summer Community Outreach Fellow

There is No Purple Bubble

Being a student at Williams College can give us the impression that we live in a Purple Bubble, cut off from national and international events.

However, the Purple Bubble is just an illusion. We live in the center of a town confronted with the same issues faced by communities across the United States: affordable housing, climate change, diversity and inclusion, just to name a few.

Even the more “mundane” parts of local government affect our lives. Why can students only park behind Paresky for two hours? Town government. Why do some places in Williamstown have spotty cell service? Town government.

To truly be a part of the Williams community, we have to understand the town around us, from how its government functions to what issues its residents care about. At the end of the day, the Williamstown government is our government; Williamstown issues are our issues.

Williamstown Government

For people who grew up outside of Massachusetts, the structure of Williamstown’s government might seem unusual.

Once a year, registered voters come together at Town Meeting, presided over by the Town Moderator, to act as the town’s legislative body — debating, amending, and voting on warrant articles and budgets.

“Town meeting — as an institution of government — is not perfect. It is, however, remarkable. Tonight — for the next few hours — in the most literal sense of these words: you are your government.” – Stan Parese, former Town Moderator, at the 2010 Town Meeting

Throughout the year, the Select Board and the Town Manager operate as the executive branch of Williamstown, enacting the warrants approved at the Town Meeting.

  • The Select Board consists of five non-partisan members, each serving three year terms on a volunteer basis. Select Board members are elected by voters in a town election, typically held one week before the Town Meeting. Select Board terms are staggered so that a maximum of two seats are up for election each year. Over the course of the year, the Select Board holds public meetings and hearings to conduct its work. (For more information about the Select Board, check out the Select Board Guidebook.)

  • The Town Manager is a paid professional hired by the Select Board to oversee the day-to-day management of the town under the supervision of the Select Board. The Town Manager’s duties include tasks like ensuring the roads are plowed, checking that the streetlights are functioning, and applying for state and federal funding to assist with town priorities. They hire and remove department heads, from the police chief to the water/sewer superintendent.

Williamstown also has a plethora of committees and boards, made up of unpaid members who develop expertise in a subject area. For example, the Finance Committee reviews the budget prepared by the Town Manager and recommends a final version to the Town Meeting for approval. Some of these bodies consist of elected positions while others are appointed. (For more information on these committees and their membership, visit the town website.)

(You can also check out this article by the Williams Record, which provides a closer look at the Williamstown government.)

Williamstown Issues

At first glance, it might seem like there wouldn’t be a lot of issues in Williamstown, where an overwhelming plurality of voters register as Democrats and only about five percent of voters are Republicans. However, a shared party affiliation doesn’t mean that Williamstown is free from disagreements on how to address its challenges, a handful of which are listed below.

  • Passionate debates surrounding land use occur between residents holding different views on how best to preserve the town’s character, taking a variety of forms. Williamstown consists primarily of a dense central area encircled by residential neighborhoods, with an outlying area in South Williamstown made up of large, multi-acre properties.

    Water Pollution

    In April 2004, tests showed that the wells at Mount Greylock Regional High School contained perchlorate, a chemical used in the production of rocket fuel, fireworks, flares and explosives. Because there was no waterline from the town to the high school, the crisis forced high school students to use bottled water for drinking and cooking. At the same time, the Clark Art Institute wanted to expand its museum and offered to pay for the extension of the waterline to its new development and the high school. However, some South Williamstown residents worried that an extended waterline would spur development along Route 7 and thus permanently change the iconic natural landscape. These residents launched an intense opposition campaign, leading to the rejection of the Clark’s offer. Nearly two decades later, there still isn’t a waterline to the high school; after resolving the contamination issues, the high school still relies on its wells for water.

    Affordable Housing

    The housing market in Williamstown and the rest of the country is a prime example of supply and demand. When there is high demand for homes but not enough supply, housing prices soar. Here in Williamstown, there are a variety of factors at play. Town zoning laws limit the construction of multi-family dwellings, with close to 85% of homes being single-family properties. The presence of Williams College likely plays a role: professors have higher incomes than most families looking to buy homes, off-campus students occupy housing in town, and wealthy alumni buy vacation homes here. While 7.6% of housing units are subsidized, 61% of these subsidized units are restricted for the elderly, making housing difficult to access for low-income working residents. Without more housing that is affordable and draws in more permanent town residents, Williamstown will have difficulty drawing in a more diverse population and runs a risk of turning into a seasonal town whose population fluctuates during vacation periods. As a result, discussions around Williamstown’s zoning laws are incredibly important conversations about the future of the town. The town has recently developed some multifamily projects, with about 40 units at Highland Woods and 41 units at 330 Cole Avenue.

