Selectmen debated declaring Town State of Emergency, employee quarantine policy, and playground & field restrictions

by beth on March 21, 2020

Post image for Selectmen debated declaring Town State of Emergency, employee quarantine policy, and playground & field restrictions

Above: On Thursday, Selectmen held their first live streamed video conference debating issues related to the Town’s handling of the pandemic. (image cropped from video)

This week, Selectmen held a 90 minute video conference to go over Town issues related to Covid-19. Some of the topics spurred lengthy debates.

Interestingly, some of the resolutions made that night don’t seem consistent with info I shared from the Town’s update memo issued the next morning.

(Both the meeting and memo were prior to officials getting confirmation that a Southborough resident is infected.)

A couple of the items will be revisited in the board’s next video conference scheduled for Tuesday evening. One subject that the board could all agree upon was that selectmen (for now) will avoid putting on their agendas any items that would normally invite public comment and questions. The next agenda will again focus issues stemming from the pandemic.

Below are highlights from Thursday night’s virtual meeting.* 

Town fields and playgrounds

Yesterday, the Town issued notice that all playgrounds are closed and fields are open though not to be used by large gatherings. The measure wasn’t as far as Chair Brian Shea wanted to take it Thursday night, but further than it had been agreed upon. 

Shea pushed for closing playgrounds and limiting any use of Town fields. He raised concerns about the virus living on surfaces like climbing structures and even a baseball tossed back and forth. Selectman Dan Kolenda argued that was “crazy” and likened it to making the Town a “police state”. He said that parents need to take kids somewhere to play and get exercise at a playground. He asked, “what kind of police state do we want to institute tonight?”

Shea rebutted that he was talking about cautions on Town owned property, not dictating what people do in their yards. He pointed out that the playground advice, especially with plastic climbing structures, was a recommendation from their Public Health Nurse. 

Vice Chair Marty Healey suggested getting the Town’s health officials come up with a list of recommendations to share for Town fields and playgrounds. That seemed to be where the board agreed to leave things.

It appears that changed between the call and Friday morning’s memo.

Policy for Town committees/boards

Once again, the Town’s message on Friday imposed stricter restrictions on meetings than agreed upon by selectmen the night before. Shea opened the topic by explaining that the emergency conference call held last Sunday night was following the Governor’s declared State of Emergency. Given the impacts to Town employees who would be working Monday morning, the call couldn’t wait. In the future, he plans to abide by 48 hours public notice, best extent possible.

He also promised to stick to items that are related to the Covid-19 situation or critical/time sensitive. He will avoid putting items on the agenda that would normally invite public participation. Selectwoman Lisa Braccio agreed. She pointed out that even allowing advance questions or comments limits public input. It prevents people from asking follow up questions during the meeting based on what is said in the meeting. Selectmen agreed that if the situation continues, they may eventually need to cover other business. In the meantime, they will ask the IT Director to work on technology to help improve public participation.

Shea advised announcing guidance to Town committees to follow the same guidelines for agendas. Kolenda argued that it would send a message that Southborough is locked down. He was concerned that Planning and Zoning Board of Appeals would halt approvals on new requests. He said selectmen would seem to be obstructing business moving forward. 

After some debate, Kolenda agreed based on the understanding that it would advise boards not restrict them. It would be up to individual committees to decide whether or not to have meetings and what to put on agenda.

Friday morning’s external message announced that meetings would be limited to those that are “essential. Those were defined as:
1. Board of Selectmen
2. Board of Health
3. School Committee
4. Any permitting board that needs to meet in order to avoid a constructive approval on a project.

That section fell under the IT section of the memo. (Perhaps the decision to limit meetings for now is related to the Town’s personnel or technology capacity to conduct the “Zoom” conference calls.)

Policy for Town Employees

A Covid-19 policy drafted for Town employees included that those who fly should self-quarantine for 14 days before returning to the office. Kolenda was adamantly opposed, citing many other ways that people could be exposed but aren’t asked to quarantine. Shea, Healey, and Selectman Sam Stivers noted that they are under similar rules for their own workplaces.

Braccio told Kolenda that she had similar concerns to his but prioritized making sure “the people’s business gets done in the Town and that we do what it takes so that Town offices don’t shut down.”

