NEWBURY — With input from Town Administrator Tracy Blais and Emergency Management Director Michael Reilly, selectmen unanimously agreed to postpone the annual Town Meeting and election because of the COVID-19 threat.
The vote was taken at a meeting held remotely Tuesday through the online conferencing program Zoom. The session was scheduled as a joint meeting with the Finance Committee to review the annual warrant, but it was never taken up.
“I understand how important Town Meetings are, but the safety of our population is more important than any Town Meeting,” Reilly said.
“At this point in time, I don’t see that we have much choice,” Blais said, noting that several election workers are over 60 years old — a population deemed more susceptible to contracting the coronavirus.
The new dates for Town Meeting and the election are June 9 and 16, respectively; residents will be encouraged to use absentee mail-in ballots. Selectmen rejected a recommendation to reduce polling hours because they thought a longer window of time would help to minimize crowds at the polls.
When Selectwoman Alicia Greco proposed having poll workers assigned to one- or two-hour shifts, Town Clerk Leslie Haley used an option on Zoom to add a written response to the discussion. It indicated she doesn’t have enough workers to implement Greco’s suggestion.
Selectmen, however, never responded to the clerk’s comment, likely because they weren’t aware of Zoom’s option for written input. There were also some minor glitches in sound during the meeting but the remote format appeared successful overall.
As the meeting was winding down, Jack Rybicki asked if there would be time allowed for public comment. His request was abruptly cut off, however, as the Zoom meeting ended. This is the fourth selectmen’s meeting where public comment was not solicited.
Rybicki is one of five residents running for two seats on the Board of Selectmen. Also running are Chuck Bear, Geraldine Heavey and incumbents JR Colby and Damon Jespersen.
This marks the second time selectmen have met remotely since the state of emergency declaration last month. The board met by teleconference on March 24 during which the public could call in to listen but couldn’t access video.
The sound quality was less than ideal at the meeting, during which time Bob Connors of the Building Construction Committee provided a brief update on the new police station project. A groundbreaking ceremony planned for April 8 will likely have to be rescheduled.
All but one local commercial clamming permit application were approved. The rejected applicant was from Essex. Colby recused himself from voting for the numerous applications submitted by residents with the last name Colby to avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest.
When no public comment was taken at the end of the session, Selectman Mike Doyle noted this was also the case for the past several meetings. The public could comment at the board’s next meeting, Colby responded.
Correction: Geraldine Heavey's name was incorrectly spelled in an earlier version of this story.