Here's a reminder about Town Meeting tomorrow night and what the conditions will be.
I also want to remind you that WGBY TV (Channel 1221 on our local cable) will broadcast a debate between Richard Neal and Alex Morse tonight at 7pm.
Bette Craig, President, SWCA
Voters Should Arrive Early for Williamstown's Outdoor Annual Meeting
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — This year's annual town meeting comes with a little extra paperwork.
In addition to the meeting warrant, voters at next Tuesday's gathering will be issued separate cards for voting yea and nay — just one of the modifications in place to accommodate the first outdoor meeting on record.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the meeting not only is delayed from its traditional May date, it also will be held outside on Farley-Lamb Field, the home of Williams College's football and lacrosse teams, at the Weston Field complex.
In order to make things a little easier on Town Moderator Adam Filson and his vote tabulators, the town is moving away from the usual index cards that residents are used to holding aloft to register their votes. This year, they will be issued 8 1/2-by-11 sheets to use in voting — green sheets with “yes” printed on them and red sheets with “no.”
First-year Town Clerk Nicole Pedercini explained the new procedure in an interview conducted by WilliNet and available on the town's website.
Pedercini talked about the protocol for accessing and leaving the meeting, the procedure for voting in the one planned secret ballot and the importance of getting to the meeting early.
“I would recommend that you would begin to arrive around 6 p.m. just so we can get organized,” she said of the 7 p.m. meeting. “The seaters at that point will definitely be ready to go. We just want everything to go in an organized fashion.”
She said the town expects to have adequate parking available in the municipal lot at the bottom of Spring Street and across Latham Street from the football field in the lot beside Towne Field House.
Everyone entering the meeting will do so at the “Gargoyle Gate,” near the field's north end zone. That is the only place to check in, receive your red and green voting cards and get the secret ballot that relates to Article 21 on the warrant.
That is the article which asks the town whether it wants to establish a municipal light plant, which, despite the antiquated name, has nothing to do with lighting. The light plant would be the utility that could operate a town-owned broadband service, if Williamstown decides it wants to offer that service to residents at some point in the future.
State law requires two consecutive affirmative ballot votes to authorize an MLP to be held not more than 13 months apart from one another. If the question passes by a two-thirds majority on Tuesday, the town likely would face the same question again at next May's annual town election or at a special meeting at some point in the interim.
A positive result on Article 21 on Tuesday would not have any tax impact; it only would allow the process to move forward to see at a later date whether the town wants to make the investment.
Those secret ballots, Pedercini said, will be collected at the end of the meeting as voters go home.
Voters arriving — once they are checked in and have the paperwork they'll need to vote at the meeting — will be escorted to their seats in the metal bleachers. Ushers will make sure that voters are socially distanced, with at least 6 feet between family units.
“You're going to have face coverings on, and it's important to keep them on throughout the entire meeting,” Pedercini said to voters watching the video presentation. “The moderator will have one on. It will be challenging for him. It's important for all of us to keep each other safe.
“If you get to the field and you forgot your mask, we can give you a mask. But if you don't want one of ours and don't have one one to wear, there will be space across the field [on the 'visitors' side] in a separate section.”
When the outdoor location for the meeting was announced, some pictured lawn chairs and blankets spread out on the field itself. But Pedercini clarified in her video that the field will be off limits to all but the moderator, the Select Board, the chair of the Finance Committee and town counsel, who will be in their traditional position at the “head” of the meeting, facing the voters, who will mainly be seated in the home bleachers.
Pedercini said anyone wishing to bring their own lawn chair for the meeting will need to set up outside the fence around the perimeter of the field.
Otherwise, plan on settling into the bleachers for what could be a long night. Between arriving early to allow organized, socially distant seating and a warrant that features at least one warrant article — on outdoor cultivation of marijuana — that has the potential for a lengthy debate, attendees may be in the facility for some time. Pedercini said the restrooms, located beneath the bleachers, will be open during the meeting.
The marijuana debate could be short or protracted depending on whether town meeting members follow the advice of the Planning Board, which last week recommended that the meeting delay action on both its own warrant article (which prohibits outdoor cultivation of recreational pot) and the competing draft bylaw that rewrites the rules and continues to allow outdoor cultivation by special permit. The Agricultural Commission, which drafted the latter bylaw amendment, discussed a delay or tabling motion last week but took no formal action on whether to recommend it.
And as much as voters may be itching to make a dash for the exit when the gavel comes down, Pedercini said that is not advisable.
“The moderator will dismiss folks in an orderly fashion by section,” she said. “He might even go by rows within a section. Please make sure you're dismissed by the moderator … to make sure we have social distancing in place.
“When you do exit, that is when you deposit your yes or no cards [on the municipal light plant question].”
For the record, there is no provision in Massachusetts General Law for remote participation in town meeting, and the Legislature passed no emergency legislation this spring to enable it. Likewise, the annual town meeting is not impacted by last week's decision by Gov. Charlie Baker to lower the limit of people who can attend an outdoor gathering.
“Town meetings have always been exempt from the gathering order,” Community Development Director Andrew Groff said Monday in a meeting with the town's Agricultural Commission. “The commonwealth has given us no alternatives to conduct town business in a community that has a town meeting charter.”
The rain date for the annual town meeting is Wednesday, Aug. 19. Filson is expected to decide by Monday at noon whether postponement will be necessary.