Deerfield, Sunderland and Conway reschedule Town Meetings; Whately mulls options

  • Attendees of the 2016 annual Town Meeting in Whately vote in favor of a measure. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, towns across Franklin County are rescheduling their Town Meetings. FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 28, 2020

As the new fiscal year approaches, town officials across southern Franklin County are grappling with when and how to hold their respective annual Town Meetings in the midst of a global health pandemic.

“We can’t put people at risk just because we want to get a Town Meeting going,” Whately Select Board member Jonathan Edwards said at a recent meeting, during which members considered dates for the town’s now-postponed annual Town Meeting.

Spring is generally the time of year when towns are making final preparations for the July 1 start of the new fiscal year. Annual Town Meetings, where residents approve town budgets and other items of town business, are often held in late April or early May.

But with state orders prohibiting gatherings of 10 or more people and social distancing advisories meant to curb the spread of the virus, towns across Massachusetts have been forced to make decisions regarding the rescheduling of Town Meetings that fall before May 4, the current date through which such orders are in effect.

Deerfield, for example, announced in a note on the town website that it moved its annual Town Meeting to June 1.

Sunderland moved its April meeting to June 5 at 7 p.m. at the Sunderland Elementary School, according to the town website.

And on Monday night, the Conway Select Board voted to push its May 11 Town Meeting to June 8.

The Conway Select Board’s vote followed a discussion on how the meeting would be held if health officials continue to call for social distancing even after restrictions on gatherings are lifted. Board Chairman John O’Rourke said those details will be discussed at a future date.

Meanwhile, Whately is still considering its options. The Select Board met April 8 to discuss rescheduling its Town Meeting — which members had already agreed to postpone — to a date in June. The primary concern among board members, however, was selecting a date that would give the town enough time to finalize a budget.

“I think we should start getting all the other ducks in a row as best as we can,” said Whately Select Board Chairwoman Joyce Palmer-Fortune, who noted Finance Committee meetings would have to resume.

Whately Town Administrator Brian Domina explained that new legislation allows towns to hold their annual Town Meeting past the ordinary June 30 deadline, so long as the state of emergency is still in effect.

“At some point, we’re going to have to decide how we want to proceed, whether we want to hold it after June 30 or we want to hold it prior to (June 30),” Domina said. “It’s hard to tell … how the next month is going to shake out in terms of how this whole pandemic is going to go.”

Board members considered the possibility of holding the meeting outdoors in June or, if space permits, holding the meeting at the elementary school — provided there is enough space for residents to be 6 feet apart.

But board member Edwards expressed concern about pushing forward without certainty that residents could attend the meeting with no concern for their health and safety.

“Sitting here tonight, I’m hard-pressed to believe that I can, in good conscience, think we’re going to have a comfort zone and a safety zone to have Town Meeting in the middle of June,” he said. “I honestly don’t see it happening.”