From left, Pedro Pachano, Great Barrington Town Manager Mark Pruhenski, and Town Planner Chris Rembold.

It’s Not That Simple: GB adapts to COVID-19

Great Barrington’s Town Meeting will be held outside, in cars. Yes, a drive-in Annual Town Meeting. We will drive up to the high school, remain in our cars, check in with the Town Clerk at a drive-through station, and park in the parking lot leaving every other space empty.

 If the solutions were easy, there wouldn’t be problems.

Join us as we look at issues facing Great Barrington and discuss the complexities, the competing interests, the less obvious costs or consequences, and the missing information that explains why It’s Not That Simple.

 We both serve on elected boards in Great Barrington but we aren’t here representing those boards or the town. We try not to give opinions, but if we do, they are our own.

This column is a companion to the WSBS (860AM, 94.1FM) radio show, It’s Not That Simple, back on the air every other Friday at 9:05AM. Listen to the podcast here

We are happy to be back from a three month COVID-inspired absence.

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Ed Abrahams is seeking reelection to the Selectboard. Due to the Federal Communication Commission’s Equal Time rule, Ed will be off the air until after the Great Barrington Town Elections on June 30th.

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Great Barrington’s Town Meeting will be held outside, in cars. Yes, a drive-in Annual Town Meeting.

We will drive up to the high school, remain in our cars, check in with the Town Clerk at a drive-through station, and park in the parking lot leaving every other space empty. We will turn on our radios, sit back, relax, and enjoy the… Wait, what?

Due to the coronavirus pandemic the Great Barrington Annual Town Meeting will be held Monday June22, in the parking lot of Monument Mountain Regional High School.

How will we vote? How will we speak and debate the issues? How will we go to the bathroom? Are they crazy? Why don’t they wait until the global pandemic has miraculously vanished? What were they thinking? Were they thinking at all? [Read details about Town Meeting and how to participate in the Berkshire Edge here and on the town website here.]

Actually, a lot of thought has gone into the decision to hold the Annual Town Meeting (ATM) in cars, outside, and now. We will summarize some of the thinking, but it was hashed out in long staff meetings, and then at several selectboard meetings, so this is just a quick summary.

This week INTS interviewed Town Manager Mark Pruhenski and assistant Town Planner Chris Rembold and asked them to tell us about COVID-19’s impact on town services, ATM, town elections, and the still important task of completing the census. They, along with the rest of the town staff, have been busy rethinking and reorganizing every service, every department, and every building that makes up the Town of GB in order to continue to meet the needs of citizens and the legal obligations of the town.

According to Rembold, “The corona virus impacts have been horrible for those who have been personally affected. But in terms of running town government I think we’ve been able to adapt very well. There have been some hiccups, there have been some obstacles, and it’s always difficult when you change the way you have done things for the last two or three hundred years. But it has been an opportunity for us to embrace some other ways of doing things. And hopefully that will make participation in town government stronger.”

The town has remained open throughout the shut-down but staff has had to shift to remote working. Dropboxes have been installed outside of Town Hall for the Treasurer/Collector and Town Clerk which may remain permanent. “Even though the doors of Town Hall are open again, we encourage everyone to interact with us remotely,” says Mr. Pruhenski.

Masks have to be worn when entering the building and it is encouraged to make an appointment before conducting business in the building since some staff are still working remotely. “By July 1st, we should be back to full physical presence and Town Hall will look very similar to what we looked like a few months back,” Mr. Pruhensky continued.

“It’s been a little strange not having personal interaction with residents,” Mr. Rembold adds. “We’ve always had an open door policy and it’s been difficult to turn away from that. Having public meetings is a little different also, but having video conferencing has actually increased participation. I’m glad we’ve been able to continue to get the town’s business done.”

If you have “attended” a meeting of one of the many town boards recently, you know what Mr. Rembold is talking about. All meetings are now held over Zoom. That has made it easier for people to attend who have mobility issues, young children they can’t leave alone, or busy schedules. All meetings are now archived and available to watch at a later date whereas, before the pandemic, only selectboard meetings were recorded

“Assuming the regulations stay in place,” adds Mr. Pruhenski, “I foresee some kind of hybrid meeting format to stay in place giving citizens an opportunity to appear at Town Hall for a meeting or to participate remotely.”

Nothing about pandemic planning has been quick, easy, or without a lot of thought. Town staff has been working very hard to adjust, and they have been flexible and incredibly creative. That said, there haven’t always been great alternatives to business as usual and every change has had down sides, certainly including Town Meeting.

Annual Town Meeting cannot be held remotely; its centuries old structure and current state laws don’t allow that. Creative solutions had to be developed to have citizens appear, be accounted for, and vote, all while remaining safe. “Having an indoor meeting during a global pandemic is something that is just not feasible,” Mr. Pruhenski stated.

