The ongoing pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of local government, including the key forum for passing bylaws and budgets. Perhaps nowhere on the Vineyard is this more true than in the case of West Tisbury. On June 23, West Tisbury voters are slated to convene in an unorthodox location for the 2020 annual town meeting — Oak Bluffs. The Tabernacle, the Camp Meeting Association’s signature piece of architecture, will act as surrogate for the West Tisbury School, which is the traditional venue for West Tisbury town meetings.
“You know, it’s not without its challenges,” West Tisbury town administrator Jennifer Rand told selectmen Wednesday evening, “but the police department in Oak Bluffs feels ready and able and willing, and the Tabernacle feels ready and able and willing, and the health agents are involved, so we’re going. We just have a lot of details to work out.”
Oak Bluffs Police Chief Erik Blake later confirmed officer details will be on offer to monitor entrance and egress points around the Tabernacle, to manage traffic, to oversee handicap parking, and to police social-distancing and general safety guidelines.
Rand said she’s drafting a map and guide to show “everyone where the parking is, where they enter and exit, and showing them the general rules of engagement so that everybody will have prepared in advance what they’re doing when they get there.”
She also told the board she’s conferred with moderator Dan Waters on the location change: “As the moderator pointed out yesterday in a meeting, the good news for West Tisbury is we can learn from Oak Bluffs troubles, so we’ll let them work out the kinks, and then we’ll be better for it.”
Oak Bluffs will hold its town meeting at the Tabernacle on June 16. “I can assure you I will be at the Oak Bluffs meeting, watching for things we can improve upon,” Waters later told the Times.
Chief Blake said the Oak Bluffs town meeting presents “a good test run” for West Tisbury.
Waters said for many reasons, the West Tisbury School, both inside and outside in a colossal tent on the soccer field, weren’t workable. Social distancing and other health guidelines aside, he said susceptibility to foul weather and inadequate acoustics factored into nixing a tent idea. “The quality of sound is very important,” he said.
Overall the change is jarring but necessary, he said.
“The idea of holding a West Tisbury town meeting in Oak Bluffs is unprecedented,” he said. “Almost everything that happens these days is unprecedented. Why should town meeting be different?”
What’s needed to help voters adjust to the new venue is to “keep traditions alive.” With the West Tisbury town meeting, he said, that starts with the poet laureate, who begins town meeting with a poem. This year that poet is Spencer Thurlow.
Waters described at the start of West Tisbury town meeting as something especially local. “We don’t look to the nation, we don’t look to the state, we look to ourselves,” he said. After the prelude poem is read, the moderator then recounts for voters townspeople who have passed away over the past year. Waters said he will ensure the reading of the poem and the brief remembrance of deceased West Tisbury residents isn’t lost at the Tabernacle.
At Wednesday’s meeting, Rand pointed out to the board a bill in the state legislature will allow the town to reduce the necessary quorum for town meeting.
She said it passed the Senate and passed the House with amendments, and now needs ratification by the senate and an executive signature. “So at this moment, it hasn’t been signed,” she said. “However, it is very likely to get signed, so we’re going to proceed with the details we need to as if it’s going to get signed, so we just can plan ahead.”
Per the bill, in order to institute a reduction, selectmen must publish a notice of their intention to consider an adjustment of town meeting quorum, and do so a minimum of seven days before they take a vote.
“The good news is there’s no timing of the quorum reduction related to posting of the warrant,” she said. “So we could theoretically post a meeting seven days before the 22nd of June, have a planned meeting on the 22nd, and take that vote.”
Rand said she plans to post a notice as soon as Gov. Charlie Baker signs the bill into law.
Waters later said the quorum for town meeting is 130 people, which works out to be five percent of registered voters. He said the selectmen are looking to boil the number down to 30 people.
Rand said she met virtually with Oak Bluffs and Camp Meeting Association officials Tuesday, and while there’s still plenty of details to iron out, “everything is a go at the Tabernacle.”
She anticipates an onsite visit shortly. “We’re going to do a walk-through with Oak Bluffs people and the director from the Tabernacle on Monday, to start getting it pulled together,” she said.
Asked by The Times if transportation would be available to West Tisbury residents, Rand said she has been putting something together with the VTA.
Rand said Massachusetts law permits towns to vote in adjacent towns if an emergency has been declared. She added that new legislation will allow town meetings to be held wherever need be.
Town clerk Tara Whiting later noted voters are able to participate in the June 25 annual town election via absentee ballot. However, Massachusetts law does not permit anyone to vote at town meeting virtually, or on an absentee basis.
Waters expressed total confidence in Rand’s ability to make the relocated town meeting a success. “Jen is a master of logistics of this kind,” he said.
Waters said while voters will be “poorer,” with potentially lessened participation at town meeting given the quorum reduction in play, something momentous will still be afoot. “It’s an opportunity to make history and participate in it,” he said.