It is difficult to read the summary of this month without a growing sense of retroactive dread. March marked the first time that both the state and the town began to understand the full scale of the COVID-19 pandemic, although it is difficult to know, looking, back how much we were aware of how our lives would change. This month had a fevered release of press statements from local officials and the state government about (what we thought) would slow the spread of the novel virus that had yet to gain household infamy. In the background of all this, the town sought to fill empty positions on the School Committee, celebrated the appointment of new members to local government, and began to make plans for the recall election that would define the summer.
The month began with the dual elections for Presidential nominees and local seats as Reading residents turned out in force on March 3rd to cast their votes in the Hawkes Field House, marking the last local election in recent memory that did not include PPE and copious amounts of hand sanitizer. As Kevin Vendt reports, Carlo Nazzaro, Erin Gaffen, and Shawn Brandt were able to secure seats on the School Committee.
“Nazzaro received 5,145 votes, with Gaffen coming in second, compiling 4,722 votes. Both will be new to the committee as incumbents Linda Snow Dockser and Jeanne Borawski chose not to run for re-election. Megan Fidler Carey was not elected, receiving 3,456 votes,” reported Vendt.
Nazzo and Gaffen won the two open three-year seats on the School Committee, while Brandt ran unopposed to secure the committee’s one-year seat with 5502 votes. All three of the newly-elected committee members had backgrounds in Reading government.
After a heated race for Select Board, Carlo Bacci and Karen Gately secured seats on the committee, beating out incumbent Andrew Friedmann and a write-in campaign in favor of John Halsey.
“After a full day of voting at the Hawkes Field House, and after an election for Select Board which has been testy at times, local small business owner Carlo Bacci received the most votes with 5,502. Real estate broker and Finance Committee member Karen Gately Herrick came in second with 4,014 votes. Incumbent Andrew Friedmann received 2,958 votes to come in third. The top two candidates will take seats on the board,” reported Kevin Vendt.
Halsey’s write-in campaign for Select Board came in the aftermath of increasing tension between the outgoing Board member and the current Select Board over handling the confirmation of Police Chief David Clark.
“Two Thousand nine hundred and six votes were cast for write-ins, but those ballots need to be confirmed by hand by the Town Clerk. It is not a given that all the write-in votes were cast for Halsey,” reported Vendt.
On March 10, in a press release that was re-published on The Reading Post, Governor Charlie Baker declared a State of Emergency in Massachusetts starting March 11th in response to rising cases of coronavirus across the country. This marked the first time that the state took action against the virus that was quickly gaining name-recognition in the country and around the world.
In response to both growing fears regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and the recent declaration of a State of Emergency by the Baker-Polito Administration, Town Moderator Alan Foulds released a press release through The Reading Post regarding the process for determining a potential postponement of the Annual Town Meeting, which was scheduled to occur on April 27th.
“In light of the current public health pandemic, I am posting this statement to let the town know that we are watching this situation closely, but it is a fast-moving problem. I have been in contact with the Town Manager, Town Counsel, and others to decide the best course of action, so stay tuned,” wrote Foulds.
Foulds went on to detail what the town and state bylaws say regarding the possible postponement of the Annual Town Meeting.
“I do not know where this is going, but rest assured that officials in the executive and legislative branches of state government are well aware of the issue. Given the level of uncertainty, the best thing for us to do as a town is to continue moving forward to the April 27 meeting, monitor the situation, and be prepared to adjust as circumstances and guidance change. We hope to see you at town meeting,” concluded Foulds.
On March 13, Town Clerk Laura Gemme confirmed to The Reading Post that the second phase petition regarding the possible recall of Select Board Chair Vanessa Alvarado had been submitted.
“The second phase required a petition to be returned to the town clerk within 21 days of the first filing and needed to contain the signatures of ten percent or 1,988 signatures of the town’s registered voters,” reported Kevin Vendt.
Gemme then moved to the next phase of the process, certifying that all the signatures present on the petition belonged to registered voters in Reading, stating that she hoped to be finished with the process by March 18th.
