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Willamstown Staying with Annual Town Meeting in School Gym
By Stephen Dravis, iBerkshires Staff
02:45PM / Tuesday, May 10, 2022
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WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — If any residents want to avoid having the annual town meeting in an enclosed space next Tuesday night, they will have to attend that meeting and make their case to other meeting members.
On Monday night, Town Moderator Adam Filson explained to the Select Board his reasons for holding the meeting as scheduled on May 17 at 7 p.m. in the Williamstown Elementary School gymnasium.
"This is not an easy decision," Filson said from the lectern at the Select Board's regular meeting. "I have to go with the information I have."
That information, outlined in a memo to the board, includes the fact that while the most recent 14-day data shows the town with an incidence rate of 119 positive COVID-19 cases per 100,000, when the time the meeting date was posted on April 14, the local risk level was no higher than medium.
Filson also pointed out that the recent spike locally already appears to be subsiding and it was driven mostly by positive tests at Williams College, whose student population historically does not participate in town meeting in high numbers. Plus, the seven-year average for attendance at town meeting has been 374 while the capacity in the WES gym as configured for town meeting is 695.
"Given the average attendance, that should allow for empty seats if required," Filson said.
He said he had discussed plans for the meeting as recently as May 5 with the town's health inspector and has been constantly checking guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Massachusetts Department of Public Health.
The laws of the commonwealth, meanwhile, make no provision for a "virtual" option for residents wishing to participate in the meeting electronically, as some residents have suggested on social media. The virtual option is available to towns with representative town meetings, like Adams, but not to communities with an open town meeting, where all registered voters are eligible to participate.
Filson said he considered the option of opening the meeting at the time and location stated on the warrant (WES) and then adjourning across town to Williams College's Weston Field, home of the last two outdoor town meetings. But since the warrant clearly states the more traditional indoor location, the moderator, town clerk and a handful of residents would need to attend the 7 p.m. opening and then relocate, causing a delay in the start of what already promises to be a lengthy meeting.
"You're talking about at least a 30-minute delay for town meeting if we want to relocate it," Filson said. "You have to balance [a decision to move] with people who will invariably say, 'We never got notice of the fact that the meeting location was changed.' You also have to balance it with the people who say, 'You're starting the meeting late? I won't be able to stay long enough.'
"Any decision is going to impact one group of stakeholders."
Some residents in recent days have been asking why the town would hold town meeting inside during a time when COVID-19 incidence rates are high when a workable outdoor solution is available and when a relatively high percentage of town meeting attendees, historically, are in their 60s and above, making them more at risk to the novel coronavirus.
On Monday, Select Board member Jane Patton was among those questioning the decision.
"While I appreciate the data and the facts [in Filson's presentation], I do think we need a small amount of empathy for the concerns of people and the fact that we will probably squish down even further on attendance," Patton said. "It's a shame.
"Shame on me when we signed the warrant. It never occurred to me that it would be back at WES. I should have caught that as a member of this board who signed that document."
While a switch to an outdoor venue on Tuesday night is off the table — if for no other reason than the fact that there will be no infrastructure arranged for such a move — a move to new date and location is possible if the attendees on May 17 so decide.
In an email to on Tuesday morning, Filson said a motion to "adjourn or recess to a fixed time, date and venue requires a majority vote and may not interrupt a recognized speaker who has the floor."
Of course, anyone who wishes to make such a motion likely would need to coordinate with the owner of said venue to make sure it is available at the "fixed time and date" in their motion. The last two years, Town Hall took the lead in arranging with Williams College for the use of Weston Field, with its ample seating, sound system and lights.
The 49th and last article on the town meeting warrant was discussed for a second time on Monday evening.
A citizens petition seeks town approval for a plan to compensate town board and committee members at a rate of $25.60 for each "open meeting" they attend. The figure is derived from 40 percent of the $64 per diem that state employees in Berkshire County receive for travel and incidental expenses.
It is a followup to last year's town meeting article, which called on the Select Board to study instituting a stipend for residents on town committees.
Select Board member Hugh Daley presented the results of his research into the question, which included comparing Williamstown to similar communities in Berkshire County and surveying current board and committee members about their motivation for serving.
Last month, the board voted 4-1 against recommending to town meeting that it pass Article 49. Wade Hasty, whose term expires this month and who did not run for re-election in Tuesday's town election, cast the lone dissenting vote.
Huff Templeton, who identified himself as the author of the citizens petition, addressed the board Monday to say that its intent is to make town service more possible for a wider variety of residents, ones who do not always necessarily have the luxury of giving up multiple hours at home with their families one or two nights per month.
"This may not be the most perfect article, but it is something that would have helped Jane [Patton] pay for child care when her twins were 4," Templeton said. "The DIRE Committee voted 5-1 with one abstention [Select Board member Jeffrey Johnson] in favor of this. This was intended to promote diversity, and they are the diversity body in town."
Templeton also questioned the survey questions Daley employed because they asked about motivations and whether reimbursement would "affect your willingness to serve."
"The goal [of stipends] is not to entice people," Templeton said. "The goal is to reduce barriers so someone isn't penalized for serving."
In other business on Monday, the Select Board heard a report from Henry Art on the activities of the Mohawk Trail Woodlands Partnership and responded to an Open Meeting Law complaint filed by resident Janice Loux.
Loux accused a quorum of the board of engaging in deliberation outside of an open meeting based on an extensive email thread involving a quorum of the board and the interim town manager regarding the manager's plan to appoint an interim police chief.
Chair Andrew Hogeland reported that town counsel advised the Select Board that since the town manager and not the board is the hiring authority for the police chief, no deliberation of a board matter occurred.
A letter drafted by Michelle Randazzo at KP Law and approved by the Select Board on Monday in a vote of 4-0-1 (Hasty abstaining) goes on to say:
"[The Select Board] acknowledges that because there were a few isolated emails that covered topics both within and outside the Board's jurisdiction, there is room for the perception that a quorum of the Board engaged in an email 'deliberation' under the OML. Recognizing this perception, the Board notes that the emails have already been publicly disclosed to [Loux] directly, and publicly discussed during the Board's May 9th consideration of this Open Meeting Law complaint. Thus, the Board believes that this public disclosure and discussion remediates any inadvertent OML violation that might have occurred."
The four-page letter OK'd by the board represents the town's final response to the complaint, but Hogeland pointed out that Loux has the right to appeal the response to the Attorney General's Office in Boston.
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