BOS Update: Conditional Hiring Freeze, Allowing non-essential committee meetings, and more

by beth on April 8, 2020

Last night the Board of Selectmen held another virtual meeting. The two big decisions made were freezing Town hiring and opening up the ability for more Town committees to hold public meetings. The board also heard from the Town’s representatives in state congress, voted in a new ZBA alternate, and got an update on plans to further postpone Annual Town Meeting.

Here are the highlights.

Town Committees will be allowed to conduct regular (virtual) meetings and hearings

Selectwoman Lisa Braccio asked to readdress the policy on allowing virtual meetings. Previously, the board asked other committees and boards to limit their meeting to topics related to Covid-19 or that were time sensitive. What items were time sensitive were left to committees’ discretion.

After agendas were posted this week, Braccio received questions about what was being allowed. She noted that selectmen had been keeping their own agendas focused.

Braccio’s main concern about opening meetings up wider was the overburdening of IT Director Tom LaFlamme.

LaFlamme has been the sole Town employee facilitating the meetings that are live streamed and saved to YouTube for the public. That will change as he trains other employees later this week.

Town Administrator Mark Purple believed that they could start allowing more committee meetings next week. Chair Brian Shea was supportive of moving forward given the belief that public gatherings will be limited for quite a while. As long as committees followed the procedures outlined by LaFlamme he believed more meetings would be fine.

The board agreed but did voice some concerns.

Selectman Sam Stivers asked if a permitting board approval could be appealed based on a resident’s inability to object during public hearings due to lack of computer access. Town Counsel Aldo Cipriano opined that the courts would look unfavorably on limited ability for public participation.

Vice Chair Marty Healey responded that given messages from the courts, he believed that they would give “incredible latitude” to boards as long as they acted in good faith. To that end, Healey suggested agendas should include a message about how residents can contact the Town if they don’t have access to participate in meetings remotely. The Town could then work on how to accommodate that.

Healey also urged that if there is an item that is particularly important to have public input on, and there isn’t real urgency, that it should be postponed until in-person meetings can be held.

Stivers noted that since meetings are virtual for now, committees should improve efforts to post material packets in advance for the public. 

There was also discussion about how meetings should be booked given that the Town has only two licenses. Most committees tend to target the same times for holding meetings. And it seems that only “one room” allows for meeting with public participation. Braccio recommended that boards be encouraged to use that room if available and allow public comment.

Hiring Freeze

Selectmen approved a freeze on filling vacant positions in Town departments this fiscal year. The board will allow department heads to make their cases for an exception. Healey indicated that convincing them would be tough. 

The plan was requested by Purple. He told the board that he believed the freeze would carry more weight coming from them than him. He followed that the decision on whether an exception was warranted would be more fairly decided by the five board members than him alone.

Purple noted that while state legislators were working to reduce financial impacts of Covid-19 on the Town, the results are still uncertain.

The freeze appeared to be just for FY20. But Town Meeting has yet to vote on budgets for FY21, and the Town has yet to post a final budget.

No mention of a revised budget was made this week. But last week, Purple indicated that he recommended reconsidering some of the board’s previous budget decisions based on the new economic situation. One possibility was eliminating or reducing new positions and hours that selectmen had approved for FY21. He targeted April 21st as a possible date for Treasurer Brian Ballantine to join the meeting for that discussion.

Annual Town Meeting Update

Annual Town Meeting had been postponed to April 16th. With Governor’s orders against public gatherings still in effect through May 4th, that’s not going to happen. 

Currently, the Town Moderator is only able to postpone ATM 30 days at a time. Last night, Moderator Paul Cimino said he was considering the week of May 11th – 16th. He didn’t have a preference for weeknight or that Saturday.

Before making a decision, Cimino planned to consult with public safety and public health. Based on feedback from Town Counsel that the new date should specify location, Cimino said that he would have to think longer on a decision.

Shea opined that it would be a long time before we could hold the model of Town Meeting we are used to seeing. He suggested an outdoor meeting. Cimino was against outdoors based on potential for inclement weather. He hopes to be able to have voters spread out at Trottier. Both agreed that a streamlined meeting focused on essential Articles would be preferred.

Cimino is considering using the consent agenda method to recommend non-essential articles be postponed to the Special Town Meeting planned for fall. But he noted that the power to decide what is postponed and what is discussed and voted on lies with Town Meeting voters.

Other

The meeting started with updates by State Senator Jamie Eldridge and Representative Carolyn Dykema on state legislature efforts to support Municipalities, residents, and business owners. You can view that here

Following that, the board interviewed then approved Jamie Mieth for the vacant position of alternate on the Zoning Board of Appeals.

