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2020 Spring Town Meeting: Harvard citizens gather outdoors to debate, learn, and vote

Bare feet, quick naps in the grass, and mask-wearing were just a few of the novelties of this year’s Spring Town Meeting. Despite temperatures that peaked at 90 degrees and the complexities of a new venue, Harvard residents showed up to debate, learn, and vote.

During the day, more than 290 voters signed in and collected their pink voting cards, but by day’s end, their numbers had dwindled. Attendance was lower than the 312 who attended the May 2019 Annual Town Meeting in the Bromfield gym, but higher than the 248 who came to a Monday night meeting in 2017, when the town was experimenting with holding Town Meeting on successive weeknights. (See table below)

Saturday’s meeting lasted five and a half hours. Attendees considered and voted on 21 articles and 20 subsidiary projects. All but four passed. (See summary of town meeting votes.)

Among articles winning approval was the $33.7 million fiscal 2021 omnibus budget. The budget passed by a simple majority vote, but only after an hour-long discussion and some parliamentary maneuvering, which included the removal of an embedded capital transfer that had raised the vote required for passage to a two-thirds majority. Town Administrator Tim Bragan declared after the meeting that never in his career had he seen discussion of a budget last so long.

Also approved was a request for nearly $1 million to replace the roof and gutter system of the old library, which passed after a 30-minute debate.

Two major articles failed: a proposal to construct a $4.3 million addition to Hildreth House, the town’s senior center, and a $660,000 plan to rebuild the middle school ramp. Also defeated were a $230,000 request for outdoor bathrooms, an extra stairway, and landscaping at the middle school, and a $37,000 request for an Ayer Road market study by Chris Ryan, the town’s director of community and economic development.

The budget, however, was unbalanced and required passage of a $320,000 tax override at Town Election to make it whole. And the old library roof project needed an additional $961,360 in excluded debt. Both measures were rejected by voters at Tuesday’s Town Election.

The meeting was held on the field in front of the library and the Bromfield School. Single chairs were set 6 feet apart under a large main tent. Two smaller tents were set behind, one to accommodate couples who wished to sit together and another for attendees with medical conditions that prevented them from wearing a mask.

The main tent and couples tent were both full, or close to full, by the time the meeting started at 10 a.m. but the no-mask tent was sparsely populated with only about nine people, a few of whom were still wearing masks.

A few dozen attendees chose to sit outside the tents. Some brought their own chairs or borrowed from the extras provided by the town. Others sat or lay in the grass, taking advantage of the shade cast by two large elm trees.

Despite a relaxed environment outside the tents with people coming and going, stretching, picnicking, and catching a few minutes of rest in between issues, proceedings under the tent remained professional. Throughout the day, moderator Bill Barton ran a tight ship, reminding people to keep their masks on, and to follow the protocol for waiting in line for a turn at the microphone. Those who stood to speak on an article more than once were asked if they were adding something new, and calls for speakers to remember their civic duty to sanitize the microphone after each use were frequent.

Smaller attendance

Although the crowd was smaller than usual, the Town Meeting brought out some familiar faces. Billy Salter didn’t fail to amuse the crowd and make everyone laugh, joking early on about needing to catch “a 2:20 flight to Tulsa.”

Board of Health members Libby Levison and Sharon McCarthy said they had originally been concerned about holding the meeting amidst the pandemic. “I’m comfortable with [Town Meeting] being held outdoors,” Levison said, noting that she was pleased that attendees were wearing face masks and appeared to be maintaining proper social distance. She said that she had pushed for Town Meeting to be held outside as she was concerned about the spread of the virus and adhering to social distancing guidelines.

Many voters said they didn’t mind being outdoors and having a bit more room. “I’m much happier than if they had had it indoors,” said 20-year Harvard resident Beth Williams. She and her husband, Doug, sat outside the main tent in lawn chairs with their own umbrellas for shade. “Ask us again when it’s 90 degrees,” she joked.

Judy Warner expressed a similar sentiment even after the day had reached its hottest point. “It was actually very nice. It was nice and breezy under [the tent] and I could actually hear better than I can in the gym.”

Check-in lines were short and efficient. There were four check-in stations, divided by address, where people signed in and picked up their voting materials. Steven and Nancy Cronin were volunteers at two of the stations and said that the process was smooth. They noticed that everybody had come wearing their own masks, so they had not had to give out any of the extras the town had provided for forgetful citizens.

Cronin said the process wasn’t much different from previous years. “All the procedures are the same, it’s just the shields and masks and people [being] 6 feet away.” The only mishap they ran into was when a gust of wind tipped over and cracked one of the plexiglass barriers separating the check-in clerks from those being checked in.

People continued to trickle in long after the meeting had begun and many left early, with a few mass exits occurring after votes on some of the most contentious issues, such as Capital Planning and Investment Committee expenditure recommendations and funding to repair the old library roof. This left a sparse field to vote on issues that came late in the day, including a nearly 45-minute debate over Article 19, which took a two-thirds vote to award the Parks and Recreation Commission jurisdiction over six parcels of land.

The announcement of the Citizen of Note award brought a brief respite from government affairs for a crowd thinned by afternoon heat and a series of longer discussions. This year, no single person was recognized, but the honor was given to the Harvard Press, citing its “thoughtful and thorough coverage of important local topics,” as well as recent recognition by the New England Newspaper & Press Association and The Atlantic.

After more than five hours, the meeting adjourned just after 3:30 p.m. By that point, so few people remained that the moderator amended the original plan to dismiss people by section and asked only that everybody be conscious of social distancing guidelines as they made their way out.

—John Osborn contributed to this story

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