Selectmen Eliminate Articles, Weighing Further Changes For Town Meeting

By: William F. Galvin

Topics: Town Meeting , COVID-19

Harwich news.

HARWICH — Selectmen are awaiting legislation making its way through Beacon Hill that includes provisions on how municipalities in Massachusetts can address town meetings and funding a budget moving into FY21.

Interim Town Administrator Joseph Powers said legislation has been approved in the Senate that will allow town meeting actions just on financial issues. But there has been no clear definition on what “financial” means, he said. The legislation may allow communities to reduce their quorums to 10 percent, and there are questions about whether zoning and bylaws would be allowed to be acted upon with such a low threshold of participation.

There were questions about whether the town will be in a position to hold an annual town meeting on June 22 given social distancing provisions and the reluctance of voters to attend such a session. Powers informed the board the town has until June 8 to post the warrant for the meeting.

Powers said provisions in the general law allow the moderator to postpone a town meeting for 30-days at a time, but once the warrant is posted, the moderator is limited to pushing back the town meeting only one time for 30 days.

“We can’t get into restaurants, I don’t see how you are going to get into town meeting,” Selectman MacAskill said.

Selectmen previously looked at warrant article reductions and agreed to take a hard look at budgets given anticipated revenue reductions caused by the pandemic. Gov. Charlie Baker will address re-opening the state May 18 and board members said they hoped for promulgation of the legislation impacting town meetings by then. Board of Selectmen Larry Ballantine said June 8 is the “drop dead point’ for decisions on budgets and articles.

Budget articles will remain in the warrant, board members said previously, including the town’s operating budget, the school budgets, water department budgets wastewater /sewer budget and the selectmen’s salaries.

Regarding the wastewater/sewer budget, Finance Director Carol Coppola said according the inter-municipal agreement the town has with Chatham, sewer flow to the Chatham treatment plant is scheduled to begin in FY21. She pointed out funding for that budget would be available through appropriation and free cash, but free cash is not likely to be certified until September.

Coppola said she has talked with Water and Sewer Superintendent Daniel Pelletier, who said the budget could be reduced by $50,000. Ballantine said the article will remain with a reduced funding request.

MacAskill said the capital plan is not critical and should be removed. Ballantine had suggested pulling out the facilities maintenance and repair funds. He also said he has talked with fire department staff and the proposed purchase of the quint fire truck could be removed, but the need for a new ambulance is critical.

Powers said he talked with departments heads last week and asked them to prioritize their needs. Powers said he is still collating those responses and will present that information to selectmen before decisions are made on pulling funding for capital items.

“We can go for low hanging fruit,” Selectman Donald Howell said of cutting less essential expenditures.

Howell said the DHY Clean Water Partnership article could be removed. The board previously agreed to wait until a special town meeting in the fall to address the issue and a number of other articles that would be removed from the annual warrant.

DPW Director Lincoln Hooper said he has clearly stated all his articles can be pulled for the session, but he cautioned selectmen about the road maintenance program, which seeks $700,000, which is based on a five-year plan his department presents each year. Hooper reminded the board voters rejected the funding on a debt exclusion ballot question last year.

“We have no place to go and there could be consequences from it,” Hooper said

The board agreed to pull two zoning articles seeking a change in the boundary line for the western end of the Industrial Light District along Queen Anne Road and an amendment to eliminate the term “essential services” because it conflicts with “municipal use“ in the zoning bylaw.

Selectmen continued to wrestle with how to handle petitioned articles and agreed to seek legal counsel’s opinion.

The board agreed to pull several other articles, including the cemetery commission’s rules and regulations update; changes to the town’s wetlands protection bylaw; a procedure relating to disposition of unclaimed property; and the charter change of the name of the board of selectmen to “select board.”