As summer draws closer, the Select Board once again reviewed the details of this year’s Annual Town Meeting. At their previous May 13 meeting, the Board was inclined toward June 27 at 1 pm on Sabourin Field. Originally slated for March 23, the meeting has already been extended twice past its original 30-day limit. The Board reviewed the updates based on the logistics of holding the meeting to determine whether the June 27 date would be appropriate, or if choosing a later date of July 11 would be better. After much discussion, July 11 at 9 am was settled upon as the new date by the Board.
Town Manager Sarah Stanton presented the Board with many updates on the logistics of the meeting. She has been working with the Board of Health and Town Moderator Cathy Cordes to develop safe and effective practices for an outdoor meeting. One obstacle they repeatedly encountered was that of the heat which comes along with a summer outdoor meeting. While a tent would help to provide shade, the Board of Health was informed that this coverage would be unsafe in adhering to best practices for preventing the spread of Covid-19. A morning meeting time was selected to best address the challenge of high temperatures at the meeting.
Additional funds will be required to overcome other challenges presented by the outdoor setting. Proposed costs of holding the meeting on Sabourin Field include a substantial AV system, chairs, portable restrooms, ADA enhancements for the turf field, protection for the turf such as plywood to support tables, and staffing costs, totaling at least $20,000. However, many of the exceptional costs for holding Town Meeting amidst the concern of Covid-19 will be covered by the CARES Act, a relief package providing aid to American citizens, businesses, and local governments.
To minimize the possibility of spreading the virus, many precautions are being taken in advance of the meeting. As established at their previous meeting, the Select Board approved a streamlined warrant to limit the length of the meeting.
Additionally, all in attendance would be required to wear face coverings, and detailed seating and check-in procedures would be implemented. Stanton presented the Board with plans for check-in, which is anticipated to take about an hour if an estimated 200 residents are in attendance, and a detailed seating plan. Seats will be spaced out at least 6 feet apart, with walking aisles, and both single and double seats.
While elements of the Town Meeting are coming together, much is still unresolved. One of the most prevalent issues was raised by Board member Bill Moonan. “I’ve received a number of calls from people in my age group,” Moonan shared, “saying that they’re not going to be comfortable coming to Town Meeting, period. They’d like to have a vaccine or something in place before anything happens… One of the important parts of town meeting is that people perceive it to be fair and open… The question is if the 60-plus range chooses not to come, are we leaving ourselves in some condition where it won’t be perceived as a meeting? I hope not, I think not, but we should discuss that.”
Other members echoed similar concerns, uncertain how many people from various age groups would feel comfortable attending the meeting.
This raised another issue regarding setting a quorum. The Massachusetts House and Senate are currently in the process of sending a proposal to Governor Charlie Baker to allow towns to reduce their quorum to as low as 10% of the usual number.
For Bedford, whose quorum is usually 100, this means it could be lowered to as little as 10. This quorum reduction allows for town meetings to be held at a time when attendance is uncertain. Stanton fears that while this could facilitate a smaller crowd being able to pass the budget, it may turn residents away, as such a small group would be able to make a budget decision for the town. The Select Board and Town Moderator have yet to determine a quorum, which must be done at least seven days in advance of the meeting, although they discussed lowering it in some form.
Due to these remaining uncertainties, the Board elected to choose July 11 as the new date for the meeting. Board member Margot Fleischman felt that with all the questions which still surrounded the meeting, “the June 27 date would be a rush to get all of that messaging and all of those questions answered, and certainly we would be putting ourselves under a pretty aggressive timeline.”
In addition to pushing the date back, the Board also decided to move the start time to 9 am. The move was taken to ensure the meeting can run without continuing into the hottest parts of the day. Furthermore, because it will be held on a Saturday, there is always the possibility to pause the meeting and continue on Sunday morning.
Because the date has been pushed to July, the town will have to operate on a 1/12 budget for the time in July leading up to the meeting. The 1/12 budget is based on the approved budget for the previous fiscal year. This requires all branches of town government to submit their anticipated expenses to the state Department of Revenue to be approved.
Under a 1/12 budget, the town operates on a deficit, meaning large or new projects would likely be put on hold. However, as soon as the new budget is approved at Annual Town Meeting, the money may be utilized right away.