Petition article could mandate remote meeting access

Oct 20, 2021

Another citizens’ petition article on the warrant for the Oct. 25 Town Meeting would require the majority of town board and committee meetings to hold all meetings with remote access through Zoom or another program that allows citizens to watch and participate in meetings from home. 

“We’re limiting the amount of people who can participate if we don’t continue with Zoom or hybrid meetings,” said Jody Santagate, the article’s lead petitioner. Citizens’ petition articles require signatures from ten registered voters to be put on the warrant. 

Santagate said that there are many people who can’t make it to regular night meetings: Those who can’t or don’t drive, especially at night; those caring for children or older family members; people in assisted living homes, etc. 

“We need to start thinking about everyone in the community,” Santagate said. 

The article names a number of boards that would be required to comply: The Board of Selectmen, Zoning Board of Appeals, Conservation Commission, Planning Board and Board of Health. It also says that any other board which deals with land use or holds legally-binding hearings would be required to comply.

The petition also declares that any board that holds legally-binding hearings would be “forbidden to refuse to acknowledge or accept comments from residents” during any time citizens are allowed to participate in a meeting as long as that citizen would not be speaking about an issue currently before a court of law. The petition also says that threatening to sue the town or filing an appeal about a board’s decision could not be used to prevent that person from speaking about other matters before the boards.

The petition seems to stem from recent dust-ups at meetings, mostly regarding Select Board Chair Judith Whiteside’s practice of not allowing anyone who has threatened legal action or filed a complaint to speak at meetings, which has led some other committee chairs to follow that same policy.

Santagate said that she had been blocked from speaking at meetings because of an appeal she was part of — not a lawsuit — and said that taxpayers should be able to speak to officials about matters other than what is in litigation. 

Both the Select Board and Finance Committee said they were concerned that WCTV would not have the staff to make all meetings hybrid. 

Additionally, Zoom meetings are currently allowed due to an emergency order by Gov. Charlie Baker. When that order lapses, Attorney Richard Bowen explained, the petition might be in conflict with state open meeting law. 

Bowen also said that the provision banning chairs from blocking certain speakers could contradict state law.

Both the Finance Committee and Select Board voted not to recommend the passage of the article.