Last night, the Board of Selectmen discussed challenges they believed made scheduling a Special Town Meeting this fall unfeasible. They heard about logistical challenges. They discussed issues related to safety, cost, resources, and full public participation. Members agreed, as did the Town Moderator, not to attempt it.
Moderator Paul Cimino acknowledged that if voters want to petition, they could force the Town to schedule one. He said if/when that occurs, they would take it up. In the meantime, as Selectman Sam Stivers summed up, the board was “hard pressed to see any path through these challenges”.
Resources, Timing, and Costs
Among the biggest constraints for scheduling a meeting were resources of the Town Clerk’s office. The department responsible for meeting operations is the same one burdened by the extra election demands this fall.
Town Clerk Jim Hegarty described the election situation, “To say it’s been a disaster from state’s perspective is understatement”. He said the state tremendously underestimated the associated cost of labor. He also griped about lack of direction and confusion from the Secretary of State’s office.
The middle two weeks of October, the Clerk is required to run in-person early voting 7 days per week. Hegarty noted that his staff is already working 7 days per week. He said that they’ve managed to keep afloat thanks to bringing in college and high school student workers. The personnel have sometimes been working under a tent outside the Town House. He also credited the Southborough Post Office for their “spectacular assistance”.
At the start of October, Hegarty expects his office to be “inundated” with mail-in ballots for the November 3rd election. Currently, the Town is dealing with about 30% of voters applying for mail-in ballots for the upcoming primary. The projection is that the Presidential Election will be double that.
As for holding a Town Meeting between the primary and October, Hegarty is scheduled for vacation from September 14-27. He called it a long standing plan, and emphasized it was his first vacation in 18 months. (He also quipped that cancelling it would lead to a divorce.)
Issues with Potential Dates
The Town Clerk was willing to hold a meeting the first two weeks of September. Selectman Lisa Braccio noted that would be a very short turn around for voters. She worried it wouldn’t allow voters to have full participation in discussions around Articles. (Participation was a repeated concern by the board. So, more on that later.)
So, what about holding a meeting after the November election?
Hegarty could do it. But that brings another set of challenges around logistics and safety.
If an outdoor meeting is postponed a full weekend due to inclement weather, Hegarty said the costs of the meeting increase. The contractors would have to take down and put back up audio equipment. That would bring the projected outdoor cost of the meeting from about $14K to $18-20K. Tenting the area that was taken up by Annual Town Meeting this summer would cost $25K.
If the meeting is held indoors. . . Well, no one was sure it could safely be held indoors this fall.
Safety Concerns for Indoor Meetings
The Board of Health and the Fire Chief are both more comfortable with an outdoor meeting. If one was to be held indoors, they would want to be involved in those logistics. Between the lines was the possibility that infection rates could increase this fall, making an indoor meeting even less feasible.
If numbers don’t rise, schools could still be holding in-person classes in November. In that case, the schools may not allow the Town to use Trottier Middle School for the meeting. Based on distancing requirements, they would likely need to use the auditorium, gym, and some classrooms. Setting up the equipment would need to begin days before the meeting to allow remotely stationed voters in other rooms to participate.
Full Access and Participation
Selectman Brian Shea reminded that the original delay for Articles was based on a decision to wait until voters could fully, safely participate in meetings.
According to Healey, the importance of participation led the Planning Board to vote against bringing any of their zoning Articles to a special Town Meeting this fall. They plan to hold them for Annual Town Meeting
Not clearly specified, but alluded to last night, was the number of public forums that proponents of important/controversial Articles normally hold leading up to the big Town Meetings. There are generally presentations followed by Q&As. Sometimes issues raised in the Q&As lead to new talking points in Town Meeting presentations or even amendments to Article details. At this point, public participation in meetings is only over zoom.
Also alluded to was avoiding residents to feel pressured to compromise their safety in order to vote.
The Articles postponed from last Annual Town Meeting were to be tabled to the next Town Meeting. If a Special isn’t scheduled, they will be put on the Warrant for Annual Town Meeting. That should take place in March. But, Selectman Chelsea Malinowski expressed worry that an indoor Annual Town Meeting may still not be feasible in March.
Prior to last night, Town Administrator Mark Purple reached out to Article petitioners to find out if they would be upset by another delay. Citizen Petitioner Peter Lapine responded that he believed a Special Town Meeting should be held, focusing exclusively on the Articles postponed from this spring. (The sponsor of the other petition Article on plastic straws didn’t respond.)
During last night’s meeting, Healey addressed a comment to Citizen Petitioners. He wanted him to understand that the decision wasn’t “dissing” the Articles or their work getting them on the Warrant. He reminded that Lapine had written about the main issues for his Noise Bylaw are related to summer months. The Chair pointed out that voting on it in the spring should be sufficient for that.
Earlier in the meeting, the Capital Committee Chair discussed other Articles that the board may have wanted to include on the Warrant if a Special Town Meeting was held. Those too will have to wait for the spring.