WILLIAMSTOWN — This is why not to seek elected office, one said. No, offered another: This is why we're here.
For the first time since Sgt. Scott McGowan claimed discrimination and harassment inside the Williamstown Police Department, five members of the town's governing board provided candid personal accounts this past week of how they are handling the sergeant's allegations, detailed in an Aug. 12 federal lawsuit.
"There are no more difficult issues than the ones facing us today," said Select Board member Hugh Daley.
At the end of a long public meeting held Monday by videoconference, members of the Select Board explained why, for now, the kinds of answers residents want about the town's police department are "stuck" in a slow-moving legal process.
"It's not safe for us, for the town, to go into the details of allegations in public with a lawsuit pending," said member Andy Hogeland. "That's a very, very sad truth."
McGowan claims Chief Kyle Johnson sexually assaulted both male and female officers, in incidents around 2007, by repeatedly rubbing his groin up against them. The complaint cites racially discriminatory actions by Johnson and others, including use of a derogatory language and harassment of a Black officer. It describes sexual harassment of a female town resident by an officer in the department.
And it names Town Manager Jason Hoch, alleging he did not act to repair a hostile work environment. Hoch and Johnson have declined to comment.
To date, the Select Board has put out a few statements about how officials are responding. Those listening or watching Monday heard more about those steps, which include an ongoing review of the allegations, a recommitment to anti-bias training for all town employees and a fresh look at the workings of the police department, among other things. They also learned that the board had not been aware of an earlier Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination complaint filed by McGowan alleging the same misconduct.
The town declined calls to put Johnson and Hoch on administrative leave and rejected requests for an outside review of McGowan's claims.
Hogeland said the board's closed-door study is nearly done. But he made clear that with the suit pending, the findings may remain under wraps.
Residents who stayed to the end heard officials speak from the heart about the burden of holding office at a time when residents say they distrust local public officials. All in a small town where first names are the rule.
Jane Patton, the board's chairwoman, spoke from her home computer with visible emotion. Days earlier, she had expressed support for an independent inquiry. "I'm heartbroken that I live in a town where people don't feel safe," she said. "I'm not afraid of the hard work. I'm not afraid of getting at the truth. I'm not afraid of being transparent when I can be. I am afraid of doing a bad job. Of not being thoughtful and mindful."
Here's what she and other board members said of the challenge they face:
Andy Hogeland: Hogeland said he was moved by the public comments he'd just heard. "I am a white guy. I cannot understand what people of color go through. I can't understand what women go through. But the process of hearing you tonight has been significant to me," he said.
"I hear you and feel you as much as I can. The shock and dismay that you all had, when you first heard the allegations, were equal to the ones I had," Hogeland said.
And he added that the questions people have posed are the same ones he and members of the board have asked. Hogeland said he too was inclined to seek an independent inquiry, as called for by the town's Diversity, Inclusion and Racial Equity Committee. "It's a natural thing to ask for," he said.
But Hogeland came to believe that was unworkable.
"We have not been able to find a way to craft an independent investigation without jeopardizing and failing in our other duties," he said. "It's functionally true that what you say will be used against you."
Even if the town hired an outside investigation, that report could not be made public. He said the board's review is nearly complete — and acknowledged that things are moving slower, and in a less visible way, that many want.
The goal, he said, is to be "careful and deliberate stewards of town government."
"We are headed to the same goal. We have the same feelings," Hogeland said. "We feel similar pains. But our job doesn't let us do, frankly, what you want us to do as much as certainly we'd want to. We are doing the best we can with some true pain and stress in our heart."
Anne O'Connor: O'Connor said the lawsuit demands work from the board that she described as "incredibly hard."
"If I had known I would end up in a role like this, I would never have run for office," she said. "Please run against me. This is a very hard job."
But O'Connor said members have information that is not yet public and said she, in her position, needs to account for the full picture.
"I am beholden to act based on the information I am receiving. It's painful to say this to people who have come [to the board] with such pain," she said. "With what I have before me, I stand by the decisions that I am bringing to this board [as] one-fifth of this board.
"I think we're doing the best we can to explain where we stand with the information that we feel comfortable sharing," O'Connor said. "I take very seriously my role on the Select Board. And the decisions I come to bring all of that together — bring together everything I'm hearing from the community, as well as all of the information that I am privy to."
Hugh Daley: Daley bemoaned the fact that board members know things they can't reveal. And he granted that it is troublesome for officials simply to ask to be trusted.
But he said that's the job.
"This board are the people responsible for the resolution of this. We're elected and accountable to the people of Williamstown."
Daley said he wasn't inclined to hand off that duty to an outside investigator.
"Not only do I want to do this work, I need to do this work, to be sure I've fulfilled my duty to this town," he said. "I serve because I feel a responsibility to my community to improve it every day.
"We are on the right path. It is not moving at the pace we would like but we have to take the steps," Daley said. "I believe we all share the same goal. We may disagree on how to get there. I am fully committed to seeing this through to the end."
Jeffrey Thomas: Thomas had been on the videoconference, but had to leave on a trip. Nonetheless, he listened to residents' comments by phone from his car, then kept his remarks brief.
He thanked residents for voicing their concerns, then said he agreed with comments by Hogeland, O'Connor and Daley.
"I too am listening and learning," Thomas said.
Jane Patton: Like others on her panel, Patton said that while she hasn't had the kinds of experiences outlined by residents, she said the board is prepared to do "the hard work" of fixing a problem.
"It doesn't mean that we don't have empathy and it doesn't mean that we don't want to create a space where those are no longer the experiences," she said. "There's more work to do and we're going to go do it."
Larry Parnass can be reached at email@example.com, at @larryparnass on Twitter and 413-588-8341.