Marion approves remote meetings, delays public hearings

Mar 31, 2020

MARION — Municipal meetings will begin again on a remote basis next week, though public hearings will be postponed for two months as a coronavirus safety measure, Selectmen voted on March 31. Though they did not formally vote on Town Meeting, it is likely to be pushed to late June. 

Town Administrator Jay McGrail called in Town Counsel Jon Whitten to the remote meeting to give advice on how to resume municipal life. McGrail said he had been experimenting with Zoom, and that the Thursday selectmen's meeting will be through Zoom. 

Selectman Randy Parker brought up a good question on whether Selectmen would allow meetings to resume without public participation or whether the public would be included through virtual means. 

McGrail replied that if anyone from the public wanted to sit in on a meeting they should email him, and he will give them the information to join. 

As far as public hearings go, Whitten was more skeptical that they could work. 

“It is legal under the governor’s order to hold a public hearing through this technology, but I urge the town not do it,” Whitten said. 

For meetings, he clarified that he didn’t see the harm in holding them, unless they involve a  complicated review of documents, which was his reservation about public hearings.  

His only caveat was to say that the town cannot have a meeting without the public being able to participate and those who do participate cannot do so anonymously. 

“Towns want to get back to some sort of normalcy, and if that’s holding meetings they should certainly do it,” Whitten said. 

McGrail said that he had spoken with the Planning Board, Conservation Commission and Zoning Board of Appeals, and those boards don’t feel there’s anything pressing up for review. They also feel that developers will comply if the town has to open public hearings and continue them until June.  

McGrail said that Developer Ken Steen, who is working on a housing complex on Route 6 near the Wareham line, also understands the situation.  

The Selectmen reserved the right to hold a hearing if they needed to for an emergency situation. 

As for Town Meeting, Whitten said they are “going to have to be a little optimistic and hope that whatever the Selectmen pick is safe. I don’t think anyone is prepared for the notion of a remote Town Meeting.” 

He said if the town postpones the meeting, it must leave itself a reasonable period of time to act. 

Still, he thought they were in “better shape on Town Meeting than almost anything else.”  

McGrail said that he would ask Selectmen to close the warrant next Thursday and probably postpone Town Meeting to the end of June, with 20 days notice to residents. 

The board could also approve the entire warrant with the caveat that it may only vote articles one to four (on the budget, water and sewer enterprise funds). 

Selectman Norm Hills said that the board should also vote on the Community Preservation Committee funds at Town Meeting, since that money can only be used by that committee. 

McGrail said he would ask the moderator to join next Thursday, and that he hopes to still have Pre-Town Meeting information sessions. 

Whitten said that although the state allowed towns to delay Town Meeting, it did not provide any delay on when a municipality could respond to developer requests. 

“I’m not faulting the governor, he has other problems. But he is about three or four months behind on what happens with the permitting process,” Whitten said. 

With the governor’s declaration that a shelter in place would extend until May 4, the board approved McGrail to run the Town House with only essential staff and keep it closed to the public for the next five weeks.