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Town Meeting 2021: lots of alternate options, and uncertainty

  • Jaffrey was among the New Hampshire towns that held their annual meeting via drive-through in 2020. Ashley Saari / Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

  • Greenfield held its Town Meeting on Saturday, March 16. Staff Photo by Meghan Pierce

  • Staff photo by Ben Conant

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 1/3/2021 8:50:40 PM

Town warrants for 2021 are just around the corner, and with them looms a decision that many town officials are calling too soon to call: how to hold 2021 Town Meeting amid a pandemic?

The state made provisions for towns to hold virtual meetings via HB 1129, in a format similar to the one that Peterborough successfully used for its 2020 Town Meeting in July.

“There’s flaws in all of these things,” Dublin Moderator Tim Clark said, describing the numerous options that town moderators throughout the state are currently discussing online. Although towns can legally hold drive-through ballot voting, and address residents’ questions about the warrant in virtual information sessions under the state’s guidance, “both of those really don’t permit the kind of open, free debate that we’re accustomed to at Town Meeting,” he said.

Then there’s the moving target of the coronavirus pandemic. A group of town leaders went through a similar process last spring to decide whether to hold the March meeting, he said. “I’m glad we did go through with it,” Clark said, since he figured the pandemic was only going to get worse. “Now we have a different situation,” he said, and it’s anyone’s guess what the threat of COVID-19 would be in just a few short months. Although postponing the meeting remains an option, it carries all the same risks it did a year ago, he said. “It’s better to get the budget approved and start the year right,” he said, but that he has yet to decide what to recommend for Dublin. Clark said he had confidence the town could conduct its voting process as usual in the Town Hall, using the same precautions as in the November election.

The Francestown Select Board has discussed options with moderator Kevin Pobst, Select Board member Henry Kunhardt said. Francestown officials found the virtual option “kind of cumbersome,” and we’re looking into voting as normal and putting off the deliberative session until later in the year when they could hold it outdoors.

“We’re looking at days in April, maybe,” Kunhardt said, and that the town would need to decide by late January in order to publish the plan with the warrant – although he too acknowledged it was difficult to know what the COVID-19 risk would be come spring.

Greenfield and Hancock officials have not yet made decisions yet about Town Meeting, town administrators said.

HB 1129 allows towns to essentially skip the deliberative session. It requires towns to hold a live, virtual information session explaining the modified voting process, and then address questions and comments from residents in a second session within a week., at which point the governing body can discuss, debate, and amend the warrant. The final warrant would then be made available, as well as a date for residents to vote by ballot on a drive-up basis on each warrant article.

The dilemma over how to best hold meetings isn’t limited to municipalities: three Democratic members of the New Hampshire House of Representatives are pushing for a virtual meeting on the Jan. 6 “Convening Day,” rather than the drive-in model proposed where legislators sit in their cars in a parking lot at the University of New Hampshire and hear the speeches over FM radio. It is unfeasible for some legislators with disabilities to sit in a vehicle for that long, and without additional accommodations, the situation might result in litigation via the Americans with Disabilities Act.

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