West Tisbury will hold its town meeting June 23 at the Tabernacle in Oak Bluffs and is seeking a one-time court order to reduce the meeting’s quorum from 130 registered voters to 30.
The decisions, made necessary by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, were made at a meeting of the board of selectmen Wednesday.
Though selectman Skipper Manter and Kent Healy, who had technical difficulties throughout the Zoom meeting, were reluctant to move the annual town meeting out of town, they ultimately joined chair Cynthia Mitchell in deciding it was the safest location because it’s an open air venue that doesn’t require $10,000 to rent a tent. The other possible locations were the West Tisbury School soccer field or the Ag Society grounds.
Because there is a state of emergency in place, the town can hold a town meeting in an adjoining town, town administrator Jen Rand said. West Tisbury “touches Oak Bluffs somewhere in the state forest,” she said.
Rand said the town of West Tisbury would not be charged rent to use the Tabernacle. She didn’t provide a figure, but said the M.V. Camp Meeting Association, which owns the venue, is only charging for staff time. The only other cost would be a bus to transport town residents who sign up in advance for a ride to town meeting.
Both Manter and Healy worried that parking will be an issue. In initial lobbying for the school site, Manter said it’s the board’s responsibility to encourage voter participation.
Town moderator Dan Waters and treasurer/collector Kathy Logue advocated for the move to the Tabernacle, as did resident Laura Silber.
Waters said weather could play a factor with a tent, particularly wind. “I’m a little bit worried about what weather does to tents,” he said. “The Tabernacle has been there for a while so we know it’s secure.”
When it seemed like selectmen were leaning toward a tent on the soccer field, Silber pointed out that some of the town’s older voters might have difficulty maneuvering the field if it rained. “If it was bad weather, I would think twice about going,” she said.
Selectmen considered kicking the can on a decision, but Logue urged them to take into consideration the logistics that Rand, who is already juggling the town’s business with town offices closed to the public, would have to work out. “The Tabernacle has the fewest logistical problems, so many fewer problems to solve and a lot less expense,” she said.
That seemed to sway Manter, a budget hawk, then Healy.
As for the quorum, which is the lowest number of voters required to hold a legal meeting, town counsel Ron Rappaport said the town of Marblehead was successful in petitioning the court to lower its quorum to 30. Rappaport will use that blueprint to seek a similar court order for West Tisbury.
According to Wicked Local Marblehead, the judge in that case ruled “immediate injunctive relief is necessary in order to prevent irreparable harm including disruption and/or halting of local government operations and functions and waste of municipal resources.”
Manter pointed out that there’s no guarantee a Dukes County Superior Court judge will see it the same way. Rappaport agreed.
The Legislature had considered a bill allowing towns to reduce quorums in the ongoing emergency, but it did not pass. The bill has been refiled, Rand said.
The town will have to pare its list of town meeting articles to essential business, a process that’s already underway, Rand said. That business will include the town’s operating budget and other projects that can’t wait until the fall for funding, she said. “It’s stuff the town needs to get done to move into the new fiscal year,” which starts July 1, Rand said.
Doug Ruskin, a member of the town’s finance committee, asked town leaders not to “advertise” the quorum change, even though he understood the need for it. “I have a concern it would discourage people from showing up. A lot of people are going to say I don’t have to go,” he said.
In other business, the town appointed Janelle Gadowski as the town’s deputy emergency manager. Gadowski is already assisting emergency Russell Hartenstine. She replaces Christopher West, who resigned, saying he could not meet the demands of the position, Rand said.
The West Tisbury board of selectmen will meet Friday at 5 pm to consider extending the stay-at-home order and partial construction ban