Once Again, (Special) Town Meeting Will Be A Virtual Affair

Photo: Mike Widmer, Belmont Town Moderator

While many of the town’s board and committee meetings have returned to in person, the most significant of those will, once again, be held virtually after Belmont Select Board approved a recommendation by Town Moderator Mike Widmer to hold the upcoming Special Town Meeting virtually over the internet.

The three-day meeting is scheduled for Nov. 29, 30 and Dec. 1.

The reason Widmer said for the continuation of meeting “on-line” was two fold, first pointing to rising numbers of Covid-19 infections returning as the weather turns colder.

According to the website Your Local Epidemiologist, the start of a new Covid wave in Western Europe has begun as hospitalizations are uniformly increasing. “As we’ve seen throughout the pandemic, not only are infections increasing, but so is severe disease,” said the website.

Given the U.S. has mirrored European trends throughout the pandemic, a wave in the U.S. is likely coming. And specifically in Boston, “there are concerning signals with sudden increases in viral wastewater levels.”

With the likely return of virial infections, a large indoor setting with 300 people would prove challenging. Town Meeting would take place for four hours over three days either in the new High School auditorium or at the Chenery Middle School, said Widmer. And while a majority of Town Meeting would be comfortable in this setting, “clearly a fraction of Town Meeting members, particularly those who are seniors and immunocompromised would have some risk,” said Widmer.

And while that population would have a choice to attend a movie or eat at a restaurant, “it’s not fair to tell them to choose to not to meet their civic obligation and not attend Town Meeting.”

“I think the prudent thing to do is to continue to meet virtually. We have been successful with the Town Clerk [Ellen Cushman] in doing this well and professionally and with civil debates,” said Widmer.

Board Of Health Recommends June Town Meeting Segment Stays Virtual

Photo: The new Belmont High School auditorium where Town Meeting will likely not take place in 2022

The Belmont Board of Health is recommending the second segment of the 2022 Town Meeting remain virtual, according to a discussion at the board’s monthly meeting on Monday, May 9.

The recommendation now goes before the Select Board for a final decision.

The Town’s Health Director Wesley Chin said he meet recently with Town Moderator Mike Widmer and Town Clerk Ellen Cushman to determine if is possible for the town’s legislative body to meet safely for the three scheduled nights in June when Town Meeting will review and vote on budget articles.

Chin noted to the board that Covid cases have surged in the past month with the CDC placing Middlesex County in its ”high” category for infection.

With the infection risk elevated and best practices for holding an indoor meeting includes people spaced six-foot apart from each other, Widmer and Cushman said the two locations large enough to hold approximately 300 Town Meeting members and staff – the new Belmont High School and the Chenery Middle School auditoriums – are unable to provide the needed separation.

Board member Donna David said she was informed that a possible hybrid option – on site participation with a virtual option or using both auditoriums – was not as an option as the town’s Information Technology department told her a tech solution doesn’t exist at this time to make such a plan work.

Despite Decline In Covid, First Segment Of Belmont Town Meeting Will Be Virtual

Photo: Mike Widmer, Belmont Town Moderator

While many people are hailing a return to normalcy after two years of Covid-19 restrictions, one of Belmont’s annual traditions will for the third time be presented virtually due to health concerns.

“I am recommending to the Select Board that our upcoming Annual Town Meeting be held remotely,” said Belmont Town Moderator Mike Widmer in a memo emailed to Town Meeting members by Town Clerk Ellen Cushman on Friday, May 18.

Widmer said he will bring his recommendation before the board at its Monday, March 21 meeting.

Widmer noted the decision will only effect Segment A – the non-budget agenda on the warrant – that begins May 2. He did strike a hopeful note saying Town Meeting could meet in person in June for the the fiscal portion “if [Covid] cases continue to decline significantly.”

The long-time moderator said the decision was made “reluctantly” after meeting with town officials, health experts and moderators from other towns.

“Personally, I would much prefer to meet in person. While we have successfully conducted the Town’s business using remote access, we have missed the personal and social connections of meeting in person. The debates, the camaraderie, the faces, the laughter, the applause, even the groans are all part of our local democracy, and are largely missing in virtual meetings,” said Widmer.

But after consultation with Belmont’s public health officials, Widmer did not believe it is safe for 300-plus individuals to meet in a confined space for four or more hours over several sessions. While many members would be willing to take the risk, there are those who themselves or family members continue to be susceptible to the virus and its potentially deadly effect.

While some towns’ legislative bodies, such as Needham, Reading and Winchester, will meet in person in the spring, Belmont has two distinct disadvantages to do the same. First, Belmont’s 294 Town Meeting Member body is larger than all but a few towns, and, second, its available indoor spaces have more impediments than most other municipalities.

For example, if a recommendation by heath officials is followed to leave an empty seat and row between participants, only 178 people could meet in the Chenery auditorium and 215 in the new High School theater. And an attempt to convene in the Wenner Field House would be quite costly as the athletic floor will need to be covered and audio/visual equipment installed.

“Many of you will be pleased with this decision, many not. I do hope you will understand that it was made in good faith after many conversations and much reflection. I hope you will bring that same good will to Town Meeting where we will be discussing important and likely contentious issues,” said Widmer.

