Those of us who attended the most recent selectmen's meeting, May 13, went with the hope that, finally, the selectmen were going to help heal the contentious discussion in town about building affordable housing, by conducting a thorough, deliberate, open, public discussion with citizens and experts. This is what Selectmen Chair David Rempell and Affordable Housing Trust Chair Stan Parese promised at the April 24 Special Town Meeting. But at the May 13 selectmen's meeting, that hope was quickly dashed. Nothing had changed.
Jane Allen announced to her fellow selectmen that she had decided to form a steering committee on affordable housing, composed of certain town committee chairs whom she selected. She further explained that she had acted alone in inviting these committee chairs, that she did not consult with the Board of Selectmen first, that she did not gather their input, that she did not gather public input. When several selectmen during the meeting suggested some changes to her committee's structure, their suggestions fell into a hole, with no follow-up. Allen made her own rules, which included that the members of her committee could not be changed, even if some would eventually be stepping down. Further, it was obvious that this new handpicked committee was stacked with a majority of committee people who supported developing the Lowry site for building housing.
When Planning Board chair Ann McCallum suggested that this new steering committee include Andrew Hogeland, who is a "finance wiz" on the Finance Committee, a lawyer, and someone experienced, knowledgeable and known to be very aware of the proper procedures to follow in town planning, McCallum was summarily shut down by Allen and Rempell in tandem. They justified their leaving out the Finance Committee member as a participant by saying that it doesn't fit into the mold Allen designed. As quoted from the meeting, Allen explained, "I organized this based on ...committees that have a vested interest in moving the issue forward ... Finance Committee meetings ... don't act on warrant articles that don't have a financial impact."
What? Questions of building housing in Williamstown "don't have a financial impact?" When asked by one of the observers in the audience whether this means that this new steering committee would not be considering the financial factors in building affordable housing, Allen gave a nonresponsive response, asserting that, well, yes, of course some financial questions would have to be asked. To add to the confusion, Allen and Rempell readily proposed the same Andrew Hogeland to serve on a committee considering the building of a new police station in town, which apparently, unlike affordable housing, does involve town financial issues.
Is it any wonder that such non-sequitur responses from the selectmen stir deep suspicions in all of us, that there's a hidden agenda going on here, reinforced by the way the Jane Allen Committee is being formed and presented - in a procedure deeply contrary to our democratic notions of how we should be conducting our town business.
We are saddened to see that the new era of open debate and inclusiveness has ended so quickly. If this committee, as presently constructed, leaves the strong impression that it is stacked to favor one position - building housing on town agricultural, conservation land - and is run autocratically by its chair, it will only increase the divisiveness in town. If the committee is really a device to move forward on building a housing development on Lowry, its recommendations will not be respected.
One suggestion: Maybe this isn't really about setting up another committee to study affordable housing. Don't we have about four of those already? Maybe what we're really witnessing is a palace coup, more likely in Saudi Arabia but not impossible in Williamstown.