Purple shared that the federal government passed an expanded Family Medical Leave Act allowing employees to deal with child care issues. Towns are allowed to exempt public safety personnel in order to ensure proper staffing levels. The board agreed to allow public safety to be covered by the act. If there is a negative impact on staffing, then they will consider exempting them. (If that happened, they would need to allow the unions to negotiate.)

The TA will work on updating the Town’s policy to codify a process for how quarantined employees are returned to work.

Future meetings

The board agreed that unless something came up, they would wait until April 21st to meet again. It appears something did come up. An agenda was posted this morning for the board to meet at 11:00 am this Friday, April 10th.

Expect that to be a quick one. The only specific item on that agenda is: “Extension of May 1 due date for RE and PP taxes; waiver of interest to June 30”. (Though, the general items of “Update on impact of Covid-19” and other business would allow for more topics to come up.)

{ 8 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Town Moderator April 8, 2020 at 10:03 PM

To the Readers of mysouthborough.com and all Town Voters:

Please allow me to clarify and expand on the conduct of our Annual Town Meeting (ATM) for 2020, including current thinking regarding timing. As always, I am happy to hear from any of you, and I continually monitor the ‘moderator@southboroughma.com’ mailbox.

First, regarding the scheduling of ATM this year —

Needless to say, the challenges presented by COVID-19 are unprecedented. In that context, in the past several weeks the Massachusetts General Court (the State legislature) has enacted new provisions to accommodate the scheduling of ATM based on the current Emergency Declaration announced by the Baker administration, which prohibits the gathering of large groups. At present, the Emergency Declaration is in effect until May 4 (although we should expect that it will be extended again for some further period of time). As such, we know that the currently-scheduled ATM date of April 16 will change.
Here are the rescheduling parameters provided by the recent legislation: for so long as the Emergency Declaration remains in effect, the Moderator may reschedule ATM a maximum of 30 days into the future from the current scheduled date, following consultation with the Selectmen and Public Health/Safety officials. Then, each time the new ATM date approaches with no change in the public health/safety situation, the new ATM date may be rescheduled again, up to 30 more days out. This process continues until the Emergency Declaration is cancelled, at which time ATM must be held within 30 days of that cancellation date (and note that if the Emergency Declaration continues over into June for any reason, ATM may be held some time after June 30, which is not normally allowed, but which the new legislation permits).
In the next few days, after consulting with the required folks, I will announce the postponement and rescheduling of the current April 16 date for ATM. Based on the legal parameters described above, the new ATM date will be after May 4 but before May 16. Furthermore, as a practical matter, I must select a new date based on the availability of an appropriate meeting space as well as the Town Clerk (who is legally required to attend ATM and record the votes, etc.). I currently anticipate that the new date for ATM will be during the week of May 11-15. Thereafter, if the current Emergency Declaration is extended past May 4 as I expect, I will revisit the new date as necessary.

Second, regarding the conduct of ATM this year —

Given the likely uncertainty surrounding the “new normal” even after the Emergency Declaration has been lifted, some have suggested to me that we try to keep this year’s ATM as limited as possible so that voters can deal with our Town’s critical business (budget, etc.), and leave the non-critical items for a Special Town Meeting (STM) in the Fall. Of course, what is/is not “critical” is in the eye of the beholder. In addition, the law requires that all Articles contained in the Warrant be resolved at ATM in one manner or other. No Article may simply be skipped over. Therefore, as I discussed with the Board of Selectmen at their April 7 meeting, there are TWO distinct ways to help accomplish this, each of which is fully controlled by the ATM voters.
The first way is to use the “consent agenda” process in our By-Law (successfully introduced at ATM last year) to pass a “consent” group of Warrant Articles with one single vote. Note that this is a process we would use at ATM regardless of any special circumstances this year. As many of you may recall, the group of “consent” Articles is proposed by the Moderator at the beginning of ATM, and each Article is eligible to be removed from the group by any voter objection. After the remaining “consent” Articles are then voted, these are deemed PASSED and take effect accordingly.
The second way that willing voters can shorten ATM is to “indefinitely postpone” one or more Articles that they do not wish to take up. Again, indefinitely postponing any Article requires a Motion and affirmative vote. This is distinct from the consent agenda, because any Article indefinitely postponed is not acted upon its merits, and is not considered passed, but rather is simply put over to some future possible time (for example, Fall STM). At my suggestion, I anticipate that the Board of Selectmen will publicize a list of Articles they believe appropriately fit in this category, and do so in advance of ATM. Then, at ATM the voters may agree to indefinitely postpone some or all of these Articles.
Thus, the possible end result of this two-pronged approach is that a good chunk of the Warrant will be passed by consent, and another good chunk will be indefinitely postponed to be taken up at Fall STM. Then, only “critical” Articles will remain for ATM this year.

