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Baker Bill Would Upend Traditional Town Meeting

Gov. Charlie Baker has filed legislation that could temporarily change customary and traditional Groton town governance practices, overriding local bylaws, in response to the governing challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic.
     The legislation would permit towns unable to finalize a budget before the start of the new fiscal year to continue month-to-month spending on essential operations at the same levels as the current fiscal year.
     Under current law, a town without a budget approved at Town Meeting would be forced to cease operating.
     Such a new law could take significant pressure off local governments unable to pass a budget due to an inability to meet or because of major changes in revenue projections due to the Coronavirus pandemic, thus giving towns a chance to pursue a more orderly, deliberative process.
     In the same vein, the legislation would permit Select Boards to vote to extend the date of annual town meeting beyond the existing statutory cut-off of June 30.
     The bill would also permit towns to reduce quorum requirements for town meeting as a short-term measure, allowing communities to conduct their most pressing business with a reduced number of members in attendance.
     Although Groton does not have a quorum requirement for annual Town Meeting, the implication is that town meeting could take place and survive legal challenge even with a very small number of residents in attendance due to Coronavirus restrictions.
     The bill would, furthermore, permit moderators of town meetings to declare a 30-day postponement due to a public health emergency after consulting with the Select Board.
     So far, The Legislature has taken no action on this bill.
     Gov. Baker said, “This legislation is designed to provide flexible solutions for communities across the commonwealth as the challenges of the COVID-19 epidemic disrupt the normal conduct of administering town government." “The bill creates several options for towns to address the immediate problem that COVID-19 and the risks of large, public gatherings present to town meetings that may be scheduled to occur in the coming weeks.
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