    Cell Service

    In 2021, a permit application to construct a cell tower on part of a farm in South Williamstown ran into opposition by residents concerned about the tower’s visual impact on the landscape. The cell tower would improve cell service in the area, where the lack of cell service can make farming accidents even more dangerous. Only after months of discussion and an agreement to reduce the height of the cell tower by 12 feet did the Williamstown Zoning Board of Appeals approve the permit for the tower’s construction.

  • Like many communities in the United States, Williamstown has recently found itself confronting serious questions regarding the conduct of its police department. In August 2020, a federal lawsuit was filed alleging a culture permissive of racial harassment and sexual assault in the Williamstown Police Department (WPD). While the Select Board disputed the allegations, it did admit to a 2014 incident where a WPD dispatcher shouted the N-word while a Black Williams student was touring the station.

    After community scrutiny and outcry, WPD Chief Kyle Johnson resigned in December 2020 and the lawsuit was withdrawn; Town Manager Jason Hoch announced his resignation in February 2021 after receiving heavy criticism for failing to notify the Select Board of the allegations before the federal lawsuit. It later emerged that three WPD officers had illegally used their access to government databases to investigate critics of the police department.

    Then the WPD sergeant who filed the federal lawsuit was placed on administrative leave after complaints that he himself had committed sexual and racial harassment. Reports emerged that the North Adams Police Department charged him in 1999 for domestic assault and battery against his then-girlfriend.

    With the revelations about misconduct within its ranks, the WPD will likely remain under intense scrutiny from town residents whose faith in the police department has been shaken.

  • Williamstown, like a lot of rural communities, faces systemic challenges in providing consistent and timely public transportation. While the Berkshire Regional Transportation Authority (BRTA) provides consistent bus service once every hour, Williamstown lacks the population density necessary to justify a higher bus frequency. Without enough riders, it doesn’t make economic sense to run more buses.

    For Williamstown residents who don’t own cars, these public transportation issues can make it difficult to obtain jobs that are not within walking distance of their homes. It also forces these residents to wait up to an hour, sometimes in the rain or snow, for a bus to take them back home from work or Stop & Shop, the closest affordable grocery store. It is also extremely difficult to access Uber or other ride-sharing services in Williamstown, making public transportation the only option for residents who can’t afford cars.

    With the current population density, efforts to increase bus frequency are prohibitively expensive. The current bare-bones service provided by the BRTA is supported by the town and heavily subsidized by the state, but does not provide service after 7 PM or on Sundays. This infographic provides more information about transportation issues in Berkshire County.

  • Williamstown is not immune from the effects of climate change, as severe weather increases the risk of hazards to the town, from floods to deadly winter storms. The Williamstown COOL Committee works to “promote sustainable living practices in Williamstown in a way that inspires community engagement, prompts individual action, and promotes exchange of ideas and practices in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” The COOL Committee is a non-governmental committee made up of members from the town government, Williams College, and the local community. The committee proposed a resolution committing Williamstown to achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions, which voters adopted at the 2021 Town Meeting.

  • Williamstown and Williams College exist on the ancestral homelands of the Mohican Nation, who are the indigenous peoples of this land. Despite tremendous hardship in being forced from here, today their community resides in Wisconsin and is known as the Stockbridge-Munsee Community. The father of the founder of Williams College played a direct role in the forced displacement of the Stockbridge-Munsee Community. The establishment of the Stockbridge-Munsee Mohican Tribal Historic Preservation Extension Office on Spring Street in late 2020 serves as a symbol of growing dialogue between the Stockbridge-Munsee Community, Williams College, and Williamstown.