“If the second phase petition is successfully certified, then, by town charter, the Select Board must call for a recall election not less than 64 days, and not more than 90 days from receipt of the phase-two petition,” reported Vendt.
On March 14, The Reading Board of Health released a statement regarding the rapidly changing COVID-19 situation in the state. This marks the first time that the Board of Health would release a statement regarding COVID-19 in the town.
“The Reading Board of Health continues to monitor the COVID-19 (coronavirus) situation in our local community. As organizations in our community have taken steps to prevent the spread of the virus, we fully support and reinforce those measures, which include: social distancing, closures, and enhanced hygiene protocols,” stated the press release.
“The Board of Health continues to be in contact with community organizations, town officials, and state authorities as we monitor this situation, and will update the community as necessary” concluded the statement.
In a March 16 press release, Town Manager Bob LeLacheur released a statement regarding the framework of how the town government would be approaching the emerging COVID-19 pandemic.
“For our response to the Covid-19 virus, we are operating under what is called a Unified Command. Members include Emergency Management Director/Fire Chief Greg Burns, Police Chief David Clark, Board of Health Chair Emmy Dove, Superintendent John Doherty, and Town Manager Bob LeLacheur. This Command group develops the overall incident goals, objectives, and strategy – and relies heavily on input from other formal ICS Sections, all of which are comprised of Reading (town, school, RMLD) employees and the Board of Health members” stated LeLacheur.
LeLacheur also stated that Town Hall would be closed through March 27 and that the Select Board would be operating under an abbreviated agenda in consideration of the lack of public participation in the upcoming meeting.
“We are all facing a challenge none of us have seen before. Everyone will need to make significant adjustments to their daily lives – and the role each of you plays in following guidelines and keeping well informed with the facts is the single most important response we need from our community. With your help – we got this” stated LeLacheur.
In a March 18th press release to The Reading Post, Select Board Chair Vanessa Alvarado released a statement regarding the call by some members of the community to recall her from her position on the Select Board. This marked the first time that Alvarado responded to the two petitions calling for her removal from the Board.
Alvarado wrote of the positive experiences she has had while serving on the Select Board, such as speaking on Memorial Day to honor residents who have been lost to war, improving sustainability in the town, and moving to involve more residents in the conversation of major town decisions.
“It has truly been one of the most uplifting and affirming experiences of my life. That is, until a recall effort was initiated against me because someone questioned how I managed a process” said Alvarado.
Alvarado defended her handling of the hiring process that eventually selected David Clark to be the Chief of Police.
“Our Charter calls for the Select Board to vote to confirm only two positions appointed by the Town Manager: the Police Chief and the Fire Chief. I strongly believe the intent is not for those votes to merely be a rubber stamp. The intent is to ensure that elected officials, as representatives of the town’s citizens, play a role in appointments to these critical public safety positions. All of the actions I took in the last six months were out of a desire to create an open and public discussion of our priorities in identifying our next police chief, fully consistent with the important role the Charter carves out for the Select Board” said Alvarado.
Alvarado ended her press release with a plea for support in the ballot box in the (as of yet unannounced) recall election.
Just one day after this impassioned press release calling for support among her neighbors, the petition to recall Select Board Chair Vanessa Alvarado was certified, marking the completion of the second phase of the recall process, propelling the town toward a special election that would determine if Alvarado would remain on the Board.
“Laura Gemme, Chair of the Board of Registrars, announced on Thursday, March 19 that the petition to recall former Select Board Chair Vanessa Alvarado has been officially certified. Gemme certified 2,239 of the signatures submitted, which was greater than the ten percent threshold of registered voters required by the Town of Reading Charter,” reported Kevin Vendt.
“According to the charter, the registrars will submit the certified petition to the Select Board, who will then officially notify Alvarado. The charter also stipulates that the board needs to schedule a recall election no less than 64 and no greater than 90 days from the date of certification. At this time, it is not known how the current situation with the coronavirus may affect a recall election,” reported Vendt.