credit: David Kidd/Governing

Another month of the coronavirus pandemic has brought some clarity, but still more questions for town officials planning upcoming town meetings and elections.

On April 28, Gov. Charlie Baker extended the state’s stay-at-home advisory and ban on gatherings of more than 10 people for an additional two weeks. Many communities had already postponed their meetings and elections beyond May 18, but local officials said they are monitoring developments and may rethink plans as conditions evolve.

To give communities greater flexibility during the public health crisis, the state has allowed towns to reschedule pre-June 1 municipal elections until as late as June 30. Communities can also delay town meetings past June 30, the last day of the fiscal year, and submit to the state month-by-month, “one-twelfth” budgets if town meetings are unable to convene and approve fiscal 2021 budgets by June 30.

In Danvers, officials have postponed the mid-May Town Meeting until June 15, and the early-May election until June 2. Town Manager Steve Bartha said he feels confident about managing the election’s safety, but the town’s representative Town Meeting presents other health concerns.

“We have and will continue to closely follow the governor’s guidance,” Bartha said. “If in the coming weeks we see a loosening of some of the restrictions and cases continue to decline, I think we’ll be feeling pretty good about the Town Meeting in mid-June. But if … we see some of the case counts start to spike again, I think we would have some real concerns about bringing our Town Meeting members together in one place.”

For the election, Danvers officials will use masks and gloves, spread out precinct check-ins at the high school, have voters stand 6 feet apart, and have a separate entrance and exit to manage foot traffic. The town is also recruiting poll workers who may fall into low-risk categories for becoming seriously ill with the virus. The town has also ordered more absentee ballots to allow for more mail-in voting.

Danvers has a large auditorium for Town Meeting, Bartha said, but could potentially move the meeting to the high school football stadium, where Town Meeting members could spread out in the seats, and presenters could stand on the track. Bartha said the situation should be clearer in a few weeks.

New safety measures
In Eastham, Town Administrator Jacqueline Beebe said the town may be taking temperatures, giving staff personal protective equipment, and having attendees wear masks and staying apart when Town Meeting does occur. The town would provide public health instructions beforehand.

Eastham originally planned to hold its Town Meeting and election in May, but has rescheduled the events to June 15 and June 23, respectively. It has extended voting by mail to three weeks, and postponed ballot questions.

Beebe said she doesn’t feel confident about the June dates. The town might still postpone the Town Meeting until Oct. 19, for a combined annual and special Town Meeting, she said, if public health warrants it.

“We should not be taking risks,” Beebe said.

Littleton moved its election from May 9 to June 20. Town Administrator Nina Nazarian said the town clerk has doubled the number of precinct check-in counters, will order workers to clean pens and surfaces after each use, and will continue supplying sanitizer. The clerk is also preparing a public service announcement for community television to explain the mail-in voting process for people who don’t want to vote in person.

Town Meeting triggers additional considerations. Littleton officials hope to proceed on the already delayed date of June 15, Nazarian said, and avoid the challenges of moving to a one-twelfth, month-by-month budgeting process if a fiscal 2021 budget isn’t approved by June 30.

Littleton is also considering whether to meet indoors or outdoors, and whether to use handheld voting devices, Nazarian said. For an indoor meeting, people would be seated 6 feet apart, and possibly spread out into two rooms if needed.

For a meeting at the football field, Nazarian said, the town may need to set two rain dates. Officials would remind attendees to bring bug spray, and have the field sprayed for mosquito control beforehand. Since large screens might create sun glare, the town might distribute PowerPoints and other visuals via handouts, screen sharing or other electronic means, she said.

“Once we dive deeper, we will likely have additional logistical challenges to work through,” Nazarian said.

Mail-in voting
Williamstown has moved its election from May 12 to June 23, and Town Manager Jason Hoch expressed confidence about that date. This year, the town has only one contested race, for the Planning Board, and so the date change and the heavier emphasis on mail-in voting should be manageable, Hoch said.

The town has been promoting mail-in voting at public meetings, on its website and on Facebook, and officials plan to discuss the process during the town’s weekly COVID-19 TV updates.

“Our expectation is we will see an increase of ballot requests by mail,” Hoch said. “The additional time should allow us to make that process work reasonably smoothly and [provide an] opportunity for people who have not previously voted absentee to learn about the process and request a ballot.”

Williamstown has also postponed its May 19 Town Meeting, but hasn’t set a new date.

Budget uncertainty
The town of Athol has rescheduled its June 8 Town Meeting to June 29, but officials might rely on the new state law allowing the town moderator to postpone Town Meeting in 30-day increments, until they learn more about fiscal 2021 revenue projections and economic impacts, according to Town Manager Shaun Suhoski.

“The primary purpose of the Annual Meeting is setting the ensuing fiscal year budget, which would be an exercise in futility at this point,” he said.

In the meantime, Suhoski is developing one-twelfth budgeting scenarios for the Select Board’s approval and for submission to the state if the town can’t enact a spending plan by June 29.

Suhoski is looking for a Beacon Hill consensus on state aid, including general government and education funding; additional reporting on the loss of meals tax revenue; additional data on real estate and personal property tax collection rates; insight into reduced local receipts; information on whether federal stimulus relief will expand to cover revenues lost by the state and cities and towns; and details on whether the federal government will extend its unemployment supplement to help local households.

Athol also postponed its election from early April to June 22. The election’s few contested races would likely generate low turnout, Suhoski said. He anticipates it will be easier to manage safety for the election than at Town Meeting.

Grafton Town Administrator Timothy McInerney said he doesn’t know if the Town Meeting and election, moved from May to June 20 and June 23, respectively, will be able to take place on their new dates.

“It’s 50-50 at this point,” he said.

Grafton has established a return-to-work committee and is considering new safety measures, McInerney said. Officials are following the governor’s leadership, he said, but they are also listening to the concerns of residents and workers in deciding whether it’s safe to hold these events.

“Again if it’s not completely safe to do so, I would expect both the election and Town Meeting to be rescheduled again,” McInerney said.

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