Town elections are “funny little animals,” said Ellen Cushman, Belmont Town Clerk addressing the Select Board last week.
While the ballot is specific to the municipality, they can’t be delayed, postponed or changed by local action. Altering the date, for instance, can only be done through a “higher power,” either going before a judge for a court ruling or via a special act of the legislature up on Beacon Hill.
Asking to tinker with a town’s election dates is a fairly rare request, but circumstances around the world had forced Belmont’s and other communities hands on the matter.
With the advancing coronavirus pandemic forcing the cancellation of gatherings of more than a handful of people, it became clear holding the election on the traditional first Tuesday in April was all but impossible.
It was for that reason the Select Board voted to approve – better known as “calling” – the annual Town Election for April 7 just so it could then start the process of postponing it.
After the Select Board’s unanimous vote, the town prepared plans on what avenue to pursue to change the election date; through the courts as Wellesley had recently done or via legislation. Turns out that neither was needed as just days after the Board’s vote, state legislators stepped in with a universal fix.
As pressure from municipalities requesting delays and postponements began to swamp Beacon Hill, the Massachusetts House and Senate on Monday, March 23, passed legislation, S.2608, allowing municipalities to postpone 2020 local elections while the Commonwealth is in a state of emergency.
Under the legislation, the Select Board will be able to postpone to a date on or before June 30.
“I’m informed that the House and Senate passed the bill this afternoon and it is anticipated that the Governor [Charlie Baker] will sign it,” Cushman said.
The next question is when will the election take place? Belmont will find out on Thursday, March 26 when the Select Board meets to make the postponement official and sets the new date.
The pandemic has also impacted the 161st annual Town Meeting as the Board along with Town Administrator Patrice Garvin and Town Moderator Mike Widmer decided to move the first day of the annual Town Meeting from late April to May 29, which was already scheduled to be the start of the meeting’s Segment B which focuses on financial articles.
And that meeting will be limited to budgets and fiscal matters, measures vital “to keep the lights on,” according to Garvin.
The non-budgetary articles which were to highlight the April meeting including important topics as imposing a fee for paper bags, restricting gas hookups in new buildings, a lease agreement for the new ice skating rink and zoning changes to facilitate residential development at the McLean property will be delayed to a date yet known.
Garvin said it would be likely those measures will be taken up during a special Town Meeting during the summer.