College Town Dynamics

The relationship between Williamstown and Williams College is an interwoven web that stems back centuries. This relationship can take many forms, from more mundane issues like who should run Park Street to more difficult questions like whether the College is a major source of gentrification in the town. While the College owns every building on Park Street except for St. John’s Episcopal Church, the town runs the street itself, dictating the two-hour parking limit behind Paresky. The College and its affiliates own most of the residential buildings near the center of town either as faculty or off-campus student housing, leading to some criticism that the College and off-campus students are making it difficult for low-income families and individuals to live in the town.

That isn’t to say that the College’s presence is a negative for Williamstown. The College is the largest employer in Williamstown and attracts many of the institutions that make Williamstown what it is, from the annual Williamstown Theatre Festival to the Clark Art Institute. In the past, the College has donated land and money to the town for construction projects like the police station, high school, and affordable housing.

It is important to note that the College does not have an agreement with the town for payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT). Like other institutions of higher education, Williams College doesn’t pay property taxes on real estate holdings used to further its educational mission. This means that the College is exempt from ~$6.2 million in property taxes and only needs to pay ~$1 million for its taxable property; the College is still the largest payer of real estate taxes in Williamstown. However, unlike some other institutions, Williams doesn’t have a property tax PILOT agreement with the town. Instead, the College funds individual projects and initiatives on a voluntary basis. These projects sometimes involve substantial donations, such as a $22 million culvert to reduce flooding on Latham Street, a $5 million endowment for the Mount Greylock Regional School District, or $400,000 for a new police station. Yet the nature of the College’s donations mean that the town doesn’t have a guaranteed stream of payments that could be used to borrow money for longer term projects.

Ultimately, there are ongoing conversations about the College’s relationship and role in the town. Looking at other college towns across the nation, there are different models for how Williams can shape its involvement in the town. For example, the College can follow Middlebury College in expanding its private recycling and garbage collection to the town, which could reduce carbon emissions from individual trips by town residents to the landfill. This could build on the efforts undertaken by the College when it funded a solar farm at the landfill that went live in 2017. As the town’s largest carbon footprint, an initiative by the College to switch our vehicle fleet to electric vehicles would have an enormous effect on the town’s environmental goals.

Ephs in Action

The simplest way for students to engage with the Williamstown government is to stay informed. Some great sources of news about the town include:

  • Town Meeting usually occurs in May and is a great opportunity for students to witness direct democracy in action (or take part if they are registered to vote in Williamstown).

    Attending municipal meetings is another route for Williams students to participate in town government itself. The Select Board typically holds its meetings on the second and fourth Mondays of each month at 7 PM in Town Hall, which is right across the street from Greylock Quad. The schedule for all municipal meetings can be found on the town calendar. If you can’t attend meetings in person, WilliNet broadcasts and uploads videos of these meetings.

  • While serving on a town committee or board as a student may seem daunting, it is possible — Mohammed Memfis ’21 even served as the chair of Williamstown’s Diversity Inclusion and Racial Equity Committee. Students interested in serving on a committee or board can fill out the Government Engagement Activity Form linked at the bottom of this page.

  • If you don’t have the time to serve as a member of a committee or board, you can always see if there are any projects that you could help with. For example, starting in fall 2021, the Williamstown Planning Board is developing the town’s first Master Plan in 20 years, laying the foundation for how the town will look decades into the future. The Planning Board will need assistance researching innovative ways to tackle issues like affordable housing, economic development, climate change, transportation, diversity and inclusion. This process will take about two years. Williamstown also has an active Habitat for Humanity chapter that recruits volunteers to help build homes for first-time homeowners.

    The College’s Center for Learning in Action (CLiA) is available to match students with town projects and support their work, either as fieldwork for a course or as independent community work. For example, there is an active Habitat for Humanity chapter serving Williamstown that is currently building houses on Cole Avenue, just a short walk from campus. Students can find the CLiA office in the basement of Brooks House or by emailing clia​@williams​.edu.

    You can also contact committees or boards directly through their emails or reach out to the Town Manager to be connected with someone.

This guide would not be possible without information shared by Select Board members Wade Hasty, Jeffrey Johnson, Andy Hogeland, and Hugh Daley; interim Town Manager Charles Blanchard; Professor Cheryl Shanks; Principal Assessor Chris Lamarre; and Community Development Director Andrew Groff. Special thanks to the Center for Learning in Action (CLiA) for its support for student engagement with the Williamstown community.