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Johnson Says He Would Bring Calm Presence To Williamstown Select Board

A bald man with glasses and a beard in a blue shirt stands in front of a white wall
Jeffrey Johnson
Jeffrey Johnson.

Almost a year after a federal lawsuit against the town police department set off a chain of scandals and resignations, Williamstown, Massachusetts municipal elections are coming up May 11th. WAMC speaks with one of the candidates for select board in the first part of a series on the election.

47-year-old Jeffrey Johnson works for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts as a service coordinator supervisor. He’s lived in Williamstown since 1975, and is one of two candidates for the open three-year select board seat.

“I have a bunch of different ideas, some related to reaching out to people with disabilities and the elderly," said Johnson. "I've actually started some of these projects, because I'm one to not sit around, I'm wanting to actually do things.”

Johnson is a member of the town’s Diversity, Inclusion, Racial Equity, or DIRE, Committee, a sounding board for concerns about racism and systemic inequality after the murder of George Floyd last year and the Black Lives Matter demonstrations that followed.

Revelations about discrimination in the town’s police department – which led to the departure of Police Chief Kyle Johnson and then town manager Jason Hoch – have further stoked debate. Johnson says he has a unique vantage point on the situation.

“Specifically, I have a tri-racial heritage," he told WAMC. "So I have African American, European and Native American. So I hear some of the racial and diversity issues that are going on in town. And I can speak to all groups because I am a member of all those groups. So I'm trying to bring the heart and love back to Williamstown.”

He acknowledges tensions are high leading up to the May 11th vote in the community of around 7,500.

“I'm literally going door to door, opening up myself to go directly to the people and specifically the ones that are marginalized or scared to speak up because there is a fear factor, I think, on both sides to some of these questions, because of some of the unfortunate rhetoric that that is spewed on Facebook,” said Johnson.

The most recent shock was the revelation first reported by WAMC that the police department had illegally searched the records of critics amid the controversy. Johnson says he applauds the efforts at transparency made by acting Chief Mike Ziemba, and that the town needs to overhaul the police department.

“There also is no infrastructure as far as, you know, suspension, disciplinary actions, and things like that," he said. "So I've just basically met with Mike, met numerous times just to pass on, this is what I do with the state, this is a base starter. And actually, like I said, I looked into some of the other training aspects, because it's more the fundamental government that we have in our training that needs to get up to speed. And maybe the best way to think about it is that in this day and age, diversity and conflict of interest and some of these trainings need to be – and they are in almost every other public or private institution – we’ve got to just roll those into our town.”

Johnson says the current antagonism that has been directed at the select board over the handling of the police department scandals can be cured with patience and a commitment to an open examination of the facts.

“Calm brings calm and chaos brings chaos and having a calm voice that can calm people down, ensure their safeties," said the candidate. "And even as we sit here, we have no active legal investigation. So there is information that I'm quite sure was obtained that should be put out transparent to the public. So it’s that Catch-22 of, you're going to support your public employees – at the same time, the employees of Williamstown are here for Williamstown.”

After a series of blows of the community, Johnson says Williamstown needs time to both confront where it needs to grow and for listening and healing.

“Sometimes you take a couple steps forwards a couple steps back, but we are moving in the right direction," he told WAMC. "And I just want people to remember Williamstown is a beautiful, great place to live.”

Johnson’s other priorities include expanding resources for people with mental health and substance abuse issues in the town, attracting more young professionals and working to meet the town’s net zero carbon goal before 2050.

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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