Town Administrator Mark Purple clarified that employees who are unable to do their work from home during the self-quarantine period can use extra vacation time. If that runs out they can use sick leave. (He told the board that he believed 98% had more than they could possibly use.)

Kolenda debated with the others for a while. Seeing no change in sentiment, and believing that their votes should be unanimous, he voted to approve the policy. Purple told the board that the employees would appreciate it.

Will Southborough declare its own state of emergency?

The board was asked to approve a Town “Declaration of Emergency”.

The document was prepared and recommended by Town Counsel Aldo Cipriano. Thursday night, Purple explained that Cipriano was initially hesitant but later determined there was no downside. Purple noted that it had been done in 2012 following a microburst. 

Selectmen asked what it does beyond operating under Massachusetts’ declared “State of Emergency”. Purple referred to it as having a belt and suspenders. He followed that it compiles in one document all of the Mass Gen Laws that they are exercising. Braccio liked that it makes clear all of the things they are and aren’t allowed to do and the statutes that they are operating under. Stivers opined that it could put them on higher ground if they need to take unusual actions.

Healey was concerned about opening “a box” in giving th board or Town department heads authority without knowing exactly what it is. Purple didn’t think it conveyed additional authorities but wasn’t certain. Healey advised that if they weren’t looking for extra authority, they should state that in the document. Kolenda was wary of adding that kind of language beyond what was written by Town Counsel.

After some debate, the board agreed to hold off and have Healey follow up directly with Cipriano. He’ll report back at the March 24th meeting.

Town operating on rotating/skeletal crews in office

Many Town employees are currently working from home. On Monday morning, Purple held an 8:30 am all staff meeting to go over the situation. It was held outside, in front of the Town House. Shea and Public Health Nurse Leslie Chamberlin also attended.

Purple told selectmen that to keep employees safe, they are rotating employees working in offices, with most working from home. They have been keeping at least one staff member in each office. If a future shelter in place order changes that, phones can be forwarded to home computers. 

Purple noted that aside from he and Assistant Town Manager Vanessa Hale, many employees were finding the quiet/at home time very productive.

Selectmen asked about firefighters who reside on premises during their shifts. Purple answered that the new quarters offer them more room than the old building where they were crowded on top of each other. Measures taken to improve safety include the closing of the exercise room, reducing the number of responders who enter a building during an emergency call, and (under loosening of state requirements) fewer responders in an ambulance at a time.

At Healey’s request, Purple will try to add Chiefs from Fire, Police and/or Public Works to the next video conference to give updates on their departments.

Later in the meeting, Asst. TA Vanessa Hale told the board that the Town currently has two Public Health Nurses helping with the situation. Chamberlin is leaving with a replacement hired who was set to begin in April. The new nurse volunteered to start early and has been working with Chamberlin.

Town election

Shea read a statement issued by Mass Senate President Karen Spilka. She promised that the state senate would work on allowing Towns to push back their elections. The topic is scheduled for Monday. With that in mind, the board opted to wait until they see what the state does before taking any actions related to Southborough’s election. (The deadline to pull papers was last night with a filing deadline this Monday.)

Prior to that item, Braccio and Kolenda recused themselves and signed out of the video conference. Braccio has filed papers to run for re-election. Kolenda’s term expires in May but he had yet to pull papers as of that night. Before signing off he indicated that he might. (He did not on Friday. So, at this point he won’t be on the ballot. But if new rules are enacted allowing the Town to extend the deadlines for pulling and filing papers, that could change.)

*(Note: These aren’t in the order that discussions took place.)

 

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1 conjecture! March 21, 2020 at 12:41 PM

From above:

“Braccio has filed papers to run for re-election. Kolenda’s term expires in May but he
had yet to pull papers as of that night. Before signing off he indicated that he might.
(He did not on Friday. So, at this point he won’t be on the ballot. But if new rules are
enacted allowing the Town to extend the deadlines for pulling and filing papers, that
could change.)”

The proposed legislation before the MA legislature is to: “extend town elections”. Recall that an “election” is defined:

A formal group decision-making process by which a population chooses an individual to
hold public office.

There have been no statements made about any “new rules” related to pulling and/or filing papers!

