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Westport Town Meeting: Now it's outdoors on a Saturday

Selectmen reverse course: Move meeting behind WHS on July 25

By Bruce Burdett
Posted 7/3/20

WESTPORT — Town meeting won't be held at White's of Westport after all and it won't be held on a Tuesday night.

Thanks in part to the persistence of Town Moderator Steven Fors, the Board of …

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Westport Town Meeting: Now it's outdoors on a Saturday

Selectmen reverse course: Move meeting behind WHS on July 25

Posted

WESTPORT — Town meeting won't be held at White's of Westport after all and it won't be held on a Tuesday night.

Thanks in part to the persistence of Town Moderator Steven Fors, the Board of Selectmen met in special session Wednesday and reversed its vote of the week before.

Town Meeting will now be held outdoors behind the high school on Saturday, July 25, at 9 a.m. Planing to make that happen begins immediately.

Mr. Fors had expressed reservations about meeting indoors at Whites twice before (each time selectmen were convinced that White's was best for reasons of distancing, facilities and cost) and he followed that up with a persuasive email to selectmen after their second vote confirming White's.

“It is not possible to do a Town Meeting at White's” without an unacceptable level of risk, Mr. Fors told the board Wednesday.

“We can dramatically reduce that risk by doing it outdoors.” Outdoor town meetings, he said, are the recommendation of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and the Massachusetts Moderators Association (which he chairs)‚ “pretty much everybody.”

Mr Fors' suggestion was to set up the meeting immediately behind the high school with the stage outside the administration door. Some seating, he said, could be on asphalt which would be helpful to people who would have difficulty on uneven surfaces, some would be on grass.

He said a Saturday meeting is better than the Tuesday, July 28, that had been settled on, because it avoids problems due to loss of daylight and it lessens the risk from mosquitos.

He acknowledged that there have been a handful of successful indoor town meetings but the state Department of Public Health has seen a rise in COVID cases in some of those towns two weeks later.

Also, those towns have typically been much smaller than Westport, with meetings drawing crowds of 35 to 50 people rather than the 200 who might attend a Town Meeting this year in Westport.

Board member Ann Boxler, who had worked with Health Director Matt Armendo and others to come up with possible meeting sites, said that there would be no problem or costs with “disengaging” from White's.

“They are fine — they felt that they could do it so were a little taken aback,” she added.

Asked if such a meeting could be set up by July 25, Mr. Fors replied that, “I'm confident that it can be done. There will be some scrambling involved.” He suggested early morning while it is still cool.

Board member Brian Valcourt offered a motion to move the meeting to 9 a.m. behind the high school He noted that in Swansea, which held an indoor Town Meeting, commenters have said that “People who were afraid to go filed a lawsuit.”

Board member Shana Shufelt said that one of the advantages of Whites was that logistics such as setup of chairs and audio systems would be taken care of by the facility. Who would do that at the high school, she asked.

Mr. Fors said that he, as moderator, would take the lead but that he would rely on help, both professional (for sound system) and volunteer (for chairs and other things). He suggested that it might be a good community service project for Honor Society students.

In answer to a question, he said there probably will not be Power Point presentation of budgets and other items, due in part to distance and lighting, although if a suitable method is suggested, they will look into it.

The glaring weakness of an outdoor meeting, he said, is rain. Realizing that, he said the legislature voted to allow moderators to postpone meetings for up to 30 days Mr. Fors said a probably rain date would be the following Saturday.

Why not a tent, several people asked.

To accommodate a socially distanced crowd of 200 would require a really big tent, he said, on the order of 10,000 square feet.

But more important, a tent is a partially enclosed and restricts air flow which defeats the point, he said, of meeting outdoors. Perhaps a smaller tent could be set up for those who require shelter from the sun while the rest could sit outside, with sun umbrellas.

Board member Steven Ouellette said he would not be able to attend the meeting — he has plans that he can't change for that Saturday. He added, “I didn't think that there was going to be a problem with White's. I personally don't feel as comfortable (meeting) outside … with a breeze, if someone sneezes it could go everywhere.”

Board Chairman Richard Brewer said that, while that might be true, “nothing is perfect” with the COVID-19 created Town Meeting options. Any alternative will likely cause some to be unhappy.

Audience member Betty Slade called in to say that “Quite a few people in my age group would not be attending the meeting if it was inside. We are willing to attend if it is outside. We will wear the masks, do the social distancing.”

Lauren Silva-Boutwell said she is a professional event planner and “any event of that size really needs to be professionally organized.” She also said that a tent is an absolute necessity and predicted that many people won't attend on a summer Saturday when they might instead go to the beach.

Several people asked whether the Westport Fairgrounds, with its large dining pavilion, might be a better choice, offering shelter and air flow.

But Ms. Boxler said the fairgrounds only has two restricted entrances that could create unhealthy bottlenecks.

Asked his opinion, Mr. Armendo said that, “As a general rule, it's better to do it outside” for virus safety.

Town Administrator Tim King said that costs beyond what the town would normally spend on its town meeting will be covered by COVID-19 relief fund money.

The board 4-0 in favor of the new plan with Mr. Ouellette abstaining.

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