Town Meeting, Election Dates Up In The Air Due To Pandemic

By: Ed Maroney

Topics: Elections , Town Meeting , COVID-19

If Cape Cod followed Vermont’s example, all our worries about postponing town meeting would be unnecessary. Up in the Green Mountain State, almost all communities hold their annual budget-setting sessions on Town Meeting Day, the first Tuesday of March. It’s a state holiday.

Vermont’s work is done for this year, but Massachusetts towns have been tripped up in the middle of the process by a pandemic disease that has closed town halls to the public, forced virtual meetings with board members and the public phoning in from remote locations, and caused such uncertainty that setting a new date for annual town meetings can seem, you might say, unwarranted.

Chatham, Harwich, and Orleans, with help from their state senator and representative, have been grappling with this dilemma. Legislation has been filed in this declared state of emergency to extend moderators’ authority to postpone town meetings; to allow selectmen to schedule town meetings as late as or later than June 30, the end of the fiscal year; and to allow monthly deficit spending of 1/12 budgets on essential operations after that point. Other measures address extending permitting windows to avoid automatic grants of project approvals, allowing existing permits to continue past renewal deadlines, and letting towns waive late-payment penalties for fourth-quarter tax bills.

In Chatham Monday night, the board of selectmen closed the May 11 annual town meeting warrant and voted to postpone the session to a date to be determined before June 30. That action gives officials “a little breathing room,” Chair Shareen Davis said. “So much has happened in two short weeks.” As for the date of the town election, now May 14, “If it has to change, we’ll change it,” said Selectman Peter Cocolis.

“We’re moving forward as business as usual,” Selectman Cory Metters observed, “knowing it’s not business as usual.”

Setting those dates will require a closer look at the impact of the coronavirus on the community. “We really need a few more weeks to see where we are with the budget,” Town Manager Jill Goldsmith said. While the emergency will mean spending changes, “I don’t want to have employees start cutting their budgets now,” she said, adding that the board should consider such matters as prioritizing big-ticket projects.

It’s expected the selectmen will set a new date before the town meeting warrant is posted. “I think the sensible approach is not to set a date for the meeting yet,” said Chatham Moderator Bill Litchfield. “The (town) bylaw says it’s the second Monday in May. Current state law gives the selectmen the authority to postpone it further.” Once a warrant is posted, a moderator has authority to recess the meeting for 30 days in public safety emergencies; that authority would be expanded in pending legislation to include public health emergencies.

Noting a move to allow town meetings after the start of the fiscal year on July 1, Litchfield observed, “These are extraordinary times. There’s gonna be a lot of necessary flexibility. As Oliver Wendell Holmes said, government must be allowed ‘a little play in the joints.’”

Chatham selectmen also voted to postpone the annual town election to a date to be determined; however, existing filing deadlines will remain. Monday's board meeting was the last for now in which members will be in the same room; next week’s gathering will be a call-in affair. That’s already the case in Harwich, where Monday’s selectmen’s meeting was conducted as a teleconference with interim town administrator Joe Powers anchoring the session at town hall. Members of the school and finance committees also popped up on the screen. The May 4 annual town meeting warrant has been closed, and the annual election remains on the books for May 19, but these dates are unlikely to be observed. A move to reschedule is waiting on action on Beacon Hill.

The board will be staying busy, meeting twice a week, on Thursdays and the usual Mondays, by remote participation. In Orleans, on the other hand, selectmen last met on March 18 and don’t intend to reconvene, virtually or otherwise unless necessary, until April 1.

At their most recent in-person meeting on March 18, the board agreed to delay the May 11 annual town meeting, probably to the end of June, and authorized Town Administrator John Kelly to discuss new dates for use of the Nauset Regional Middle School gym. A possible new date for the May 19 town election would be affected by pending legislation at the Statehouse. Early this week, Moderator David Lyttle said June 22 and 23 are under consideration, with June 30 as a possible election day.

“With the current situation of no large gatherings of people,” Nauset Regional High School Building Committee Chair Greg Levasseur said, the construction project “is in a holding pattern until the four district towns announce the process for moving forward. When the towns confirm the dates for town meetings and elections, we will restart the informational process we have idled for now.”

Bill Galvin and Alan Pollock contributed to this story.