Take Me Out To The...Town Meeting

By: Alan Pollock

Topics: Town Meeting , COVID-19

Last week, town officials visited Veterans Field to plan some of the logistics of holding the annual town meeting there.  TIM WOOD PHOTO

Annual Session To Be Held At Veterans Field

CHATHAM — There won’t be any baseball played on Veterans Field this summer, but on June 22, town officials will be pitching an abbreviated town meeting warrant to a gathering of socially-distanced voters. For safety during COVID-19, the town’s annual legislative session is being held outdoors at 6 p.m. rather than at the middle school.

It’s certainly the first time in recent memory, and probably in town history, that the annual town meeting will be held outdoors. Town Manager Jill Goldsmith told selectmen last week that staff were considering the logistical challenges of using the middle school and the need to use multiple rooms to preserve social distancing; they also found that it would be difficult to find a contractor to operate the audiovisual system. They opted instead to recommend having the meeting at Veterans Field.

“It seems that that would be the best option for us,” she said. Because the session will be held outside, voters should “prepare for variable conditions” and the likely need for special COVID-19 protections, Goldsmith said. In the event of rain, town meeting will be postponed a day to June 23.

The session will happen at 6 p.m. on what is one of the longest days of the year, so there will not likely be a need to use the baseball field’s lights, though they are available, she said. The field’s public address system is also available for use.

The abbreviated warrant asks voters to approve the operating budget and other essential items, but postpones any action on most articles until a special town meeting to be held on Sept. 19. While the town won’t deprive people the right to deliberate or vote on the annual town meeting articles, Goldsmith said Town Moderator William Litchfield expects the session to be quick. Selectman Dean Nicastro agreed.

“I think the deliberations should probably take no more than 20 minutes,” he said. And the experience will be unique.

“It’s going to be one of those old ‘hear ye hear ye’ things and low- or no-tech,” Goldsmith said. There is electricity present at the field, which made it a better choice than the upper field at the middle school, she said. The town is also working out how to provide the necessary accommodations for people with mobility problems or hearing difficulties.

The decision to use Veterans Field was made on Friday, May 22, to allow the warrant to go to the printer on time.

Selectman Peter Cocolis said he has concerns about how voters will be able to communicate with the moderator during the meeting. “How are people going to talk to us?” he asked.

A system of wireless microphones will be used to let the public speak, Goldsmith said.

“I expect the moderator will be up in the broadcaster’s booth,” she said. Voters should expect to be spread out to allow social distancing and should wear masks, she added.

“Clearly this is not the ideal scenario for our annual town meeting,” Selectman Cory Metters said. But Veterans Field appears to be the best alternative, and the logistical challenges are manageable. There is a rain date, and the moderator has the option to further postpone the meeting if necessary, but Metters said voters will rise to the challenge.

“We’re hearty New Englanders,” he said.

Board of Health Chairman John Beckley said he believes the meeting will be safe, particularly if people wear masks as soon as they get out of their vehicles, and also maintain six feet of separation from other people, “so we have a two-tiered way to keep all participants safe.”

Selectman Jeffrey Dykens suggested the use of the parking lot next to the Red Nun for people with mobility problems, since the terrain is flatter.

“It will be an historic event if we actually pull it off,” he quipped.