The Williamstown, Massachusetts select board has chosen a candidate for interim town manager.
The choice comes after months of controversy in the Northern Berkshire community stemming from a series of scandals within the police department. Williamstown’s police chief and town manager both resigned following a lawsuit – since dropped — from a police officer last summer.
A recent revelation first reported by WAMC that the police department illegally accessed the files of its critics has only compounded the situation. With town manager Jason Hoch set to leave this month, Charles T. Blanchard has been tapped to become interim town manager.
“A lot of my experience had been as a selectman," he said. "And then, you know, finally I get to be a town administrator in Paxton. I tried retirement after that, and I didn't like it. So I went right back in and went and I got a job as the interim in Palmer.”
Blanchard gave a public interview with the select board in March, and described his managerial style as collaborative and supportive.
Given the tumult in Williamstown, Blanchard was asked how he would respond to the considerable community outcry.
“One of one of the problems always seems to be when people stake out their positions on any controversial issue, it's very difficult, I found, to get them to really move away from what they really thought of initially,” he told the select board.
He cited his experiences in Palmer, where the town rejected a plan to build a casino in 2013. Blanchard – who worked for the town from 2011 to 2019 – was a proponent of the project, and helped craft the community agreement with Mohegan Sun.
“I remember one time, one of the people that was against the casino had written a letter, and it stated that, you know, one fact that people had was going to be 12,000 cars a day," said Blanchard. "So he took the width of the length of a car and decided that that meant that there would be gridlock 30 miles around the intersection of the Mass Pike for Palmer. So we immediately contacted, you know, our consultant, they pointed out in a nice letter, they wrote back and said, OK, we know that's true, if they all show up at the very same second the same time. But of course, that isn't what happened. And they had all the data about, you know, when their traffic was going to be heavy, when we'd be off peak and so forth. And, you know, that seemed to be, you know, something that, you know, people would listen to. And when the election finally came out of 5,200 votes cast that lost by 94 votes, and that was the end of it. But MassLive had done, you know, a question to the polls, [when] they left, you know, the election. And so many people said, well, it's the gridlock they were concerned about there was the traffic. I mean, so we tried and try to get the information out there that there was, you know, no, you know, traffic problem. So I guess my point is that it's hard once people make the decision on a controversial thing to get them to move away from it.”
Blanchard, who said he’s enjoyed positive relationships with law enforcement in his previous stints in town management, said he would trust a police chief with management of the department to a certain point.
“But when it gets to be a point where it's a personnel issue, you know, the fields with, you know, human resources with an impact on the town, you know, through the management side of it for the personnel management, and certainly the town manager has to, you know, be there, you know, to work with them to make the decision and to, you know, solve the issue,” he said.
The candidate was also asked to articulate his stance on serving the community transparently given recent mistrust.
“I have to be in a position to let you know, what's going on and why we're doing certain things and why certain decisions are made," said Blanchard. "So it is trying to, you know, work with the entire community even though, you know, the community may have different views and different opinions of where the town should be going. If the message, you know, comes clearly from the Board of Selectmen, where you would like the town to go where you want to have, you know, priorities for a, you know, the town manager and the town departments to achieve, then that's, you know, where the direction will come from. And hopefully, it'll serve all the stakeholders or as many of the stakeholders as possible.”
Blanchard will become Williamstown’s interim town manager pending contract negotiations and his acceptance of terms.