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.