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Amid the uncertainty of a pandemic, many communities are grappling with whether or when to reschedule annual town meetings and elections, while maintaining their budget processes and operations.
On March 23, the Legislature passed and Gov. Charlie Baker signed a law making it easier for towns to reschedule their spring elections, specifically allowing any municipal election that had been scheduled for May 30 or earlier to be pushed back as far as June 30. Previously, municipalities had to get either a court order or a special act of the Legislature to change their election dates.
Many towns had been waiting for the Legislature and governor to act, and have now begun reworking their spring schedules – while facing the ongoing challenge of not knowing when the COVID-19 emergency may subside and how stay-at-home advisories may change in the coming weeks.
In an MMA online COVID-19 Forum where municipal officials discuss governing challenges, leaders from across the state have shared their communities’ decision-making processes around town meeting and election scheduling. Many have started rescheduling events, while others are waiting for greater certainty about the public health situation.
A major challenge in rescheduling meetings and elections is predicting when people will be able to gather safely again, said Truro Town Manager Rae Ann Palmer. Truro has already postponed its April 28 Town Meeting to a date to be determined, and the Select Board will discuss in early April what to do with its election, originally scheduled for May 12.
“The Town Meeting warrant is completed, not printed or signed, so we have some flexibility on the date,” Palmer said.
During this time of scheduling uncertainty, it’s important to keep key parties in the loop, said Halifax Town Administrator Charlie Seelig. That would include the select board, town moderator, town counsel, town clerk, finance committee, town accountant, and whoever manages the facilities involved with these events, he said.
Halifax has chosen new dates for its Town Meeting and election, which were originally scheduled for May. Now, the town expects to hold its Town Meeting on June 15, and election on June 20, Seelig said.
The town of Hamilton was scheduled to hold its Town Meeting on April 4 and its election on April 9, but town leaders plan to postpone them, pending COVID-19 developments, said Town Manager Joseph Domelowicz. He said officials have been maintaining communication with residents as the situation rapidly evolves.
“Overall, I feel our community is responding as well as we could expect,” Domelowicz said. “Most residents have been supportive and offered to help. On the other side, our elected officials are listening to residents’ concerns, and we are trying to respond in ways that help the residents know we’re hearing them.”
When Hamilton does set a new Town Meeting date, there will be a stressful time crunch for preparations, Domelowicz said. While the Town Meeting warrant is closed, he said, officials have yet to take votes and make recommendations on the articles. The town will need time to print the warrant, and its finance team will have much work to do to close out the current fiscal year and open the next one, possibly simultaneously, he said.
Other issues include getting public input on the changes, making sure the town will be able to get a quorum on the new date, and making sure residents are mentally ready for Town Meeting, Domelowicz said.
“There is concern that even after the emergency is lifted, some people will be afraid of large public gatherings for some time,” he said.
The town of Groton has decided to move its annual Town Meeting from April 27 to May 18, and its election from May 19 to June 9. The town hadn’t posted its Town Meeting warrant before making the change, and rescheduling the Town Meeting automatically triggered a move of the election date under Groton’s bylaws, said Town Manager Mark Haddad.
“This was actually a very easy decision for the Select Board,” Haddad said. “Given what is happening with this pandemic, the Select Board has acted swiftly and forcefully in the best interest of our residents and employees.”
Haddad said the town is updating its website, Facebook page and Twitter account, and getting information to local newspapers to keep residents informed about the changes. Haddad is also making public service announcements on the local cable station. He said the town is in good shape for the time being.
“As long as we have a budget in place by June 30 [the day before the start of fiscal 2021], we should be OK,” Haddad said.