Officials grappling with potential postponement of Annual Town Meeting due to Coronavirus

by beth on March 11, 2020

Annual Town Meeting is scheduled to open on March 28th in Trottier Middle School’s auditorium. But the Covid-19 “State of Emergency” could throw a wrench in those plans.

Last night, Town public health officials advised postponing the meeting. At this point, the Moderator and selectmen are waiting for more information from state officials and federal agencies. Part of the delay in making a decision is lack of clarity on legal restrictions and fiscal impacts.

The discussion was part of last night’s Pre-Town Meeting with the Town Moderator and Board of Selectmen. Southborough’s Public Health Nurse Leslie Chamberlin briefed officials. She stated that the Board of Health had yet to vote, but she and Public Health Director Paul Pisinski recommended postponing the ATM. She characterized it as following guidelines by Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

She quoted the CDC’s guidelines for a “Before” community that doesn’t have a “presumptive” case of an infected resident:

public health officials may recommend community actions designed to limit exposure to COVID-19. Officials may ask you to modify, postpone, or cancel large events for the safety and well-being of your event staff, participants, and the community.

She didn’t include the phrase that preceded or the sentence that followed, though they appeared to play into the decision:

Depending on the severity of the outbreak. . .

The details of your emergency operations plan should be based on the size and duration of your events, demographics of the participants, complexity of your event operations, and type of on-site services and activities your event may offer

Regarding severity, Chamberlin referenced the Governor declaring a State of Emergency for Massachusetts. (Though, Moderator Paul Cimino opined earlier that the declaration was really about applying for federal funding.)

Later in the discussion Chamberlin referred to specific issues around the physical conditions for Town Meeting participants. Voters sit in the Trottier auditorium for hours with lack “social space” between them, shared armrests, and limited ventilation. Multiple references were also made by officials about voters over the age of 60, a more vulnerable demographic.

Selectwoman Lisa Braccio asked Town Counsel if there would be legal issues from proceeding with Town Meeting. She pointed out if older voters or those with health issues can’t attend it might be seen as restricting the rights of voters to attend Town Meeting. Counsel Aldo Cipriano opined that in this case the public good would outweigh the individual right. 

There were even more legal ambiguities if the meeting is postponed. Selectman Marty Healey asked what would happen to the Town government if Town Meeting wasn’t held before July 1st. Normally, voters need to approve money to be spent in the following fiscal year. Cipriano told the board that it’s a situation that many other Towns are concerned about. He will be part of a Mass Municipal Lawyers Association audio conference on the legal issues. They will also be looking for what the state can do to allow Town’s flexibility. 

At the start of the discussion, Cimino referenced a state statute passed in 2014 that allows the Moderator (in consultation with other officials) to postpone the meeting in case of an emergency. The statute was based on weather related issues but covered other possibilities. Last night, Cipriano confirmed that it didn’t fully take into account the possibility of a pandemic. As written, the Moderator appears to be required to convene Town Meeting within 30 days of postponement.

Chamberlin was unable to give officials clear guidance on when she would feel it was safe to proceed with Town Meeting. She noted that CDC and the Department of Public Health are the experts. But she indicated frustration that there weren’t clearer guidelines from them.

Cimino stated that if the meeting was postponed from March 28th it couldn’t be held on April 6th. Chamberlin said that wasn’t necessarily true. Selectman Dan Kolenda pointed out that the guidelines she used for cancelling were based on “Before” advice. He asked what happens if every week, there is still no case in Southborough. That would apparently continue to push things out since we would still be a “Before” community.

Eventually, Chamberlin asked about the possibility of holding the meeting outdoors where there could be more social space and fresh air. Town Counsel Aldo Cipriano responded that outdoors could be allowed as long as the Town Clerk was able to set the perimeters of the meeting area. Someone noted potential weather issues.

Other ideas pitched by selectmen last night included the public safety building garage bay with open doors or splitting voters into multiple facilities with interactive media (Trottier’s auditorium and cafeteria, plus Woodward School).

As part of her briefing, Chamberlin shared that she had met with officials from 12 surrounding town’s Board of Healths and 7 superintendents. She said that Annual Town Meeting was a hot topic, with several communities also concerned about how to handle it.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 slippery slopes March 12, 2020 at 3:13 PM

“Selectwoman Lisa Braccio asked Town Counsel if there would be legal issues from proceeding with Town Meeting. She pointed out if older voters or those with health issues can’t attend it might be seen as restricting the rights of voters to attend Town Meeting. Counsel Aldo Cipriano opined that in this case the public good would outweigh the individual right.”

From the SAM video Braccio inquired about “a segmented set of our population could be at high risk” and made some sounds about “not allowing”. That seemed to suggest her line of inquiry was about “not allowing” (her words) certain Southborough voters to attend the Annual Town Meeting.

Cipriano’s opinion, and let’s not lose our way here, it is his personal opinion – not a court decision – was a meandering comment on the public good and the rights of the individual. Specifically, his comment did not address Braccio’s concern(s).

Perhaps the focus should be on doing whatever it takes to ensure Southborough voters, who may not be able to attend the ATM, are given the opportunity to participate.

