Who is a member?
Our members are the local governments of Massachusetts and their elected and appointed leadership.
The Honorable Ronald J. Mariano
Speaker of the House
The Honorable Karen E. Spilka
State House, Boston
Dear Speaker Mariano and President Spilka,
On behalf of cities and towns of the Commonwealth, the Massachusetts Municipal Association wishes to express its appreciation to you and your colleagues in the House and Senate for your vital partnership over the past 14 months, as state and local government have worked together to protect citizens from the deadly coronavirus and develop innovative solutions to sustain government decision-making and operations in extraordinary circumstances.
In a series of bills enacted immediately after the start of the state of emergency on March 10, 2020, the Legislature created special rules that enabled cities and towns to conduct business, hold elections, approve budgets and support residents and local economies during incredibly challenging times. The disciplined work by the state and cities and towns over the 14 months has paid off, and we now start a careful transition to more normal operations.
The planned end of the state of emergency on June 15 is welcome news for weary residents and businesses. At this critical juncture, as we transition to a “new normal” state, it will be important to retain many of the special rules enabled by the emergency declaration, as they have led to innovative approaches to governance and service delivery, and provided insight on ways to adapt and improve operations on a permanent basis. We very much appreciate the urgency that you have brought to the Legislature’s review of these special rules and practices, and your goal of ensuring a smooth transition out of the state of emergency, so that government at all levels can continue to serve and protect residents in the best manner possible. Local leaders share your sense of urgency and your desire to adopt permanent changes to best serve our residents and businesses.
Remote Participation by Public Bodies
The abrupt end of the state of emergency on June 15 will create a number of major transition challenges for government and businesses. The most immediate and urgent issue that must be addressed prior to June 15 is enactment of a permanent extension of the ability to conduct public meetings and hearings remotely.
On March 12, the Governor used his state-of-emergency powers to issue an executive order suspending certain provisions of section 20 of MGL Chapter 30A, allowing cities and towns to conduct meetings remotely. This was necessary because the existing state statute is woefully inadequate, does not allow remote participation in meetings unless a physical quorum is present, and reduces the ability of officials who are participating virtually to fully engage. Nearly overnight, cities and towns adopted new technology and software platforms and created a new and remarkably successful remote meeting experience for municipal leaders and the public. Remote meetings have engaged more residents than ever before and have significantly increased transparency and insight into government operations and decision-making. Communities do not want to snap back to the overly confining pre-pandemic rules, and many are not in a position to do so quickly. Many localities have closed public buildings, repurposed meeting rooms to provide safer distancing for municipal staff, or have longer-term ventilation concerns that have yet to be addressed. Further, with many residents yet to be vaccinated, and immuno-compromised officials and members of the public unable to achieve full protection from the coronavirus, it is imperative that we continue the remote meeting option for local government. With multiple councils, boards and commissions in place in each of our 351 cities and towns, there are well over 1,000 public entities that rely on remote meetings and virtual platforms to conduct everyday business in much greater public view than ever before.
For these reasons, we ask that the special rules allowing the option of remote meetings and remote public participation be made permanent, and that this action be expedited as a top legislative priority before the state of emergency ends to avoid disruption to local deliberations and decision-making.
Town Meetings, Elections and Voting
We are still compiling a full list of special rules and temporary statutes related to Town Meetings and elections that will need to continue going forward. Among these, we ask that the Legislature ensure that towns have a permanent option to conduct remote Town Meetings, and that this authority also be extended to Open Town Meeting communities. The technology supporting large remote meetings is improving every day, and the experience has been extremely successful locally, with overwhelming participation. We also support a permanent provision to ensure that candidates for municipal office during any future public health emergency can collect signatures electronically instead of physically gathering signatures, and ask that you permanently extend the rules governing voting by mail and other election innovations going forward. The Legislature provided outstanding leadership in enacting these provisions during the public health emergency, yet a number of these acts are set to expire by the end of June and need to be renewed.
Support for Local Economies
Our downtowns and main streets have been hit hard by the pandemic, and municipalities wish to continue to support their local businesses, including restaurants and other venues that are hoping to rebound this summer and fall. Many of these temporary options, including take-out alcoholic beverages, expedited permitting for outdoor service, and expanded licensing authority are slated to end on August 15 (60 days after the end of the state of emergency). However, cities and towns do not have sufficient time to amend their bylaws, ordinances, or licenses and permitting rules, due to the complexity of these issues locally and the long delay before fall town meetings in October and November. Further, without legislative relief, the ABCC will soon face a massive backlog of licensing requests that will be extraordinarily difficult to process on time. Without a legislative solution, we will see major disruption and economic harm to the businesses that have been sustained by these special rules and provisions.
We thank you for your leadership during the pandemic, and for your strong support for cities and towns. With the state of emergency scheduled to end in just a few weeks, it is imperative that the transition to our “new normal” is seamless. With your support, Massachusetts can act on the innovations and lessons learned during the past 14 months, and use them to improve government operations, transparency and public engagement, and continue essential business assistance programs to ensure a swifter recovery for our communities.
Thank you for your interest in these very important local government matters. If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to have your office contact me or MMA Senior Legislative Analyst Brittney Franklin at 617-426-7272 or firstname.lastname@example.org at any time.
Geoffrey C. Beckwith
MMA Executive Director & CEO