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Town bans public attendance at committee and board meetings

In an effort to protect the public as well as elected and appointed officials from potential exposure to the coronavirus and to slow its spread, residents will be prohibited from attending public meetings in person until further notice.

Town Administrator Tim Bragan made the announcement in a memo released Monday morning and posted to the town’s COVID-19 web page (See “Public meeting information” at  www.harvard.ma.us/home/news/coronavirus-covid-19.)

In his message, Bragan acknowledged that some meetings, such as a Select Board hearing for a liquor license or an application to the Planning Board for a special permit, require the active participation of interested parties (see sidebar). But he asked committees with such business to delay their meetings until the town has acquired web technology that will enable the parties to participate remotely. Committees without an immediate need should wait to meet at least two weeks, he said, “at which time we will assess our safety measures and either continue or modify them.” A glance at this week’s online town calendar shows that most have already complied.

Bragan has allowed two exceptions. First, the Select Board and the Finance Committee will go ahead with their regularly scheduled meetings. The two boards must complete their work on the fiscal 2021 budget and the warrant for Spring Town Meeting this week. The Select Board will meet at 7 p.m. Tuesday, and the Finance Committee will meet Wednesday at the same time. Both will be broadcast by Harvard Cable TV.

Second, a member of the press will be allowed to attend both meetings—and future meetings once they resume—provided they adhere strictly to the town’s social distancing guidelines.

The temporary ban on public access is in keeping with Gov. Charlie Baker’s Sunday night order prohibiting gatherings of more than 25 people, and signs indicate that social distancing measures like this could become even more stringent. On Monday afternoon, President Donald Trump recommended on behalf of the White House-led coronavirus task force that gatherings of any kind be limited to 10 or fewer people. And six San Francisco counties have ordered their more than 6 million residents to shelter in place until further notice.

When Gov. Baker declared a state of emergency last week, he was able to order a temporary suspension of certain provisions of the state’s Open Meeting Law. Among his emergency powers is the authority to limit public meetings “to protect the health and safety” of citizens. His order relieves town government bodies of the requirement that they conduct meetings in a public place that is open and physically accessible to the public, as long as they ensure access “through adequate, alternative means” to parties with an interest in their proceedings. These alternative means can include telephone or audio or video conferencing.

Bragan wrote in yesterday’s memo that he and Assistant Town Administrator Marie Sobalvarro are evaluating conferencing platforms and hope to have one in place by March 23 so that town committees can resume their business. “This takes time as we have to choose a platform and then develop regulations and guidance for the various boards and committees that will avail themselves of this new meeting format,” Bragan explained. Two products are under consideration, he told the Press recently: UberConference (not a product of the ride-sharing company) and Zoom. 

These restrictions have implications for the upcoming Town Caucus and Spring Town Meeting, as well as the Special 37th Middlesex District state election this month and town election in May. If limits to gatherings of 25, 10, or fewer citizens remain in effect, these events may need to be delayed, and today Gov. Baker sent a package of emergency bills to the legislature that, if passed, will allow towns to do so. The legislation includes measures to allow spending in fiscal 2021 if budgets are not ready by June 30. These are likely to be among the topics discussed at Tuesday night’s Select Board meeting.

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