WILLIAMSTOWN — The selection of Lt. Michael Ziemba as interim police chief, while unanimously supported by the town’s search committee, caused a procedural rift in the group at the end of the process. That rift was reported to the Select Board on Monday night.
According to members of the committee, some felt that their first choice for interim chief should be the final choice, and pointed to communications they received from former Town Manager Jason Hoch.
By the time the committee made its final decision, Hoch no longer was at the helm. So, committee members did what they were instructed: They offered a first choice and a second choice, which they provided if the first choice didn’t work out.
But, interim Town Manager Charles Blanchard, when presented with the decision, expressed concerns with the first choice — the choice never was identified because the person wasn’t hired, and revealing the name would be a violation of personnel policy — and noted that the search committee is advisory in nature and that he would be putting forward the second choice, Ziemba, who the committee supported as well.
Several committee members took umbrage, and while they expressed support for the choice of Ziemba, they protested the town manager’s choice. One member resigned during the meeting between Blanchard and the search committee. That person wasn’t identified.
Ziemba was announced as the new interim chief at a Select Board meeting this month.
“When our advisory committee first met with the Interim Town Manager (Charles Blanchard) to present our conclusions, two committee members spoke out in objection to the way the end of the process unfolded, stating their belief that the Interim Town Manager was not honoring the selection process that had been promised to the search committee by the prior Town Manager, Jason Hoch,” noted Natalia Romano, a member of the search committee who made the report to the Select Board.
Romano explained that the committee of eight members with diverse backgrounds worked hard and worked well together.
Another description of events was provided by committee member Erin Keiser-Clark and supported by fellow committee members Wade Hasty and Hugh Guilderson.
“Mr. Blanchard did not follow the committee’s lead, but rather substituted his choice for that of the committee,” Keiser-Clark wrote in her letter of concern. “There were no negotiations with the committee’s first choice candidate. Without explanation for his decision to depart from the process that had been committed to in writing in the charter as further clarified by Mr. Hoch, Mr. Blanchard went in a different direction and did not follow the process established by Mr. Hoch.”
Her letter also noted that the committee’s first choice was not shared initially with the committee, and that the committee’s second choice, Ziemba, was advised by town officials not to apply.
Their concerns had nothing to do with “our support for Lt. Ziemba as a strong candidate. We have always supported the candidacy of Lt. Mike Ziemba in applying for the Interim Police Chief position, and indeed the committee found him to be one of the finalists recommended to the Interim Town Manager,” she wrote.
In verbal remarks Monday, Keiser-Clark said she and some others felt that after the committee had done its work, the rules were changed without proper explanation or transparency.
“It felt like it was a way to avoid listening to people,” she said. “I am unhappy and uncomfortable with the way things went.”
Another committee member, Ralph Hammann, also spoke to the Select Board. He noted that his understanding all along was that the group was advisory in nature, and that the hiring authority clearly lay with the town manager.
“We were intended to advise and that the Town Manager would try to honor our advice,” Hammann said. “When we presented our recommendations, the interim Town Manager Charlie Blanchard cited a concern over one candidate that I agreed was troubling. In the end, Mr. Blanchard did choose a candidate that all were quite enthusiastic about recommending. I believe Mr. Blanchard acted in good faith and objectivity and that he was courteous and professional in his dealings with our committee as was his predecessor, Jason Hoch.”
The reports tried to parse out what worked well, what needed improvement, and other recommendations to help the town in conducting the next search for a town manager, which just got underway.