Gov. Charlie Baker today signed a bill sent to him last night that allows communities to change certain town meeting, election and budget processes in response to the ongoing public health emergency.

The various provisions in the law are temporary for the duration of the coronavirus state of emergency and are not permanent changes to state law. The law includes an emergency preamble so that it can take effect immediately.

The final version of the bill approved by the Legislature (H. 4777) includes authority for remote participation for representative town meetings and allows quorum reductions for town meetings in all towns. There is no limitation on matters that may come before town meeting when the quorum is reduced, which had been a sticking point earlier in the development of the bill.

The law includes a city budget provision, and language related to payments on school service contracts when services, such as student transportation, are not being provided.

The law allows towns to delay spring elections and eliminate municipal election caucuses.

On the municipal finance side, the law allows cities and towns to use special revenue funds to pay for fiscal 2021 expenses by a two-thirds vote of the select board in a town and the council in a city or a town with a council.

City budgets
The new law extends the deadline for mayors to submit fiscal 2021 budgets to city councils, to July 31, and allows cities to adopt up to three one-month budgets if the fiscal 2021 budget is not in place by June 30.

Open town meetings
Select boards in all towns, in consultation with their town moderator, are allowed to lower quorum requirements for open town meetings to not less than 10% of the existing quorum level. The quorum provision (Section 7) includes a seven-day notification requirement before any select board vote.

Representative town meetings
Representative town meetings now have the option to meet remotely, if approved by the select board and town moderator, as well as by the town meeting when it meets. The remote participation provision (Section 8) includes substantial procedural and technology rules for the use of this option.

The town of Lexington has already started its Annual Town Meeting using remote participation.

Alternate town meeting locations
The law allows towns to hold their town meeting in a nearby community if doing so is necessary to achieve safe physical distancing.

Elections
The law further extends the deadline for 2020 municipal elections to July 31. (The deadline had already been extended to June 30 under Chapter 45, enacted on March 23.) The law also allows towns that hold municipal election caucuses to eliminate them this year and use nomination papers instead.

Contracts for school and education services
The law allows communities to make payments under existing contracts for school and education services that are not currently being delivered, if that is desired, in order to ensure that adequate capacity is available to deliver the services when schools reopen. These reworked agreements would require the approval of the municipal chief executive.

Special revenue funds
The law allows cities and towns, at local option, to use revenue dedicated to a special revenue fund or a stabilization fund for specific purposes, and the balance in any such fund, for local general fund purposes in fiscal 2021.

Within five business days after a vote of the select board to approve the request of the moderator to hold a town meeting remotely or reduce the quorum, the town clerk must submit a certified copy of the vote and the written request of the moderator to Margaret Hurley, director of the Municipal Law Unit in the Office of the Attorney General (Margaret.Hurley@mass.gov).

View text of H. 4777
Download section-by-section summary from Division of Local Services (78K PDF)

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