Corrected and updated March 19, 2020, at 7:15 a.m.
In a low-key meeting that was surely one for the history books, the Select Board Tuesday night declared a state of emergency, voted to move Town Caucus and Town Election to late spring, and voted to join the other five towns of the 37th Middlesex District in asking the Superior Court to order a delay in the March 31 special election to replace former state Rep. Jennifer Benson, who resigned in December.
As if that weren’t enough for one night, the board approved the warrant for Spring Town Meeting, without including a town election warrant or ballot questions for the first time in anyone’s memory. They also passed the Finance Committee’s recommended fiscal 2021 budget, the largest in Harvard history, including its request for a $320,000 tax override (see sidebars). But both seemed less consequential than the disruptions to town life brought on by the threatening arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. and Massachusetts. (See our story, “Board approves 2020 warrant and FY2021 budget,” page 8.)
Prior to their vote, board members worried that a declaration of emergency would further panic residents, but Town Administrator Tim Bragan described the move as precautionary. “There is no emergency in Harvard,” he said. No cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed here “and we want to keep it that way,” he said, but a declaration would add to the town’s toolbox, making it eligible for future Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) funds and allowing emergency spending should it be needed. The vote in favor was 4-0, with Kara Minar dialed in by phone and Chair Alice von Loesecke absent. “To reiterate,” said Rich Maiore, who was chairing the meeting, “there is not a town emergency … this is simply to enable the town administrator and the Town Hall staff to operate more effectively and efficiently, should there be other instances that come up.”
Meanwhile, the state ban on gatherings of more than 25 people is wreaking havoc with the annual spring rituals of town government, as well as this month’s special state election. At the request of Town Clerk Marlene Kenney, the board voted to move the March 23 Town Caucus to May 11 and to move Town Election to June 23, just a week before the end of the fiscal 2020 year. This will delay the nomination of candidates for soon-to-be-open seats on the Select Board, School Committee, Library Trustees, and Warner Free Lecture Trustees, as well as decisions on four ballot questions, including the proposed tax override and three excluded debt requests.
In passing the warrant the Select Board agreed to convene Spring Town Meeting on May 2 as previously scheduled. Moderator Bill Barton has the authority to move the date if required, but Bragan recommended against doing so. Instead of casting Town Election ballots on the Tuesday following Town Meeting, as is traditional, voters will go to the polls eight weeks later. And if the predictions of epidemiologists prove correct—that the COVID-19 epidemic will peak in May—it may be necessary to move Town Meeting closer to the June election.
One further wrinkle remains: What if the fiscal 2021 budget with its inclusion of a $320,000 override request fails to pass either in May or at a later June meeting? Under current state law, the Select Board would be required to call a Special Town Meeting before June 30 to pass a budget that balances without the need of an override.
And what if the 25-or-fewer state restriction on the size of gatherings remains in effect beyond May or June? It’s a problem that other towns in the commonwealth would face, and this week Gov. Charlie Baker sent a package of emergency bills to the Legislature that would enable towns to delay final approval of fiscal 2021 budgets until after the current fiscal year ends, if necessary. The Legislature was expected to act as early as Thursday this week.
With the special election to choose a representative for the 37th Middlesex District little more than a week away, the board voted to join the five other towns in the district—Acton, Ayer, Boxborough, Lunenburg, and Shirley—in seeking a court order by the Superior Court that would authorize a delay. No date has been proposed for a new election and the outcome was not known at the time this edition of the paper went to press. In the absence of a court order, the election will proceed as planned at the Bromfield School on Tuesday, March 31. Town Clerk Kenney has encouraged voters to ask for absentee ballots and to mail them to Town Hall rather than risk coronavirus exposure by venturing out to the polls.
Editor's note: This article has been corrected and updated. The original article stated that the Town Moderator would be required to call a special town meeting if the override fails. It's actually up to the Select Board.