Chilmark town hall closes, employees telecommute

Town officials and department heads discuss next steps.

Chilmark selectmen will be meeting in a virtual space for the foreseeable future. That's town administrator Tim Carroll on the screen. - Lucas Thors

The Chilmark town hall will be closed until April 6 and town employees will telecommute as much as possible for the foreseeable future. 

In order to socially isolate, members of town government will discuss business and deliberate in virtual meeting spaces where the public can tune in. Chilmark selectmen tried that out for the first time Tuesday, telecommuting from home offices, kitchens, and living rooms, in order to discuss the next steps for the town.

The board made no decision on whether or not to schedule the April 27 town meeting, and said they would discuss it regularly in the coming days. Selectmen will discuss this issue with the town moderator. Since the board has not called the meeting yet, chairman Warren Doty said they could schedule the meeting for some time in May.

Town clerk Jennifer Christy said state legislation is currently being discussed that may allow towns to have a meeting after the lawful deadline of June 30. 

Department heads and other town officials were also present, and although no members of the public were in the digital discussion, folks can call the town hall to register for the next meeting. 

Town administrator Tim Carroll said he has ordered laptops for town employees who are able to telecommute, but many of the computer companies are out of stock. 

Some essential services will have to periodically access the town hall, such as the accountant, town clerk, and payroll staff.

Prior to Carroll recommending to the board that they close town hall, the town was planning on having the building remain open with minimal staffing. “It doesn’t seem to make sense to have people here sitting next to each other when they could be working from home,” Carroll said. “The idea of keeping the town hall open seems to fly in the face of this concept of social distancing.” “Closing town hall and having people telecommute is the bulk of the work,” Carroll said.

According to Carroll, legislation was recently passed that suspends certain provisions of the open meeting law in hopes of reducing exposure at public meetings. The open meeting law normally requires public officials to meet in a public space that is physically accessible to the public, but with the current situation, the newly enacted legislation allows governing bodies to deliberate through alternative means, such as teleconferencing.

Board of Health Agent Katie Carroll said she believes the community has realized that “we need to overreact, rather than not react strongly enough.” She said the towns are getting closer to having a spreadsheet of volunteers, and are ramping up community participation in grocery shopping and picking up medications for people who can’t leave their homes.

Carroll also said some of the Chilmark food establishments such as the Grey Barn and Menemsha Fish Market are implementing precautions to limit workers contact with each other, but at the same time are working together to make sure that food is available to those who might need it in the near future.

Library director Ebba Hierta said the Chilmark library will be closed for this week, but she hopes to have staff back in the building starting next week. Currently, Hierta said none of the Island libraries will have any checkout service available. She said she has spent time contacting digital service providers that offer streaming options for music, entertainment, and even education. “We are looking into Acorn TV, and are looking at online courses for people who want to continue their education,” Hierta said.

According to Hierta, the situation is changing so rapidly, that every day brings new information and new challenges. “Every plan I have written has lasted for less than a day, as the situation evolves very fast,” Hierta said. “But we are going to have some great digital options for people.”