Leaders Continuing To Think Outside The Town Meeting Box

By: Ed Maroney

Topics: Town Meeting

Nothing stopped 439 voters from standing up for their choices at the June 20 outdoor town meeting.  ED MARONEY PHOTO

ORLEANS “Fantastic” was how select board member Andrea Reed described the community’s first outdoor town meeting, which drew 439 voters to the running track at Nauset Regional Middle School on June 20.

Member Cecil Newcomb congratulated Moderator David Lyttle for “running a very efficient, streamlined meeting” during the board’s post-mortem on July 1.

“It went very well, given the logistics. Thank God the weather cooperated,” Town Administrator John Kelly said. “We got the turnout; we needed 200. Overall, everybody did a very good job; we addressed as many uncertainties as we could.”

To that point, health board member Sims McGrath wrote to say “clear and enthusiastic thanks must also be conveyed to the large group of town employees who put in the extra hours to set up our meeting place and also to those who had the creativity and ingenuity to overcome the logistical and technical challenges of managing a meeting that covered such a large area. I have always felt that our town was especially well served by all its employees, and they have provided more support for my opinion.”

Select board chair Kevin Galligan agreed. “All the employees of the town did an outstanding job making it work,” he said. “There were so many things they thought of that we just take for granted.”

The circumstances of the pandemic forced officials to experiment with alternatives to the usual Monday evening town meetings, exercising options that have been discussed for years without action. Would a daytime meeting work better than one at night? Would a weekend be better than a weekday?

Galligan was wary of using last month’s meeting as a guide to future sessions. Among other factors, he recalled the letter from the Lower Cape Jewish community Am HaYam Havurah expressing concern about holding the meeting on the Sabbath (Friday sunset to Saturday sunset).

“It being so atypical, I don’t think we can really judge whether it’s a model we want to follow in the future,” member Mark Mathison said. “In terms of people who have kids, we’re still looking at how we can have appropriate and adequate child care. That’s an issue no matter what day it is.” Reed asked her colleagues to keep in mind also the needs of seniors who may find driving to evening meetings difficult.

Saturday, Mathison noted, “is a work day for a lot of people. We do have a lot of people in the trades. They couldn’t make it because they’re still scrambling to get caught up on the workload. There’s a lot stuff that got shut down.”

Regardless of time or place, there’s more that can be done to speed the flow of the meeting, members agreed. In addition to electronic voting, other options discussed included adding more articles that are routine to a consent calendar that could be passed with a single vote (member Mefford Runyon said he’d heard Chatham does a good job with this) and not having to read aloud so much verbiage for bond articles. That latter suggestion, from former police station building committee chair Tom Finan, will be forwarded to town counsel Michael Ford for review.

Pointing to a steady stream of information about warrant articles before June’s town meeting, including an Orleans Citizens Forum session, Reed stressed the value of bringing people up to date and answering questions before the gavel strikes.

Kelly said the town has the $25,000 it needs to provide electronic voting at the fall special town meeting, and would have to be sure to include a similar amount on that warrant to cover next May’s annual session. The board was to decide last night (July 15) whether to call a meeting on Oct. 26. Once the town signs a contract with the company for a date certain, it must pay 50 percent of its fee. Kelly said the town has enough money to cover 1,000 “controllers” (clickers) for voting.

“You can’t just look at the same old, same old,” Mathison said of the possibility of a two- to three-hour town meeting versus the more typical four-hours-plus version. Although he respects the traditions of town meeting, he said, “people’s lives weren’t as complex” years ago. “It’s nice to have traditions, but things need to adapt to the 21st century. I don’t think any of us have the luxury of spending all day at town meeting anymore.”