HARWICH — The annual town meeting and local elections have been moved to late June in the hope that the COVID-19 pandemic will have dissipated, and health officials will be satisfied that social distancing is no longer necessary and residents will once again feel comfortable congregating.
Selectmen last week set June 22 as the date for the annual meeting, and the town election will follow on June 30.
The state of emergency declared by Governor Charlie Baker and emergency legislation packages approved to assist municipalities are allowing changes in charters, traditions and budgeting practices.
Town Counsel John Giorgio told selectmen last Wednesday the board can alter the charter provision requiring that the annual town meeting be held on the first Monday in May—May 4 this year—and elections be held on the third Tuesday in May, May 19 this year.
Town Clerk Anita Doucette outlined for selectmen what will be necessary to adjust to a new schedule, including making sure Moderator Michael D. Ford is available. Ford, who is town counsel for the town of Orleans, said that town has set its annual town meeting for June 15, so other than that date, and possibly June 16, he is otherwise available.
A number of logistics must be worked out, Doucette said, including the finding out if the community center is available; the availability of the DPW to set up; and retaining the sound company and a CART reporter to transcribe the meeting for the hearing impaired.
Town meeting must be completed by June 30 to approve spending before the new fiscal year, which starts on July 1, Giorgio said. Municipal relief legislation will allow a town which has not completed town meeting by that date to start spending on July 1 on a 1/12 annual budget basis. The town could use revolving funds, enterprise funds and free cash for that, he said. Selectmen can choose any date for a new town meeting and election, despite what the town charter says.
An election will also have to be held by June 30, he said. Those elected officials whose terms were scheduled to expire on May 19, will continue to serve until the election is held.
Doucette said the nomination deadline for the election did not change. It has passed, so all candidates who filed their nomination papers will be on the ballot, but no new candidates will be allowed. What will change, she added, is the last day to register to vote for the election. Elections can be held a week after the town meeting starts.
On a motion by Selectman Michael MacAskill, the board unanimously voted to set the annual town meeting for Monday, June 22 at 7 p.m.
Giorgio pointed out that once the town meeting date is set, if need be selectmen and the moderator can recess the meeting to another date up to 30 days later, and under the new legislation, it can be postponed for a second 30-day period. That would require use of the 1/12 budget spending provision, he said.
The board initially considered Monday, June 29 for the election, but Doucette said the DPW needs to set up voting equipment in the community center, and that date could tie up the use of the gym for the entire weekend. She recommended setting the date for Tuesday, June 30. There are no contested races on this year’s ballot and people will be allowed to vote by both absentee and mall-in ballots, she noted.
“People may feel better voting by mail-in,” Doucette said. Giorgio said there is a requirement to keep the polls open for at least four hours. Doucette mentioned the possibility of 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. or noon to 4 p.m. election hours.
But Selectman Stephen Ford said the shorter hours would push more people into the building during a shorter time, when social distancing may still be necessary. Doucette said she hopes more people would vote by absentee or mail-in ballot.
Interim Town Administrator Joseph Powers was concerned with more people coming into town hall to vote absentee. He also suggested more people would be returning to regular jobs and time for accessing the polls should not be denied. Doucette said early voting by mail would reduce the need for people to come to town hall.
Selectman Ed McManus said the polls should be open at least one to two hours after normal work hours, until at least 6 or 7 p.m. MacAskill's motion to hold the election on Tuesday, June 30 from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. was approved.