Moderator clarifies Annual Town Meeting plans: Date TBD and hope for streamlined spring Warrant

Town Moderator Paul Cimino posted a comment directed to readers and voters, clarifying his plans for handling Annual Town Meeting.

ATM was scheduled to start on March 28th, but postponed to April 16th. Since large gatherings won’t be allowed until at least May 4th, the meeting will need to be moved again. 

As I noted yesterday, the Moderator is only allowed to move the date by 30 days at a time. (Cimino explains that process in his comment further down.)

Officials are concerned that even after the Governor’s order is lifted, many voters still may be uncomfortable attending a large meeting that normally lasts many hours. To increase safety, Cimino hopes to streamline the meeting through use of a consent agenda. (That process is explained below.)

As Cimino pointed out to selectmen on Tuesday, whether or not that streamlining works is up to ATM voters.

Based on past comments, some readers will believe its past time to launch remote voting.

That was raised by Selectman Dan Kolenda on Tuesday night. He wondered if there were or will be options to hold a virtual Town Meeting or vote by mail. Town Counsel Aldo Cipriano said that nothing passed by the state or on the horizon would change the format of traditional Town Meeting. 

Vice Chair Marty Healy said he was surprised by what state legislation didn’t allow. (It allowed for postponing beyond June 30th if the state of emergency continues into June. It didn’t loosen requirements for in-person voting or allow longer delays than 30 days at a time.) Healey opined that between the lines, there was a fear about traditional Town Meetings withering away. He said that changing the rules during the pandemic could be seen as the first step in that.

Here is Cimino’s comment (submitted last night and posted this morning):

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

I know that some readers are still concerned about what the budget is that voters will be asked to pass at ATM. As I wrote yesterday, that is still up in the air. The version of the Budget that was originally headed to ATM has yet to be posted. Last week, Town Administrator Mark Purple recommended that selectmen reconsider some of their decisions given the new economic climate. That discussion is slated for their April 21st virtual meeting.

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