Typically, the ATM is held the first week in May but contingency planning moved this year’s meeting to Monday, June 22nd. The decision not to delay the meeting further, until we can all meet indoors, is based mostly on two factors. First, it is unlikely that large gatherings will be safe indoors any time soon. Waiting will very likely leave us in the same positing 2 or 4 or 6 months from now. Second, if voters don’t approve a budget before July 1, we have to go to a 1/12 budget which requires an enormous amount of staff time and money to create, and it has to be approved monthly by the Selectboard and the Department of Revenue. It also leaves us unable to pay some commitments. According to Rembold, “It would really hinder the way we can provide services to the town.”

So that left town leaders to decide how to have a meeting now. Town Moderator Michael Wise has been talking with other town moderators for the past few months and one possibility that kept coming up is the drive-in. The drive-in option is absolutely not ideal. Voters are likely to be uncomfortable with temperatures predicted to be in the 80s. It will be inconvenient, it will be harder to participate. It isn’t a perfect solution at all, but there is no perfect. It’s the best option staff and elected officials could come up with considering time and money constraints. According to Pruhenski, “Other than the fact that it’s outdoors [and in cars] it should feel like your average town meeting. The same rules apply.”

The one big difference is that the Selectboard voted to place only business deemed “essential” on the warrant. That is primarily budgets and other financial decisions the voters must make before the next fiscal year starts on July 1st. The warrant  is available on the town’s website, at the two libraries and other locations throughout town.

Putting only essential items on the warrant, that are usually without much opposition, is a move to accommodate the comfort and patience of the town’s citizenry. “We felt it was most respectful to keep the business limited and not go for four, five, six hours,” Mr. Rembold suggested. “While it is the longest day of the year on Monday, we still have a lighting concern. We can’t go too long.” The threat of lightning is something we don’t have to worry about. If there are dangerous weather conditions, the Moderator has the authority to postpone the meeting to later in the week.

In addition to the essential items, the selectboard is legally required to include citizens petitions on the warrant, but they will ask voters at ATM to table those items for a Special Town Meeting to be held when discussion, comfort, and more robust debate are possible. This year’s Zoning articles will also be tabled to the special town meeting.

As usual, the meeting will begin at 6 p.m. at Monument Mountain Regional High School. Not so usual, it will be held in the parking lot. It is recommended that citizens arrive early for the meeting, beginning at 5 p.m. The plan is that the meeting be as short as possible and voters can all go home early. It may be uncomfortable and it isn’t a great solution, but these are unusual times.

“I want to remind everyone, wear a mask and keep safe distances from each other,” Mr. Pruhenski asks. “We ask that you do not idle your car during ATM.”

The other big event in the Spring are local elections. Usually held the week after ATM in May, this year’s elections were also postponed, to June 30th. “Covid-19 has impacted not only the way we operate but also the way we vote,” Mr. Pruhenski said. “It presents an opportunity to embrace new ideas and ways of doing things like mail-in voting.”

To enable voting for people who want to avoid contact, the state legislature approved mail-in voting. To request a ballot, print this Application Form, sign it and return it to the Town Clerk at Town Hall either via email or in person. There is also a drop box in front of the building. Several days later you will receive a ballot in the mail with instructions. The ballot can be returned by U.S. mail or dropped off at Town Hall. All ballots must be in Town Hall by the close of business on June 30th, so don’t wait too long.

Of course, in person voting is also happening at the State Road Fire Station and the Housy Dome on Tuesday, June 30th from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Finally, there’s the Census. Both Mr. Pruhenski and Mr. Rembold wanted to emphasize the importance of completing the census. In February, we told you how important it is to the town, the county, and the state. Read our February 18, 2020 It’s Not That Simple here.

Mandated in our constitution, the census was enacted to determine representation “among the several states.” Since revolutionary times the use of census figures has expanded to determine not just representation but appropriations (money!) from the federal government for infrastructure, education, health, and many other aspects of our society that affect all of us. That’s a fancy way of saying, IF YOU DON’T FILL OUT THE CENSUS, OUR TOWN WILL GET LESS MONEY FROM THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT, AND OUR REAL ESTATE TAXES WILL GO UP! How’s that for motivation. It takes 10 minutes and you can do it online here.

So far, only 54 percent of Great Barrington residents have completed the Census. So, if you want our roads to be smooth and free of cracks and potholes; if you want our bridges repaired and re-opened; if you’d like to maintain a state of the art hospital and vibrant educational facilities, go to census.gov  and be counted. It is your constitutional duty and your duty to your town, so please do it.

Is there an issue you’d like to discuss on the show? Have comments about this or previous episodes? We invite your contribution of topics and concerns that may be of interest and that might seem simple to address. Maybe there IS an obvious solution we haven’t thought of, or maybe It’s Not That Simple.

Email your suggestions or questions to NotThatSimple528@gmail.com, of find us at Facebook. Our next show is July 3rd, at 9:05 on WSBS, 860AM, 94.1FM, Your Hometown Station.