WELLFLEET — Town Administrator Dan Hoort has asked the Outer Cape’s state legislators to try to get Beacon Hill to consider a radical remedy for the possibility that the traditional town meeting can’t survive the Covid-19 crisis: “I believe Massachusetts should allow a mail-in ballot to replace annual town meeting this year,” he wrote to Sen. Julian Cyr and Rep. Sarah Peake.
Hoort is clearly concerned that the crisis will have a devastating effect on town finances, with tax revenues and local residents’ incomes greatly reduced. He said he was looking at ways to make cuts now in the fiscal 2021 budget.
“Revenues relying on a busy summer season are going to be hit and hit hard,” he wrote. “If I can recommend adjustments now it may not be as bad for the FY 2022 budget.”
Hoort is worried that it will be a long time before residents feel comfortable crowding into the school gym for town meeting, which by law cannot conduct business with fewer than a quorum of citizens — currently about 175 voters.
“Everything I’m reading says we won’t even resemble being back to normal (or a new normal) until a vaccine is available, which is at least a year into the future,” he wrote. “Having just had our first Covid-19-related death in Wellfleet, I can’t imagine a scenario where our residents are willing to sit next to each other at town meeting for at least a year, if even then.” [See story on the death of Bruce Drucker, page 9.]
Cyr replied to Hoort’s message, saying that a chair of the legislature’s Joint Committee on Municipalities, Sen. Becca Rausch, was looking into the ideas of remote participation in town meeting and voting by mail. Peake’s response echoed Cyr’s, adding, “Let’s see where we are as we move forward. I think no one today can imagine what July will look like.”
The idea of remote participation in town meeting raises a host of questions with few answers. If participation depends on having access to a particular kind of computer technology and being comfortable with using it, does that seriously limit the ability of many citizens to exercise their rights? Is it feasible to conduct an open, orderly, and fair discussion and debate on town warrant questions with a large group of people using video or teleconference platforms?
Hoort noted that “through recent legislation the town has the option of reducing quorum requirements, but I find that to be a bad option, as it reduces participation. The mail-in ballot really is the best way to include everyone.”
He suggested that the ballot might include all the articles of a normal annual town meeting, or just those items considered high priority by the select board. “Each item would have the following voting options: (1) Approve; (2) Disapprove; (3) Indefinitely Postpone,” he wrote.
“Any ballot question that does not receive 50 percent or more in favor would be considered to have failed. This would allow those opposed to any item ample opportunity to vote against it.”
Mia Baumgarten, Wellfleet’s media operations manager, told the Independent on Tuesday that setting up town meeting for remote participation was possible, but it wouldn’t be easy.
“It would be very clunky on Zoom,” she said, referring to one of the most popular videoconference platforms. “You’d have to open it up to several avenues, and you’d still have issues of access. And what if there’s a storm? But it could be done, as long as the state says it’s OK.”
Baumgarten and other town officials said the part that concerned them most was the ability to have a real debate. That’s the essence of our town meeting form of government, they said.
The Independent has set up a videoconference “virtual open newsroom” to discuss the status of town meeting in the pandemic crisis. It will take place this Friday, April 17, from 4 to 5 p.m. For information on how to participate, call the newspaper at 508-237-8381.