A sign at the entrance to Easton’s spring Town Meeting provides social distancing instructions.

“Necessity is the mother of invention” sums up the town government experience in the COVID-19 era. From Cape Cod to the Berkshires, municipal officials have spent the past 14 months devising and perfecting creative ways to meet needs and solve problems. Annual spring town meetings and elections are no exception.

At the height of the pandemic last spring, many towns saw little choice but to hold their annual meetings outdoors or online. This year’s easing of public health restrictions provides more leeway, but some towns are holding onto their newfound formats, at least for now, while others have latched onto specific tools they’ll carry forward after the pandemic is over. Town administrators and other officials are expressing confidence in both their staffs’ and constituents’ ability to keep town government running and relevant no matter how many pivots they have to make.

“I think we are prepared to deal with any situation, like we have for the last two years,” said Edward Kazonovicz, the assistant town manager in Auburn, which held its second COVID-era Town Meeting on May 4.

Auburn postponed last year’s Town Meeting and held it outside in June. This year, the town kept its traditional May dates for both its meeting and election — and both happened indoors.

The Auburn Town Meeting exceeded pre-COVID attendance levels, and the town met social distancing protocols by seating participants in two separate spaces at Auburn High School. Officials also minimized the length of the meeting by pre-recording most presentations and posting them online for review beforehand.

Auburn streamed its Town Meeting over a local radio station for those who were more comfortable staying in their cars in the school parking lot. Those participants were able to vote via remote voting machines purchased with CARES Act funding, said Kazonovicz, noting that the system was “something we looked at pre-COVID, but it made total sense to purchase” in time for this year’s socially distanced meeting.

Lessons learned
In Somerset, Town Administrator Richard Brown pointed to other pandemic-inspired safety features that will be carried forward to future Town Meetings.

“We hope to streamline Town Meeting check-in procedures and employ technology to assist in resolving controversial votes so that meetings can move along quickly without limiting substantive discussion,” said Brown, whose community met at Somerset Berkley Regional High School earlier this month.

Somerset Town Clerk Dolores Bence added that the town will “offer masks, sanitizers and some level of social distancing at all our elections and Town Meetings going forward.”

Chatham Town Manager Jill Goldsmith is expecting high turnout for this spring’s Town Meeting, which the Select Board voted to delay from the traditional May date to Saturday, June 12, so it could take place outside in warmer weather at Veterans Field downtown. It will be Chatham’s third outdoor Town Meeting during the pandemic, and this one could draw more than 1,000 people, Goldsmith said, given that it’s on a Saturday in a central outdoor location that might attract the attention of passersby.

Chatham’s election was delayed from May to June 17, and will be held in the Chatham Community Gym, with early voting via mail available.

Feedback on Chatham’s 2020 spring and fall outdoor town meetings was “fabulous,” Goldsmith said. This year’s, featuring 63 warrant articles, including one for construction of a new Council on Aging facility, could be more of a challenge. She said she suspects the town will likely revert to indoor meetings again post-pandemic.

“This one coming up may be the determination of if we ever go outside again,” she said, noting that the town plans to have chairs for 500 voting members, with an overflow area for more people.

At the other end of the state, the towns of Sunderland and Stockbridge also picked June 12 for outdoor town meetings. For the second year, both postponed their traditional earlier spring dates, and hope for pleasant weather.

“I know there were a number of people who enjoyed having it outside,” said Stockbridge Town Manager Michael Canales, noting that last spring’s meeting fell on a beautiful day. “We’ll have to see, if we have less-than-perfect weather, if people say the same thing.”

Canales said the town election went forward in-person on the traditional May 18 date with COVID safety protocols in place.

Is the future remote?
Municipalities can opt to continue outdoor town meetings post-pandemic, but those who’ve become accustomed to conducting town meetings via online platforms like Zoom will need action by the Legislature to continue the practice. Several Boston-area communities with representative town meetings, including Lexington, Brookline and Winchester, broke ground with online Town Meetings in 2020 and chose the same route this year. Lexington, the Commonwealth’s online town meeting pioneer in 2020, held its 2021 meeting in late March; Winchester’s was in late April; and Brookline’s took place over several days in May, concluding on May 27.

Although they don’t believe all meetings should be held virtually in perpetuity, Lexington Town Manager James Malloy and the Select Board support legislation that would allow remote participation in public meetings to continue, said Lexington Public Information Officer Sean Dugan, “given the high levels of public participation and increased transparency it has provided over the past year.”

In June 2020, Gov. Charlie Baker signed legislation allowing representative town meetings to meet virtually, but that authorization expires at the end of this June. The governor on May 25 filed legislation that would extend this practice, and the MMA has urged legislative leaders to continue several COVID-era accommodations for cities and towns, including “that towns have a permanent option to conduct remote town meetings, and that this authority also be extended to open town meeting communities.” The MMA also urged the Legislature to extend town election accommodations, including rules governing voting by mail and other “election innovations” born of the pandemic.

“We are operating under the assumption that the state Legislature will expand voter access via early voting and/or vote by mail,” said Easton Town Administrator Connor Read, adding that the town expanded staffing in its fiscal 2022 budget to facilitate these voting options and amended bylaws to allow the Select Board to specify an election date in April each year. He said the town used its new bylaw to move the 2021 town election to a Saturday “to allow for more social distance at the polls” (located at a school).

As the annual town meeting season wraps up next month, municipal leaders across Massachusetts are looking back with pride in communities that used their wits to weather a unique storm, and forward to a future that may be forever changed by the pandemic.

“It does seem like today is a little bit of a catharsis,” Yarmouth Town Manager Kenneth Mudie said at the outset of the town’s socially distanced outdoor meeting on May 22, as reported in the Cape Cod Times. “The community has been through a lot, and today we hopefully gather as friends and citizens to continue moving the town forward, which is what town meeting is really about.”

Written by Lisa Capone