Reading, MA — Moderator Alan Foulds updated the Select Board on Wednesday, May 27 on plans for a virtual Town Meeting to be held on June 15. According to Foulds, Town Meeting members have been polled regarding their preferences for the meeting and the members overwhelmingly endorsed the idea of it being held virtually. Town Clerk Laura Gemme reported that she has heard back from 119 of the 192 members with no negative comments regarding the idea.
Foulds continued, sharing that the plan is for members to use Zoom from home to participate in the meeting when possible. Members without access to the proper technology will be able to use a “base” with technical staff to aid them. There will be a trimmed-down warrant and all motions will be shared on screen. Reports under article two will be submitted in writing in advance of the meeting as a time-saving measure. Zoom’s hand raising feature will allow the moderator to call on members wishing to speak. The Zoom polling feature will be used to count votes. The hope is that the meeting will only take one night.
The meeting will be aired live on RCTV and non-town meeting members wishing to contribute will be given an email address to communicate with the meeting as it occurs. The town’s information technology staff will be available in case there are issues with the technical part of the plan. There will also be phone back-up if needed.
Testing of the plan will occur with precinct meetings that will be held prior to June 15. Foulds also anticipates a “mock” Town Meeting in order to test the technology. These plans are in place assuming that the State Senate will pass and that the Governor will sign a version of House Bill 4752 which passed the State House of Representatives on Wednesday. This bill will allow virtual Town Meetings to occur. Select Board chair Mark Dockser shared that he had been in conversation with State Senator Jason Lewis regarding the issue and that Lewis anticipates the Senate will pass the bill early next week. If the bill does not pass, the back-up plan is to use the Reading Memorial High School Performing Arts Center (PAC) for the meeting. Foulds said that this is not ideal as physical distancing measures would be challenging to maintain in the PAC.
Foulds will submit a formal request for the Select Board to authorize the changes next week, assuming bill passage. Town Manager Robert LeLacheur also reported that the printed warrant reports had arrived at town hall and that arrangements were being made to get them to town meeting members soon.
The Select Board spent considerable time considering on which date to call the recall election of member Vanessa Alvarado. Concerns over election safety as a result of COVID-19 and challenges to the petition affidavit have slowed the process. The board had expected legislation allowing mail-in voting to be extended by now, but only the House has passed the bill thus far. Town Counsel Rey Miyares shared that the Senate was surprised by some of the added content of the bill and it was delaying Senate action. The current bill only extends the provision through August 1. Miyares advised that the board “assume [the bill] will be enacted in its current format.”
The election, once called, must be held 64-90 days after the Select Board vote on the matter. Miyares stated that if the board voted on Wednesday, that places the window for an election from July 30 to August 25. Gemme shared that it was her belief that holding two elections on the State Primary date of September 1 would be less safe than holding the elections separately, considering that twice as many poll workers would be needed in the same space during a dual election. Gemme stated her preference for the recall election to be on Saturday, August 1. She also recommended the board “push” for mail-in votes to reduce the number of voters at the polls. The last summertime election in Reading was held in 2012, with a 20% turnout.
Member Carlo Bacci urged the board to vote to approve the August 1 date for the purpose of safety and urged the board to vote that night. After some conversation regarding the Board of Registrars upcoming public hearing on the objections raised to the petition, Miyares reminded the board that the election could be canceled if the Registrars choose to uphold the objections. Dockser suggested holding off on a decision until a specially-called meeting of the Select Board on Friday at 4:00 pm citing the desire to have more information and for input from the Board of Health. “At some point, we will have to make a decision,” Dockser commented.
Assistant Town Manager Jean Delios presented a plan for the use of “bump-out” spaces along the sidewalks in the downtown to accommodate outdoor seating as restaurants reopen. She also suggested a pilot program where the town will purchase some outdoor tables and chairs for the areas as support for the restaurants. After a public hearing, the Select Board voted 5-0 to approve the re-lighting of a street light on Grey Coach Lane, which was turned off by the board in 1991. The board also voted 5-0 to approve changes to its policies regarding financial conduct.
The Select Board adjourned at 10:20 pm.