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MIDDLESEX - Municipal leaders from a number of area communities say the COVID-19 crisis threatens one of New England’s most cherished and time-honored institutions: Town Meeting assemblies.

Most communities across the state have already delayed the annual meetings at least once due to the pandemic.  Meanwhile, area leaders are also slimming down meeting agendas by pushing off all but the most pressing business — such as passing a budget — until the summer or fall.  

Should Town Meeting not be able to okay annual operating budgets by July 1, the town’s executive Select Board or Town Council has been granted emergency powers to pass a 1/12th budget — in which impacted communities will be able to mirror monthly spending trends from the year prior.

“Burlington is in good shape in that we have sufficient reserves to get through the fiscal year.  So if we can’t get to Town Meeting, it won’t be the end of the world,” said Burlington Town Moderator Bill Beyer.  “But I do want to get that business done. It’s important.” 

Considered by many as the nation’s purest and most-direct form of governance, town meetings are held annually by hundreds of communities across the state, including every municipality but Woburn within The Middlesex East’s coverage area.

Each spring, registered voters or elected town meeting representatives descend upon their respective Town Hall auditoriums or similar public gathering spaces to conduct some of their community’s most-urgent legislative functions, including the approval of proposed annual operating budgets and other financial transactions.  

Town Meeting assemblies are also charged with sanctioning new zoning regulations, appropriating funding for capital repairs and public building projects, adopting new bylaws, and authorizing long-term leases of municipal assets.

Pre-dating the founding of the country, the regular gatherings — renowned throughout history for sometimes devolving into cantankerous and boisterous affairs — have been conducted across the New England region without a hitch since America’s Colonial Era.  

But with the coming of the COVID-19 crisis last winter, government officials for the first time in modern history found themselves unable to convene the gatherings.

“I’m not going to put anyone in harm’s way, including myself, until Governor [Charles] Baker gives us a clear message [that it’s safe to meet again in large groups],” explained Stoneham Town Moderator Jeanne Craigie, referring to an executive order issued in April that forbids public gatherings of more than 10 people.  

“With extreme difficulty,” subsequently quipped Beyer, when asked in a separate interview how his community is planning for the annual legislative session.  “Our plans are hanging on whether it will be allowed. Right now, it’s a gathering of 126 people. So I don’t know if it’s possible.”

In recent weeks, a number of Massachusetts’ moderators have been meeting regularly to consider how to handle required Town Meetings in a safe manner.  Already, some communities, such as Lexington and Arlington, have come up with innovative solutions, such as potentially holding the large gatherings outdoors.  

According to Reading Town Moderator Alan Foulds, who currently sits on the board of directors for the Mass. Moderators Association, he also pitched an outdoor setting for Town Meeting in his hometown.  However, after facing questions about potential weather and pest issues, Foulds and other Reading officials are now pushing for a hybrid meeting model that involves a physical meeting in Reading’s High School and the use of a video-conferencing service like Zoom.

However, the challenges to that approach are two-fold.  

First, explained Foulds, though legislative bodies like Town Meeting are technically exempt from the governor’s large public gathering prohibitions, local officials like Craigie and Beyer are rightly concerned about ensuring the safety of citizens or representative assembly members.  

To ensure the COVID-19 contagion isn’t spread during the future public gathering, Reading Superintendent John Doherty recently mapped out seating for each of Reading’s 192 elected Town Meeting members, who reportedly should be able to sit at least 12-to-15 feet apart from one another.

However, in trying to resolve those potential public safety concerns by switching to alternative settings like “virtual” settings, local officials have realized that state law forbids remote voting.

“We’ve already delayed the meeting until June 15.  We’re considering a hybrid meeting.  It would be through Zoom, but also by having the high-school gymnasium spaced out between each seat,” said Foulds.  “[But proposed legislation to allow remote voting] hasn’t passed in the state House yet, so we can’t do it.”  

“It’s still up in the air, and I’m sure Open Town meeting is the last thing on the governor’s and legislature’s plates right now,” later said Craigie.     

A balancing act

According to Craigie and Beyer, both relatively new to their moderator positions, they have like many other community officials mulled the possibility of holding a remote or internet-based meeting.  

However, both town moderators are extremely wary of that approach, because the format could potentially disenfranchise those without access to a computer or the technological know-how to handle the required meeting software.  

“How can you do that?” Craigie asked rhetorically.  “You could end up denying someone their rights if they don’t have a computer.”

Given Town Meeting’s almost sacred reputation as the country’s purest form of democracy, Foulds admitted he too struggled with the concept of switching to a virtual format.  In fact, the veteran Reading official was so concerned about the issue that he asked a local historian to look at records from the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic to see how the community handled Town Meeting.  

The end result of that research didn’t provide the guidance he sought.  Specifically, though like today state officials responded to the Spanish Flu outbreak by cancelling schools and ordering churches to halt services, by the time Reading’s Annual Town Meeting was held, those emergency orders had been lifted.    

Ultimately erring on the side of caution, Foulds and other local officials ultimately determined that a full-blown reliance on technology would betray the community’s rich Town Meeting history.  

“Everybody is trying to do this as safely as possible. You don’t want somebody to say, ‘I [feel like I’ll] risk my life to go Town Meeting’.  But you also have to conduct it like a real Town Meeting,” said the Reading moderator of that balancing act.  

In Burlington, Beyer and town officials are now similarly exploring a modified hybrid meeting option, where Town Meeting members will meet in a physical location, but be spaced a safe distance away from one another.  A second component would potentially involve the use of a video-conferencing service for those at Burlington’s High School, but that remote setting would be utilized solely by those presenting each Town Meeting initiative to be debated.

“It’s the most difficult time putting together a Town Meeting that we’ve ever had.  It’s really unprecedented,” said the Burlington moderator.  “But it looks like we can fit every Town Meeting member [into the public space] with at least six-feet of spacing between them.”

According to Craigie, Stoneham also believes it has enough room within the community’s high school gymnasium to space Town Meeting participants a safe distance apart.  She is also considering the use of special disposable microphone caps, which would be handed out to ensure individuals can address the assembly without contaminating the equipment for future speakers.    

However, unlike Burlington and Reading, which have representative assembly formats, Stoneham’s Open Town Meeting — which allows all of the town’s 22,000 registered voters to participate in the assembly — poses unique planning challenges.  

“What we’ve been talking about with the Select Board and town administrator is using the high school with social distancing in the bleachers.  We would use all three entrances by dividing them by precincts and our [staff checking in registered voters] would be non-compromised people,” Craigie explained.  “We’ve even talked about municipal boards sending just one representative, so there’s more space for everyday voters.”

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