A drone captured Arlington’s outdoor town meeting.

Though the Commonwealth’s founders couldn’t have imagined such proceedings, local leaders have displayed creativity and resilience in making democracy work over the past several months, both on the town meeting floor and at the polls.

In response to the COVID-19 emergency, the state gave communities greater flexibility in scheduling and holding elections and town meetings, particularly in terms of quorums and formats for town meetings and mail-in and rescheduling options for elections. Municipalities have responded with solutions that encouraged public participation while keeping people safe.

For town meetings, the New England democratic institution has managed to endure in the face of adversity, on football fields and under tents, across parking lots and in cyberspace.

Chatham was among the towns that moved Town Meeting outdoors, to the Chatham Anglers baseball field on June 22. Town leaders hoped that countless hours of planning would hold up against weather, environmental distractions, and the public’s learning curve in navigating pandemic-era meetings.

“I changed the location, but I didn’t change the time,” said Chatham Town Manager Jill Goldsmith. “And so 6 p.m., in June, on Cape Cod – you just never know what to expect. We really lucked out. Everything worked in our favor.”

Officials didn’t know whether the circumstances would depress turnout, or if the novelty of a ballfield meeting would attract more people. With a meeting quorum of 100, they planned for 500, just in case, and ultimately drew more than 200 for the 40-minute meeting. Like other communities, the town had pared down its warrant to streamline the proceedings.

About 20 people participated in the planning and the safety precautions, which included a parking and drop-off plan, and the cleaning of seats and microphones. The town’s public relations push included public service announcements online and on cable, and written materials on the website. During the event, employees from numerous departments – including public works, fire and police – helped manage logistics.

Many communities had smaller meeting turnouts this year because of coronavirus concerns, and many had reduced their quorum requirements accordingly. State limits on gatherings exempted municipal legislative bodies – town meetings and city councils – though they still had to ensure 6 foot-distances between participants, and encourage face coverings. Even with these constraints, many local leaders said they were pleased with their turnouts.

A different look
Local officials have been sending the MMA photos and describing their unique town meeting locations and strategies. The town of Arlington, for instance, shared drone images of its Town Meeting on a football field. From high above, meeting members could pass for a high school marching band, with their orderly formation on the field, in chairs spread 6 feet apart.

Arlington’s annual proceedings can last for weeks, but the town wrapped up its 214th Town Meeting in under two hours on June 15, according to Town Manager Adam Chapdelaine. About 200 of the 252 representative Town Meeting members attended the event, easily exceeding the 85-person quorum.

Arlington streamlined its warrant and produced online information beforehand, including video presentations by town committees. The town also had a series of videos called “Town Meeting Matters,” featuring Chapdelaine and other officials, to give people budget details and other information.

The town worked with a consultant to make sure everyone could hear the deliberations.

“It took a great deal of planning and preparation, but once we were out there, it went very smoothly,” Chapdelaine said. “For obvious reasons, we were all farther apart than normal, but other than that, it felt like a Town Meeting.”

The gridiron has been a popular venue for this year’s meetings, providing enough physical distance for towns such as Westford, Bellingham and Lynnfield to convene their town meetings.

“Lots of smiles and people happy to get out,” Lynnfield Town Administrator Rob Dolan wrote about his town’s June 20 meeting in the Massachusetts Municipal Management Association’s online group forum.

South Hadley held its June 17 Town Meeting in a church parking lot, and Needham spread members out across its Memorial Park parking lot for a one-night Town Meeting on June 8. Needham’s representative Town Meeting has 252 members, and 197 of them attended, said Town Manager Kate Fitzpatrick.

Holding a large meeting in a central parking lot can present challenges, she said, as the meeting had to compete with traffic and nearby train sounds, as well as occasional sirens. And it could be hard to hear masked speakers.

“We hired a production company to do the sound and rented the chairs – that made a huge difference,” Fitzpatrick said. “It was a truly memorable night. I will never forget it.”

Fitzpatrick said Needham’s remote municipal meetings have attracted larger audiences, and the town is looking at ways to maintain that level of participation.

On June 16, Cohasset held its open town meeting as a “drive-in” gathering in the South Shore Music Circus parking lot. The 90-minute meeting covered 27 articles and attracted 213 voters, more than double the quorum, to the “greatest form of local democracy in America,” Town Manager Christopher Senior said.

“Overall, everything turned out great,” he said. “It was an old-fashioned team effort pulling off a very new-fangled version of open Town Meeting.”

Senior said officials had to address a variety of needs, including managing parking and traffic; ensuring sufficient bandwidth and connectivity for the cable television and Facebook broadcasts; spraying for mosquitoes; establishing safety plans; making sure people had yellow voting cards; and dealing with portable toilets.

“You name it, we had to work it out,” Senior said.

The town broadcast the audio on speakers and on FM radio, used multiple cameras, and set up two video boards to display the proceedings, he said. Voters who wanted to speak could do so at five microphone stations. Officials used some video presentations during the meeting.

Senior said the unusual event may influence town meetings in the future.

“I think we’ll use videos again, and also try to stream live on Facebook to at least let more folks at home see what’s going on,” he said.

During the emergency, the state has allowed representative town meetings to convene virtually, and Lexington led the pack on June 1, later joined by other towns including Milton and Swampscott.

Holding elections
Towns also had annual spring elections on their calendar during the pandemic, with at least 225 holding their rescheduled elections in June. The elections have featured mask wearing, physical distancing, and enhanced cleaning procedures.

Shrewsbury held its election, originally scheduled for May 5, on June 16. About 11.6% of registered voters participated, and about 52.7% of the residents who did vote cast early or absentee ballots, according to Assistant Town Manager Kristen Las.

The lower in-person turnout helped Shrewsbury manage safety precautions for its 10 polling precincts. The town supplied locations with masks, gloves, plastic shields, wipes, sanitizer and paper towels, and workers marked lines on the floor with yellow tape for 6-foot distancing. The voting time was cut by five hours to reduce possible virus exposure, Las said, and only five voters were allowed into each polling place at a time.

Police officers enforced physical distancing, and voting booths, set 6 feet apart, were sanitized after each use. Voters dropped pens into boxes for cleaning on their way out.

There was anxiety beforehand, but the planning paid off.

“The end result was great,” Las said. “Voters loved it, no complaints, everything went smoothly.”

Still waiting
Town meetings and elections continue into this month and beyond. The town of Weston, for example, plans to hold its Town Meeting and election in September. Select Board Chair Chris Houston said the town wanted to wait because many residents leave for the summer and because officials wanted to see how the COVID-19 situation evolved.

“In fact that has paid off, because we have gotten to see some live examples of how people have been doing these … and so we feel like we have a better base to make a decision,” Houston said.

The town plans to seek a court order allowing a municipal election in September, Houston said. Weston officials also sought special legislation authorizing early, mail-in voting for municipal elections after July 31. On July 6, Gov. Charlie Baker signed a law allowing voting by mail for elections, including municipal ones, through the rest of 2020.

“It has underscored the importance of keeping in touch with our state legislators and town counsel to understand our options from the beginning, including the degrees of flexibility that we had,” Houston said. “Frankly, we’re glad we took advantage of some of that flexibility.”

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