SOUTHWEST HARBOR – When the Town Office doors here were officially closed to the public March 13, a notice was posted on the building and the town’s website that all public meetings were cancelled until further notice.
Not every town on Mount Desert Island took this approach. Selectmen in Tremont and Mount Desert have been meeting via an online video conferencing format, to continue conducting essential town business.
“We are holding remote meetings via Zoom,” said Mount Desert Town Manager Durlin Lunt. “It’s a new world and we’re adjusting to it.”
Members of the public can sign in to watch the meetings on Zoom with the proper code, typically available by contacting the town office.
Recent state legislation, crafted in response to the way municipalities conduct business due to precautions regarding COVID–19, allows for the town’s treasurer to pay the bills on the authority of the warrant signed by the municipal officers outside a public meeting. That legislation, LD2167 can be applied retroactively until March 1 and is automatically repealed on Jan. 1, 2021.
“I put the sign-up sheet in the police station,” said Southwest Harbor Town Manager Justin VanDongen about where selectmen go to sign the warrants in order for town expenses to be paid. “We can’t send checks until the warrants are signed. For payroll we’re allowed to pay out in advance of them being signed by selectmen.”
Trenton also decided to not have any meetings.
“All meetings are canceled until further notice, unless there is something special,” said Carol Walsh, who is the town’s administrative assistant and town clerk. “But we don’t anticipate anything coming up.”
At the last selectmen’s meeting, the board voted that board members could come into the town office individually and review and sign the warrants.
“As long as they made that motion during a legal meeting, we can continue that as long as we need to,” said Walsh. “We’re paying the bills, but we’re not going to pay them until the select board members individually review them and make sure they want to pay them.”
In addition to approving the warrants during their remote video meetings, Tremont selectmen are being asked by Town Manager Chris Saunders to come to the town office and sign the warrants they have approved in order to continue to pay for the town’s expenses.
Bar Harbor has a different form of government, one which doesn’t require town council approval for routine financial transactions. The town declared a pandemic emergency March 16, cancelling all non-emergency municipal meetings until March 30. In April, meetings of the council, Planning Board and other boards and committees may resume as much as possible, via videoconference, but a solution has not been identified for how to hold public hearings.
On Islesford the Cranberry Isles Town Office is closed to the public. Selectmen meetings have been an exercise in divide and conquer. For meetings, two selectmen go to the town office with the town clerk and the health officer and the third selectman and deputy town clerk call in to the meeting. The treasurer’s warrants are prepared and signed by the two attending selectmen and sent to the third selectman, who lives on Great Cranberry. Members of the public can “attend” the meetings via teleconferencing.
“We can have up to 50 people on that line,” said Jim Fortune, the town’s administrative assistant. “If this continues for months, we may look into Zoom or something like that.”
Each town is maintaining a level of staffing to serve its residents and asking people to do as much business as possible online. In Tremont, selectmen recently opted to reduce the number of staff at the town office to at least one at all times. Last week, they had voted to have at least two, including public works personnel, in the town office during regular hours, even though the doors are closed to the public.
In Southwest Harbor, there is one person in the office at a time to answer phones and other members of the office staff are working from home. Employees of Mount Desert are doing the same, some are working in the office and others remotely.
“We’ve set up a lot of remote access, and we’re able to do just about everything we normally do,” said Lunt who has continued to go into the office everyday. “It gives me more of a sense of normalcy. I’m still even wearing my tie, just so I can maintain as much normalcy as possible.”
Southwest Harbor’s Board of Selectmen is scheduled to next meet on April 7 at 6 p.m. via a video conferencing format.