I have lived in Bedford since 1976. I attended my first town meeting that year. For more than 40 years every town meeting has been basically the same. Maybe there is more technology now – and less paper being handed out – but pretty much the same process and structure.
This year it will definitely be different. The current pandemic is dictating how we can conduct Town Meeting, and even when we will have it. Bedford’s Town Meeting, originally scheduled for March 23, postponed to April 6 and then May 4, is now on the brink of being rescheduled to June. We are not sure when we will be able to hold the meeting – and definitely do not know what it will look like when we do.
Rest assured that plans are being discussed and developed by the Select Board, the Town Manager, Town Counsel, the town’s Emergency Management Team, and the Town Moderator – that would be me. This problem is shared by many other towns with Open Town Meeting in Massachusetts and we are in conversations with those towns, as well as the state government to find solutions that work. I cannot tell you what shape our Town Meeting will have – yet. But I will share with you some of the issues being discussed.
Some of them are obvious to all of us by now – social distancing, glove and mask-wearing, and lines separating us 6 feet apart. We can speed up the check-in process and spread it out so that not everyone is using the same door. “One-way” traffic flow patterns will be marked on the floor. We can spread voters out in small groups by assigning them to many rooms. Each room would be connected to the “podium room” with technology – there would be an assistant moderator in each room for voting. It can be done. It will be different. There would be no standing around the lobby and chatting with neighbors and friends, though. No coffee. No Minutemen posting the colors. These are all bottleneck points that we will need to avoid.
Oh, yes, and about those bathrooms? Hmmm … Small space … One door, in and out … Probably not.
This is definitely NOT the Town Meeting any of us are familiar with. So, you ask, “Why have one at all until it is safe to gather in our usual fashion?” And the answer is “The most important function of Town Meeting – and the one that is time sensitive – is to pass the annual town budget and to authorize expenditures.”
The new fiscal year starts July 1. Some action is necessary before that time.
Okay. Assume there are at least 100 voters (the legal quorum in Bedford) who show up to this Town Meeting with distributed seating. Can we just pass the budget and go home? The answer to that is “Sort of.” I did say this is complicated, didn’t I?
In mid-February, 2020, the Select Board approved the Warrant. It went to the printers and was mailed to every household in town. (If your copy has been misplaced you can always see it online at bedfordma.gov and click on Town Meeting on the left side of the page.) The warrant has 38 articles, including that budget. Once I declare the meeting open we need to take action on all the articles on the Warrant.
The Town Manager and the Select Board will identify which articles can be postponed to a meeting later in the year and which need to happen now. The Capital Budget, the Ambulance Enterprise Budget, Salary Plan funding, Community Preservation budget, use of Free Cash are examples of fiscal articles that might need action, in addition to the Operating Budget. Bylaw changes, Zoning Bylaws, major capital projects are examples of articles that might be recommended for postponement to a later meeting. Some of these might be combined into a Consent Agenda so that we can vote on groups of articles to speed up the process.
One last piece to mention is voting. I am sure that many of you have now had experience with online meetings and perhaps you have seen the Select Board meetings using ZOOM. This method of meeting requires every vote taken to be a roll call vote. You can imagine how time-consuming that might be for a Town Meeting. in addition, the electronic meeting option has not been authorized by the Legislature for Open Town Meetings. So, it is not being considered.
There are no definitive answers for how we will conduct Bedford’s Town Meeting – yet. Many other designs are being considered by towns all over Massachusetts and we are sharing ideas – including the idea of outdoor meetings.
All the options are less than ideal. Whatever the final shape and process, we know it will be different. We will plan for it to be a short meeting. We will keep the voters of Bedford informed. You will know about plans in advance, it will be a televised meeting, adjustments to the warrant will be published on the Town website prior to the meeting. Everything about the meeting will be in keeping with the Town’s bylaws and the laws of the Commonwealth.
Thank you for your patience and understanding as we all navigate these strange waters we find ourselves in.