Please do not originate rumor.

Please correct the wording of the article.

Reply

2 beth March 23, 2020 at 7:12 AM

My point was simply to state that I don’t know what the state will do. I don’t understand what harm you think the statement caused.

Reply

3 conjecture! March 21, 2020 at 5:17 PM

The wording is still conjecture. Where are the facts backing such a statement? They are nonexistent. Check the dictionary meaning for conjecture. I did. That’s why I specifically chose that word.

“But if new rules are enacted allowing the Town to extend the deadlines for pulling and
filing papers, that could change.”

There has been NO DISCUSSION at the state legislative level around pulling and filing papers for local elections. You’re making this up!

The only discussion to date has been about the elections, that is, and by definition of the word:

“a formal and organized choice by vote of a person for a political office or other
position”

“the action of electing or of being elected.”

Pulling papers, obtaining signatures and filing those papers, in order to get one’s name on
a ballot, is a prelude to participating in an election as a candidate and/or being elected. It is not the election, which is recognized as the action of voting.

Please omit your statement of fiction.

Reply

4 beth March 23, 2020 at 7:26 AM

My understanding is that the deadlines for pulling and filing papers are based on rules around a number of days prior to the election. Therefore it is not pure conjecture to think that if the election date is moved, those dates may also move.

Reply

5 Kelly Roney March 24, 2020 at 1:10 PM

This is all moving rapidly, with constant changes. I read in Carolyn Dykema’s daily coronavirus update for today:

“The Massachusetts Legislature passed S.2608 today, which empowers cities and towns to postpone municipal caucuses and elections scheduled between now and May 30 to a date no later than June 30. It also provides for increased notification, registration, and absentee/mail-in voting. Read the bill [at https://malegislature.gov/bills/191/s2608.%5D

If my link works, you can see that the bill passed both houses with an emergency preamble and was signed by Gov. Baker, which means it takes effect immediately. The new law is silent on nominating petitions, but that could be because the law about that is already stated as a number of days before the election – I’m not sure.

BTW, to sign up for Carolyn’s email if you’d like, go to https://lp.constantcontactpages.com/su/Avqo4OV/covid19.

Reply

6 Kelly Roney March 24, 2020 at 1:19 PM

I’m not an attorney, so I’m not certain this is the applicable law, but I found the following, which could answer the question about nominating petition deadlines: https://malegislature.gov/Laws/GeneralLaws/PartI/TitleVIII/Chapter53/Section7

“Every nomination paper of a candidate for a city or town office shall be submitted to the registrars of the city or town where the signers appear to be voters on or before five o’clock post meridian of the fourteenth day preceding the day on which it must be filed with the city or town clerk.”

Reply

7 beth March 24, 2020 at 2:19 PM

It is the timeline of deadlines being a certain number of days that led me to believe that the dates could change. But those days all hinge on the deadline for the Town to file with the Secretary of State. And as of last week, it seems that he may not be moving his deadlines. I checked in with Town Clerk Jim Hegarty to see if he knew what would happen to deadlines if the Town chooses to move the election (which it may not choose to do.) He responded:

The Secretary of State confirmed for me last week that even if a town chooses to delay an election scheduled between May 1 and May 30, the deadlines for nomination paper submissions will not change. So no matter what decision is made re the currently scheduled May 12 Annual Town Election, the deadline to submit nomination papers remains tomorrow at 5:00pm.

Meanwhile, I’m told that (as of yesterday) one seat is likely to be vacant. The only candidate to pull papers for one committee told Hegarty that he was unable to collect the 50 signatures. But, I’m waiting until to tomorrow to post those details in case it changes before the 5:00 pm deadline.

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8 Tom March 22, 2020 at 7:55 AM

This is an unprecedented, dangerous, and rapidly changing public health crisis. The health and safety of town residents, particularly older residents, should be paramount in all decisions. Thank you to Ms. Braccio for her CEO type leadership and inquiries on how to put the safety of seniors in focus. Thank you.

Reply

9 Mike March 22, 2020 at 12:47 PM

Does anybody know what was going on in the SouthWood Dr., ParkerVille Road neighborhood last night? There were police all over the neighborhood for a couple of hours with the blue lights on and their search lights etc.

Reply

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