As succinctly pointed out by Moderator Cimino, the discussion was not to make a decision
during that discussion.

Another concern was expressed about language related to “recess” and its application to a delayed Town Meeting. The dictionary defines the word “recess”, as it may pertain to the Town Meeting as: “(of formal proceedings) be temporarily suspended”. If the Town Meeting has not been held or started, how can it be recessed? To recess a Town Meeting means “taking a break” and the meeting will resume at some point. A 30 day delay in the holding of the Town Meeting is explicitly not a situation of recess. That part of the discussion was effectively moot.

There was some discussion among people last year of providing remote access to the ATM. The technology to support such activities has been around for decades. Let me repeat that – the technology has been around for decades – since the early 1990s – close to thirty years.

This virus situation is an illustration of why such an option should be provided to the Town of Southborough. If the idea of having a Town Meeting is to provide a venue for citizen participation, then why not make it easy for the citizens to do so?

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2 Al Hamilton March 13, 2020 at 11:35 AM

The reality is that we cannot say whether the Corona Virus is here in town or not. The lack of available testing resources means that we are flying blind.

As for the odd statement about the “Public Good” I would assume that enabling citizen participation in our institutions ranks at least as high in the pantheon of “Public Goods” as the bureaucratic funding of various departments. I would assume that maintaining public confidence in the way we operate government is at least as important other considerations.

“Public Good” is clearly in the eye of the beholder rather than some immutable set of values.

Perhaps there should be some expedient that allows a very brief outdoor meeting that approves a 1-2 month budget based on existing spending levels (operational budgets only) with the understanding that we will hold a second full meeting at a date to be determined when conditions permit.

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3 beth March 13, 2020 at 2:50 PM

I did find an interesting statement in a Wicked Local Article about Towns, including ours, trying to decide how to handle Town Meeting. An official from Shrewsbury claimed that convening Town Meeting wouldn’t be required to allow the budgets to be extended month-by-month in case of emergency.

The Article quoted “Shrewsbury Town Moderator Christopher Mehne, past president of the Massachusetts Moderators Association”:

Mehne said a separate state law provides for delayed approval of town budgets for fiscal 2021, which begins July 1. Approving the budget is one of the major responsibilities of Town Meeting. The statute permits a town to carry forward the current fiscal year’s budget one month at a time into the new fiscal year.

He also indicated that the Moderator can continue to add on additional 30 day delays.

You can read that here: https://southborough.wickedlocal.com/news/20200311/town-meetings-elections-may-be-postponed-as-virus-concerns-mount

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4 Frank Crowell March 13, 2020 at 3:11 PM

Al – I really like your idea with one modification: Let’s approve a budget that holds all operational expenditures to last years’ level for one year. We can call it the Wuhan Virus budget.

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5 Tom March 15, 2020 at 10:51 PM

While a fluid and increasingly serious situation, this country has an unprecedented and growing public health crisis on its hands. Today’s update from Italy was 400 deaths overnight, with no abatement to the contagion. New York, Boston, and many major cities and states have declared emergencies. Kudos to Ms. Braccio for her thoughtful questions and strong CEO action filled leadership, looking out for our seniors and their caregivers by default.
What a bizarre statement by town counsel. When is that contract up for review? It is time to end president for life positions and install some normalcy (term limits) and regularity in bidding out contractual services. This town’s legal needs has outgrown the current contract and it is absolutely long overdue time to move on. And that does not mean to default to the thin pool of bad, second rate hired gun, special counsel prospects. Time for a healthy and robust bidding process to professional firms who bring multiple layers of experience to the table and no preexisting good ole boy smarmy odor or inside track corruption. Time for change and professionalism. Thank you.

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6 beth March 16, 2020 at 7:39 AM

I feel the need to clarify, since the order in which I shared facts may have given a false impression.

At the point in which Town Counsel answered that question, there had already been concerns raised about what happens if the meeting gets postponed past the start of the fiscal year.

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7 Tom March 22, 2020 at 7:46 AM

There is no need to clarify and no false impression. Agree with others above that the statement from Town Counsel is bizarre and inappropriate. While an increasingly serious situation, this country has an unprecedented and growing public health crisis on its hands. The most recent update from Italy is 800 deaths overnight, double what it was just days ago, with no abatement to the contagion. Many states are now calling for residents to stay at home. Again, it is time to end president for life positions and install some normalcy (term limits) and regularity in bidding out contractual services. This town’s legal needs has outgrown the current contract and it is absolutely long overdue time to move on. That does not mean to default to the thin pool of bad, second rate hired gun, special counsel prospects. Time for a healthy and robust bidding process to professional firms who bring multiple layers of experience to the table and no preexisting good ole boy smarmy odor or inside track corruption. Not the first time this town counsel has worked against safety of residents: he is sitting next to and benefitting as a second lawyer to a developer on the most controversial, unsafe landlocked project in town. Check out on the Board of Overseers website who this town government has this town counsel sitting next to in court:
https://bbopublic.blob.core.windows.net/web/f/pr14-8.pdf
Time for change and professionalism. Thank you.

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