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Coronavirus could cast problems for annual elections and town meetings

GREAT BARRINGTON — Could the town end up holding its annual town meeting on the football field at Monument Mountain Regional High School? According to Great Barrington Town Moderator Michael Wise, possibly.
“Conceivably, one could schedule the meeting, have it on the football field, mark off the grid, so that people keep their distance from one another, and take care of that formality,” said Wise at a Monday, April 13 Selectboard meeting via Zoom video conferencing software.
Wise posed the idea after Selectboard Chairperson Stephen Bannon and Town Manager Mark Pruhenski underlined the importance of addressing the financial portion of this year’s warrant prior to July 1.
“If we do not have a budget in place by the new fiscal year, state law requires us to go into a 1/12th budget,” said Pruhenski. “It’s complicated for a number of reasons.”
A 1/12th budget means that the town would have to take the fiscal year’s budget on a month-to month basis, which in turn would put a hold on summer projects that the town’s Department of Public Works has in the queue, for example.
Finance Director Susan Carmel also noted that this kind of budget would affect payroll and more than likely interrupt town services.
Originally, the town was slated to hold its annual town meeting over the course of two nights, starting at 6 p.m. on both, Monday, May 4 and Thursday, May 7.
In an executive summary compiled with input from staff, Pruhenski said that staff had recommended the Selectboard postpone the annual town meeting to Monday, June 22 and hold it at an earlier-than-usual start time.
Gov. Charlie Baker signed Chap. 53 of the Acts of 2020 “An Act to Address Challenges Faced by Municipalities and State Authorities Resulting from COVID-18” on Friday, April 3. The act allows for annual town meetings to be held in the commonwealth beyond June 30 where there is an “immediate threat to the health or safety of person or property” that prevents the completion of an annual town meeting on or before June 30.
The recommendation also noted that it would be better to hold the meeting on one night rather than two to mitigate concerns of low attendance due to social distancing. Town Clerk Jennifer Messina said she suggested that the annual town meeting be held on one night out of the concern of what circumstances related to the coronavirus pandemic will be in June.
“If we’re in the same boat we’re in now, people aren’t going to want to come out and sit near someone, especially not more than once,” she said.
Finance Committee members who were also in attendance at the meeting noted that some of the Planning Board articles may take some considerable time to sort through.
Selectboard member Bill Cooke said he felt it best to put off some of the less time-sensitive items to another night.
“If we’re all on social lockdown, we’ll have to reconsider, but we can’t count on that,” said Cooke.
Messina also pointed out that a public hearing still needed to be held prior to the annual town meeting.
In the end, the board unanimously approved postponing the annual town meeting to be held over the course of two nights, Monday, June 22 and Thursday, June 25 in the auditorium at Monument Mountain Regional High School, starting at 6 p.m. on both nights.
Bannon said that the board might have to entertain an “imaginative alternative” like Wise had proposed.
“I’ve heard of one town that recently held a special town meeting in a parking lot: Southwick, about two weeks ago,” said Wise in a statement. “According to the report I saw, there was a time-sensitive special expenditure (for a project that had to get started before the summer), and two other items. The town has a low quorum requirement — 25 — but 141 people showed up! It took about 25 minutes.”
Wise said that he wasn’t sure this concept would work for a full annual town meeting.
During the meeting, Messina questioned whether an outdoor or remote concept for an annual town meeting was legal.
Messina also recommended that the board postpone the annual town election to Tuesday, June 30, to be held at the Great Barrington Fire Station for Precincts A, C and D; and the Housatonic Community Center for Precinct B. She also recommended that the polling hours are reduced to be held 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
The annual town election was on the docket for Tuesday, May 12 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
On March 23, Gov. Charlie Baker passed and approved Chapter 45 of Acts of 2020, which authorized municipalities to postpone elections and increase voting options in response to the Declaration of Emergency in response to the global pandemic. For town elections, state laws require that polls must be open no later than noon and must be open for a minimum of four hours, according to Messina.
The new law also makes changes to absentee and early voting in a town election, specifically that any person exercising caution related to the coronavirus qualifies for an absentee ballot by reason of physical disability.
This includes people who are sick, opting to self-quarantine or choosing not to go out in public for their own safety. Early voting by mail applies to this election, however, there is no early voting in person for any municipal election.
The fiscal impact of these actions, according to an executive summary provided by the town, is a reduction in cost of election workers salary because of the reduction of polling hours as well as the reduction of the possible number of election workers obtained on Election Day.
Board members approved postponing Election Day to June 30 in a 4-0-1 vote. Selectboard member Ed Abrahams recused himself from the vote because he was up for re-election.

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