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Outdoor Town Meeting draws citizens for sun and democracy

A sunny fall day brought voters out to the Special Town Meeting on Saturday. With only nine articles on the warrant and 108 citizens in attendance—twice the required quorum—the meeting lasted 52 minutes, a record for brevity, but people seemed happy for an excuse to be outside.

With the same setup as the Town Meeting in June, a large main tent provided shade, and chairs and microphones were spaced 6 feet apart to accommodate social distancing guidelines. Another tent was available for couples wishing to sit together, as well as an additional tent for attendees not wearing face masks, but the few people seated there left their masks on. The sun also drew some voters out to bring their own chairs or sit in the grass.

There was no child care at Special Town Meeting, but Lily and Zoë Finch provided puppy care for Select Board member Stu Sklar’s sleepy new puppy Alice. (Photos by Jen Manell)

Jennifer Finch threw down a picnic blanket and sat in the grass with her three children, waiting for the meeting to begin. As an “avid voter” and a member of the Finance Committee, Finch told the Press that she felt it was important for her to go to the Special Town Meeting. However, with the lack of child care due to the pandemic, she was thankful for the good weather, as she had to bring her kids along. “Normally, I wouldn’t bring my kids,” she said, “but we couldn’t get a sitter because of COVID.” Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic this year, babysitting had often been offered at town meetings, so parents could bring their children, knowing they would  be looked after during the meeting.

Molly Waring and Ben Frantzdale brought their two daughters along as well, and were glad for the opportunity to show them what a town meeting is like. When asked what brought her family out to the meeting, Waring replied, “Democracy!” She explained that she feels it is important not to just come to vote when there is an article of particular importance to herself, but to always participate, and that this is something she wants her daughters to learn, too. “I want them to know that this is something that we do,” Waring said. “It’s our civil obligation … I want to show them democracy.”

Pete Jackson expressed a similar sentiment. “I always come to town meetings,” he said, noting that he attended the Town Meeting in June as well, despite concerns about the virus. As a Bromfield trustee, however, Jackson explained that he felt Article 2, regarding the disposition of Bromfield House, was especially important to him. This was an article of popular interest among many voters. Jennifer Finch and Denis Wagner both said they were most concerned about Bromfield House as well.

Betsy Morton studies the "Warrant in Plain English" in the Harvard Press. 

Passionate speeches

This article sparked particular controversy at the meeting, inspiring passionate speeches regarding the different ideas of what should be done with the building. Bev Rodrigues, for instance, spoke about her family history in connection to Bromfield House, as her grandfather and a former principal of Bromfield, Al Dunlap, and her father, James Dunlap had lived there. “I don’t want the history of this house, this beautiful house in that beautiful location, to go lightly,” she said. Paul Green also voiced concern, but on a different basis. Speaking of the drought and the wildfires raging across the country—as well as the structure and location of the building—Green stated that having the Harvard Fire Department burn the building down, as the Select Board has suggested, would not be a good idea. “The best time to get off of a train that’s going to the wrong destination is before it leaves the station,” he concluded jokingly. After a friendly amendment was made to Article 2, a vote was passed to hold a final decision on the disposition of the building until a later town meeting.

As the Special Town Meeting was only the second to be held outside with guidelines to protect voters from spreading the virus, the meeting this past weekend was very different from normal. However, face masks, social distancing, and disinfecting microphones after speaking were all requirements that meeting attendees have become more accustomed to since the Town Meeting in June. Some regulations had been relaxed since the spring, however. For instance, no plexiglass barriers stood between voters and the volunteers checking them in. People also seemed more at ease walking up and talking to each other, with many lingering after the meeting to catch up and chat in small groups.

Fears allayed

That being said, many people felt that the Special Town Meeting was organized safely and had the right measures in place for health and safety during the pandemic. Wagner commented that he did not attend the Town Meeting in June because of concerns about the pandemic, but decided to come to this one. “This is my first outdoor town meeting,” he said, noting that it was “organized well.” Other voters agreed with this sentiment. In terms of COVID-19-related concerns, Finch said, “I feel safe outside.” Waring also expressed appreciation for how the meeting was run during this time. “I appreciate how the seats are spread apart … and there are seats for couples,” she remarked, happy that she had been able to sit next to her family but remain socially distant from others.
   

Will ‘clickers’ replace colorful cards at future meetings?

Once most attendees had settled down in their socially distanced chairs, Moderator Bill Barton began Saturday’s proceedings by hinting at a possible change in future town meetings. Barton said some towns are considering a switch from human volunteers to electronic clickers for counting votes, and he asked for a straw vote on whether Harvard should look into using the devices. An advantage to the clickers, Barton said, is that they give an exact vote count quickly, without the need for a team of volunteer counters. They also make all votes confidential, unlike waving a square of colored paper in the air.

Not surprisingly, a voice from the audience immediately called out, “How much will they cost?” Barton replied that no one has yet looked into the idea in detail. A sizable majority of those present raised their hands in favor of at least finding out more about the clicker system.

—Marty Green

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