Yes, that’s quite a lot to digest. Again, please do not hesitate to reach me at ‘moderator@southboroughma.com’ with any questions or concerns. Thank you for your interest and participation in the governance of our Town … I look forward to our upcoming ATM with special anticipation, because it will mean that we are past the worst of these difficult times.

Best regards,
Paul Cimino
Town Moderator

Reply

2 ATTENTION April 9, 2020 at 10:41 AM

Clearly stated below is the fact that to call a Special Town Meeting, as the Southborough BOS has previously declared, is governed by the following, as stated in Massachusetts General Law, Part 1, Title VII, Chapter 39, Section 10:

“The selectmen shall call a special town meeting upon request in writing, of two hundred registered voters or of twenty per cent of the total number of registered voters of the town, whichever number is the lesser; such meeting to be held not later than forty-five days after the receipt of such request, and shall insert in the warrant therefor all subjects the insertion of which shall be requested by said petition.”

Would someone like to explain:

1. Which 200 or 20% of the total number registered Southborough voters requested a
Special Town Meeting in writing?

2. When the request was made? Provide proof of the request along with the signatures.

Reply

3 beth April 9, 2020 at 11:18 AM

I believe that the language you are referring to is the law requiring that selectmen call an STM if compelled by voters (even if they don’t want it). I don’t believe that is the standard that must be met to allow selectmen to inititiate an STM at their desire. But I will look further into that.

Reply

4 beth April 9, 2020 at 11:54 AM

Under that same section of MGL:

Every Town Meeting or town election, except as hereinafter provided, shall be called in pursuance of a warrant, under the hands of the selectmen, notice of which shall be given at least seven days before the annual meeting or an annual or special election and at least fourteen days before any special Town Meeting.

On the Citizen’s Guide page of the Secretary of State, under “What are Selectmen”:

Selectmen are authorized to call a Town Meeting provided that they have posted a warrant.

Reply

5 ATTENTION April 9, 2020 at 3:21 PM

The passage beth cites above is the opening sentence of the Massachusetts General Law, Part 1, Title VII, Chapter 39, Section 10 and is addressing Town Meeting, in general.

In your quote, you will see that it states, “except as hereinafter provided”, to refer to “exceptions provided for”, of which a Special Town Meeting is one example. That is why it has its own discussion within the same Section.

Reply

6 beth April 9, 2020 at 4:20 PM

I believe you are misreading what that means. The sentence includes their ability to call a special meeting. Exceptions allow a moderator to halt the meeting if voters are being excluded and allow voters to compel a special meeting. That doesn’t negate the first sentence.

I’m not an MGL expert, but as I already shared, the Secretary of state posts that selectmen are allowed to call a Town Meeting, that’s not restricted to annual. If you believe I’m wrong, you can email the moderator and/or the Secretary of State’s office for clarity.

Reply

7 Kelly Roney April 13, 2020 at 1:17 PM

Chapter 39, Section 9 (https://malegislature.gov/Laws/GeneralLaws/PartI/TitleVII/Chapter39/Section9) is the law that permits the Board of Selectmen to call town meetings:

The annual meeting of each town shall be held in February, March, April, May or June; and other meetings may be held at such times as the selectmen may order or the charter or by-law prescribe.

Section 10 (https://malegislature.gov/Laws/GeneralLaws/PartI/TitleVII/Chapter39/Section10) requires the select board to call a special town meeting in response to a qualifying citizen’s petition, but it by no means restricts the board from calling a special simply because it decides to.

The selectmen shall call a special town meeting upon request in writing, of two hundred registered voters or of twenty per cent of the total number of registered voters of the town, whichever number is the lesser.

Something that’s been done in towns all over Massachusetts and specifically in Southborough for decades or even centuries is extremely unlikely to have been illegal and unnoticed for all that time.

Reply

8 Saturday April 9, 2020 at 3:28 PM

I’m glad to see Moderator Cimino has no preference for weeknight or Saturday Annual Town Meeting sessions.

Based on the 2019 ATM, the overwhelming majority of people I have spoken with since were strongly in favor of the new approach – having the Annual Town Meeting held on a Saturday afternoon. Everyone agreed it allowed many more people to attend, including many new faces.

Isn’t that exactly what a Town Meeting is for – to get as many of the residents as possible to attend, and provide THEIR input for THEIR Town?

Let your Board of Selectmen members, Town Administrator and Town Moderator know you want a SATURDAY Town Meeting.

Reply

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