Three ‘Modest’ Proposals Frame New Regs For Town Meeting Roll Call Votes

Photo: Moderator Mike Widmer discussing changes to the roll call bylaw with the Select Board

The most impassioned moments of the 2019 annual Belmont Town Meeting didn’t involve a vote but how they were reported. And next week, Town Meeting members and residents will hear and comment on changes to the roll call bylaw sponsored by three mainstays of town government.

At this year’s Town Meeting a group of members sought roll call votes on the outcome of several articles including measures that passed overwhelmingly on a voice vote.

Unlike the usual aggregate vote when just the grand total of yea and nay are presented to the meeting, a roll call requires each member’s vote to be recorded and made public. With electronic voting in Belmont, member’s names are projected on the main screen for the assembly to see how each member voted.

While roll call proponents said knowing how a member voted is an expected part of representative government, others called out the rarely invoked process “harassment” and “vote shaming” by revealing who may have voted against “popular” measures.

The town is holding a public meeting to discuss proposed Roll Call Bylaw changes on Tuesday, Oct. 15 at 7:15 p.m. at the Beech Street Center, 266 Beech St.

It culminated with a vote favored by the pro-roll call caucus going down to defeat during the roll call after initially passing with an aggregate tally. Soon after, there was some confusion on who could ask that the article be reconsidered, resulting in a decision by the moderator that left Town Meeting in a kerfuffle for a few days.

At a recent Select Board meeting, representatives of the Town Clerk’s Office, the Town Administrator and Town Moderator presented an initial draft article which they will bring to the fall Special Town Meeting in November supporting, as moderator Mike Widmer describes it, three “modest” proposals that will clarify and codify what constitutes a roll call vote.

“The proposal is based on the informal survey of Town Meeting members after the annual meeting … and we have done our best to reflect the will of the majority of members,” said Widmer.

Assistant Town Clerk Meg Piccione announced the proposed changes to the bylaw:

  • a roll call will be automatically conducted for the final action on any article or motion that requires a 2/3 majority vote.
  • an automatic roll call will be done when a motion or article is passed by fewer than 10 aggregate votes.
  • If a member requests a roll call vote for any other article, the measure will require 50 supporting members, up from 35.

Widmer noted the bylaw change also includes redefining reconsideration – when a matter that was voted on is brought back before the Town Meeting for a second time – which was also an issue at the annual meeting. The new bylaw will only allow a member who voted in the majority be allowed to request a motion to reconsider.

Widmer said he does expect some to question the group’s bylaw change and possibly challenge some aspects of the new bylaw.

“We’re under no illusion that there won’t be any amendments to this proposal,” said Widmer. “But our hope is to have …the one article so we can make it a smoother process rather than having one citizen’s petition for an article and another for something else.”

Advise And Consent: Town Meeting Opens Budget Season With Roll Call Q&A

Photo: Mike Widmer, Belmont’s Town Moderator.

While the second half of Belmont’s annual Town Meeting is dedicated to all things budgets and numbers, the reconvened gathering of the town’s legislative body tonight, Wednesday, May 29, will have the opportunity to give its “advise and consent” on the contentious matter of roll call votes.

The evening’s appetizer is six questions presented by Town Moderator Mike Widmer to the approximately 290 Town Meeting members to obtain an “informal sense” of the body regarding the parameters and procedures for recorded votes.

During the first session of Town Meeting in April, roll calls were requested on a series of votes including several which the articles passed by sizable margins. While many seeking recorded votes said their goal was greater transparency by elected members, others viewed it as “vote shaming” (there’s an app for that) to point out those who made unpopular votes.

The answers to the questions will be “strictly advisory and non-binding” and used to inform Widmer, the Select Board and “others” whether to consider any potential articles on the topic at a future Town Meeting.

The questions include yes or no answers to when an automatic roll call should be used instead of anonymous vote (all the time vs only on close margins) and what is the threshold percentage or number of members needed to have a roll call and whether to use percentages or a member count.

“Town Meeting seems quite divided on the issue of roll calls, some arguing for roll calls on every article while others wanting to raise the 35-person requirement,” said Widmer.

“I have no way of knowing how many support which position and of course there are lots of alternatives beyond these two positions. I think it will be helpful to get a sense of [Town Meeting] in order to develop a proposal with the Select Board to be presented at the fall Town Meeting,” said Widmer.

While the objective of the pre-meeting Q&A is to find the sense of Town Meeting, the decisions could dampen or accelerate citizens petitions seeking to force the issue.

An article at fall Town Meeting on the future of the hows and whys of roll call voting will likely be driven by the Select Board. And so far the three-member board is keeping an open mind on the issue.

“We haven’t made any decision to take any action at this point,” said Tom Caputo, chair of the Select Board at Tuesday’s groundbreaking for the Belmont Middle and High School. “But we’re pleased that [Widmer] is putting those questions in front of town meeting and looking to get their feedback and we’ll take action from there.”

“I think the [Select Board] wants to make sure that we are helping to support town meeting and ensuring that we are both achieving accountability, but also minimizing some of the more acrimonious activities than we’ve seen in in the last couple of Town Meetings,” he said.