EGREMONT — Planning an annual town meeting in the current COVID-19 environment is proving to be an uphill battle for both local and state officials in the commonwealth.
In what is normally the season for local elections and town meetings is now being used as a period to lay the groundwork for how an annual town meeting will operate under social distancing guidelines, if at all, this summer.
At the state level, there has been no clear direction given to municipalities in the commonwealth about how a local election could proceed under current circumstances, according to state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox.
Despite the curve beginning to flatten in the county’s reported coronavirus cases, social distancing and other protective measures will still be critical for months to come, said Pignatelli.
“I think until we have more testing to get a baseline to what the Berkshires looks like, I think it’s still going to be a challenge,” Pignatelli said. “I think to get a couple hundred people in a room is going to be a challenge. I think we need to be very cautious about it, otherwise we’re going to have another tidal wave in a few months.”
In Egremont, a town of nearly 1,000 registered voters, the race to set a date for the annual town meeting is on. The meeting, originally scheduled for Tuesday, May 5, has been postponed until a later date, which has yet to be decided by the town’s Select Board.
At the board’s Tuesday, April 28 meeting, held via Zoom video conference software, potential meeting dates were discussed but no formal vote or action was taken, due to technical difficulties experienced during the meeting.
Joining the board at the virtual meeting was Town Moderator Steve Cohen and town counsel, Jeremia Pollard, who updated the board on what the other towns he serves are doing under the unforeseen circumstances of a global pandemic.
“A lot of my towns have moved their meetings to June,” Pollard told the board. “Whether they’ll hold the meetings or not remains to be seen.”
Towns can set a tentative date for a meeting in June, but if residents are still concerned about attending, then the meeting can be continued until a later date by a passed motion, said Pollard. However, the meeting couldn’t be continued for more than 30 days, he added.
Pollard also serves as town counsel for the towns of Lee, New Marlborough, Stockbridge and Otis, where town meetings have been postponed until mid-June, as voted on by their respective select boards.
Cohen suggested setting a date for sometime in the month of June, if an option to hold the meeting virtually is off the table, which was something Pollard cautioned against.
“We can do a Zoom meeting for the Select Board, but for a town meeting, I don’t see a way where it could work, where the moderator could have control of the meeting,” Pollard said. “You’d have one hell of night, Steve, if we did it that way.”
Pollard said he wouldn’t be surprised if some of the other towns he serves hold their annual town meetings in June, but in the case it has to be continued via a passed motion, obtaining a quorum for the vote could become a point of concern.
“We might not even get a quorum if that’s the case, and that’s the real issue going on here and no one knows what’s going to happen,” Pollard said. “You can try to go back to business as usual and not get a quorum, and that’s just going to be a choice people make at some point, because this is going on longer than people expected it to originally.”
In Boston, the statehouse will be holding a formal legislative session on Thursday, April 30, where elected officials like Pignatelli will be participating remotely, rather than having the 160 lawmakers congregate in person.
Lawmakers will be able to participate, speak and vote via a computer or phone screen, at Thursday’s first formal law making session in over a month, said Pignatelli.
“With 160 reps, do we really all want to be down there together in one crammed room altogether for 10 or 12 hours a day? I think a lot of people are not comfortable with that,” he said. “If this remote voting works, it may be a model that towns can use, but it’s still unproven at this point.”
With his fingers crossed that legislature from home runs smoothly, Pignatelli said it wasn’t a farfetched idea for Berkshire towns to have their town meetings in a nearby athletic field, with people voting electronically under social distancing guidelines.
“But in a closed auditorium that seats 500 people, how do you keep social distancing when 300 of them show up? I think it’s unfair and unrealistic,” he said. “We need to feel comfortable that we’re absolutely able to participate fairly and openly, that’s going to be the challenge.”
Egremont Select Board member Mary Brazie said she would like to see the annual town meeting held on Tuesday, June 30, which is the last day it can be held before the town begins to operate on a one-twelfth budget system.
“I want it on the absolute last day that does not cross over into July 1, which would be June 30,” said Brazie. “The unfortunate part about that is that it doesn’t give us wiggle room with the fiscal year changeover if we have to postpone it.”
Brazie suggested holding the annual town meeting at the Thomas A. Consolati Performing Arts Center (TACPAC) at Mount Everett Regional High School in Sheffield, while practicing social distancing techniques. She suggested that the TACPAC could still play host to the annual town meeting while keeping a safe distance from others, with the number of people they expect to show up. A deadline of Tuesday, June 2 was made clear by Brazie as the final day to set a date for their annual town meeting.
“I feel very strongly that because we are such a small town and we average 150 to 180 people at our town meeting, we can easily accommodate social distancing in the TACPAC and I’ve also done considerable research on putting up tents in French Park, which would accommodate social distancing to have our town meeting go on as well,” Brazie said.
George McGurn, the Select Board chair, said he is still not convinced that a Tuesday, June 30 date for the annual town meeting can be accomplished. He recommended a contingency plan be put in place, similar to how the town planned for their local election.
At the previous Select Board meeting, the town election was rescheduled to Friday, June 26, to be held at the Town Hall.
“At a minimum, we need a contingency plan, and perhaps more than one … French Park being one, and the Town Hall parking lot being one,” McGurn said. “I am very unconvinced it can be done under the current situation, but it can change by June. Wiggle room is a very precious commodity these days.”
As Select Board member Lucinda Vermeulen started to agree with McGurn’s point, the online meeting experienced technical difficulties, resulting in the meeting being recessed until a later date. A 2-0 vote by McGurn and Brazie officially recessed the meeting. It was suspected that either a crash of the Zoom video conferencing software or bandwidth issues of board members were the cause of the technical difficulties.
The recessed meeting was scheduled to resume on the morning of Thursday, April 30.
The next scheduled Select Board meeting is set for Tuesday, May 5 via Zoom video conferencing software.