MOUNT DESERT ISLAND – If the governor’s executive order to stay home for public safety regarding the spread of COVID-19 remains in place beyond the end of April, a few towns here will have to decide what to do about their annual town meeting.
“If this thing goes on for an extended period, we could possibly do it outside,” said Tremont Selectman Kevin Buck in a virtual meeting of the board on Monday. He noted that appropriate distancing would be possible at the right location. “We don’t have a huge crowd for these meetings.”
Town Manager Chris Saunders wasn’t sure that would be a viable option.
“Right now, the governor says, crowds of no more than 10,” he said in response, that was before this week’s executive order to stay home except for essential functions such as food or medical reasons was issued.
“We might run the risk of breaking the law per the governor’s order,” Saunders added.
A few towns, such as Swan’s Island and Cranberry Isles, have already conducted their annual town meetings. Bar Harbor and Frenchboro have their town meetings scheduled for June and therefore are not up against the same deadlines as Tremont, Mount Desert, Trenton and Southwest Harbor, whose meetings are scheduled in May.
“My guess right now is that it won’t be in May,” said Southwest Harbor Town Manager Justin VanDongen in a conversation with the Islander last week. “I think the state legislation would allow us to do a virtual meeting, but it would be so hard.”
Emergency legislation that was passed to help town’s maneuver the ongoing changes surrounding the COVID-19 cites that municipalities are allowed to hold meetings via a video, electronic or telephonic conference method. In that case, all participants must be able to be heard and any votes be recorded via roll call. It also states municipalities can continue to fund government operations at the same budget level approved for the previous year in the case an annual town meeting cannot be held, according to the Maine Municipal Association’s summary.
“It is far from ideal to use the FY20 budget,” Saunders told selectmen, adding it wouldn’t be detrimental to the town continuing its normal level of functioning. “We would not have to lay anyone off.”
On Monday, Tremont selectmen voted unanimously to postpone the municipal election, which includes the open town meeting and secret ballot voting, to a uncertain date in the future. Mount Desert Town Manager Durlin Lunt said this week when that town’s Board of Selectmen meet on Monday, April 6 he will recommend they take the same action.
“We’re not ready, we’re not prepared,” said Lunt in an interview with the Islander. “I can’t imagine having our annual town meeting in a month. I wouldn’t go myself. I wouldn’t want to sit in the gym with 400 other people.”
Nomination papers in Southwest Harbor, Tremont and Mount Desert for open seats on the select boards and school committees have been collected, which means those elections can happen when a meeting or ballot vote is scheduled.
“Realistically, we may just be looking at extending this into the November presidential election,” said Saunders during the online selectmen meeting Monday. Selectmen approved changes to several town ordinances during that meeting, as well, that are scheduled to go on the town meeting warrant.
VanDongen is optimistically setting his sights on the possibility of having a meeting in June. Southwest Harbor selectmen are scheduled to meet via video conference on Tuesday, April 7 to discuss warrant articles and other town business.
“That would be the drop dead date for anything we would want to put on the June ballot,” said VanDongen in an interview with the Islander earlier this week. “Worst case scenario we just operate under the old budget until we could schedule the annual town meeting.”