WELLFLEET — Town Moderator Dan Silverman was supposed to be calling the annual town meeting to order this coming Monday evening, April 27. Instead, Wellfleet’s town government is trying to find a way to move forward during a spring when the need to maintain a safe social distance to prevent community spread of a deadly virus has made the traditional gathering in the school gym unthinkable.
A conference call with Wellfleet officials on how to have a town meeting during a pandemic hosted Friday by the Independent included some bold ideas, such as holding the meeting at the Wellfleet Drive-In or having citizens vote on warrant articles by mail.
But the consensus, in the end, pointed to simply delaying it. The select board will vote April 28 on a new town meeting date. The meeting is now on the calendar for June 1, but Town Administrator Dan Hoort said he cannot imagine people feeling comfortable congregating that soon.
Often called the purest form of democracy, town meeting is the sine qua non of local government. Voters must approve a town budget for the coming fiscal year, authorize borrowing and spending for large projects, and ratify changes in zoning and other town bylaws.
Moe Barocas, a former Wellfleet Board of Health member, suggested holding town meeting at the drive-in.
“It would be great advertising for the town,” he said, adding that the national press might even cover that story.
Barocas said voting could be done by sticking one’s hand out of the car window.
Mia Baumgarten, the town’s media operations manager, said she could arrange a camera to project onto the giant outdoor screen, and Silverman, the moderator, could be positioned on stage. Figuring out the audio would be more tricky, though Wellfleet Cinemas President John Vincent said it may be possible.
“The drive-in idea is gimmicky and cute,” said Silverman. “It would definitely put us on the map.”
But, he added, “I’m not sure that’s the goal.”
Other ideas included mail-in voting and a virtual town meeting with citizens watching on their home computers, but the main objection in both cases was the problem of providing for participation and debate. Baumgarten said Zoom and other platforms for remote meetings don’t work well with a large number of participants.
An outdoor town meeting is possible, though it would need to be a pretty large space to allow the minimum of 175 voters needed for a quorum to stay six feet apart, Silverman said.
On March 24, the town of Southwick drew 138 of its 6,000 registered voters to a special town meeting. In gloves, coats, and hats, people gathered at the Southwick Regional School parking lot to vote on three articles. Despite protests about health and safety, officials held the meeting to decide whether to spend $800,000 for aluminum sulfate treatment of the Congamond Lakes, which had to be done in early April because of water temperatures, according to the Westfield News. That article passed 135 to 3.
In Wellfleet, there are two time-sensitive articles, Hoort said.
One is a $3.8 million expenditure to expand the town water system to improve flow to the town’s secondary water source, the Gristmill Way wells. The expansion is needed to enable construction of the proposed affordable housing development at 95 Lawrence Road.
The other pressing question is whether the town should take by eminent domain a portion of High Toss Road, between Pole Dike Road and Rainbow Lane, in order to clear the title. This would assist with permitting of the Herring River Restoration Project.
Hoort said he thinks both of those decisions could be delayed until fall, but he would need to research it to be sure.
The state currently is allowing towns to delay their town meetings past June 30, the end of the fiscal year. The emergency legislation states that towns may continue to operate at the same spending levels, but not more, from the previous year until a new budget is approved.
“I hate to be the skunk at the garden party,” Silverman said. “But why contort ourselves when we can wait until fall?”
Hoort said Wellfleet could make that work, but it would leave a lot unresolved for the incoming town administrator. Hoort has said he is retiring as soon as a new town administrator is hired. That search has also been delayed by the pandemic crisis.