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Facing pushback, Montague Selectboard rethinks Town Meeting place

  • The Selectboard is going back to the drawing board to plan the June 13 Annual Town Meeting, after receiving negative feedback on its decision to hold Town Meeting in the Turners Falls High School gymnasium. Staff File Photo/Shelby Ashline

Staff Writer
Published: 5/22/2020 1:59:36 PM
Modified: 5/22/2020 1:59:24 PM

MONTAGUE — The Selectboard is rethinking the location of the June 13 Annual Town Meeting, after receiving negative feedback on its decision to hold Town Meeting in the Turners Falls High School gymnasium.

The Selectboard has bounced ideas around since April regarding how to safely hold Town Meeting amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Board members have generally agreed that holding the meeting as usual, in the high school auditorium, would not be acceptable. They’ve also considered holding the meeting outdoors, and holding it virtually using specialized video conference software.

In early May, the Selectboard formally set the location as the high school gym, reasoning that it would provide the extra space of an outdoor meeting, but would have air conditioning and protection from potentially bad weather.

Then, this week, board members said they would reconsider options for an outdoor or virtual meeting, after receiving negative feedback on the high school gym.

According to Town Administrator Steve Ellis, concerns were raised that an indoor meeting might not be safe enough, even if the town were to distribute free face masks and require voters to practice social distancing.

“No matter what we do, there’s going to be folks who aren’t in favor of it,” board Chair Rich Kuklewicz said.

Both an outdoor meeting and a virtual meeting would have their downsides, as the Selectboard has been discussing since April.

An outdoor meeting would probably have complications regarding accessibility of bathrooms and accommodations for people with disabilities, but it would probably be the safest of the options for meeting in a real, physical place, board members said.

In a virtual meeting, participation would be dependent on voters’ technological literacy, and some amount of technical difficulties are likely inevitable.

Based on a survey sent to Town Meeting members and town officials, a virtual meeting seems to be the option that most people feel comfortable with. According to Ellis, of the 57 respondents, 50 percent supported holding Town Meeting in the auditorium; 60 percent supported holding it in a large tent in a field; and 74 percent were favorable to holding Town Meeting remotely via video conference. (The high school gym had not been brought up by the time the survey went out.)

Legally, a virtual meeting is the most problematic. The Senate recently approved and sent to the House a bill to allow representative Town Meetings — as is the practice in Montague — to be held virtually. But the bill hasn’t yet received approval from the House or Gov. Charlie Baker.

The Selectboard plans to decide by June 1. Further discussion of Town Meeting logistics, as well as approving the warrant, is on the agenda for the board’s meeting on Tuesday at 6:30 p.m.

In the meantime, the board instructed Ellis and the town’s Emergency Management Director John Zellmann (who is also the Turners Falls fire chief) to look into potential locations for an outdoor meeting, keeping in mind the needs for bathrooms and accessibility for people with disabilities.

Reach Max Marcus at
or 413-930-4231.

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