By Chea Waters Evans
The Selectboard convened on Monday night at Town Hall, with a couple speakers in attendance; the black and white duck decoy that presides over the Town Clerk’s office was still there; the chairs were all set up in rows. That’s where the similarities ended. The emergency meeting had four Selectboard members in attendance plus one on the phone, a representative from fire and rescue was on hand to speak, and Town Administrator Dean Bloch, a meeting regular, was also present. Some stood, some sat, in a circle, all consciously and purposefully six feet apart. The meeting was to set the course for town action regarding the coronavirus pandemic.
With no precedent for this situation, the Selectboard progressed methodically through the agenda items: figuring out what to do about the upcoming April vote to approve items voted on at Town Meeting, determining when and how town employees would be able to work remotely and what would happen at the town offices in their absence, deciding what to do about town boards, committees, and commissions and their upcoming meetings, and making a plan for Charlotte Volunteer Fire & Rescue to work in tandem with the Selectboard.
One thread ran through most of the discussion: how to minimize spread of the virus, how to keep it from affecting town employees and Charlotters as much as possible, and how to do those things while remaining within the confines of regulations and statutes set forth by state government.
Chris Davis, present as the town’s emergency management director from CVFRS, said that the reality of the situation for any town office or gathering is a potential quarantine. “It can happen to any of us at any time,” he said. He recommended that Charlotte take guidance from other towns in the area regarding employees and public access to the building.
Bloch said that it would be fairly easy for employees to work from home, with some online file systems already in place and other communication tools readily available. He said that should employees come to the building, it might make sense to lock the door, post the town’s phone number on the door, and have visitors call from cell phones, if possible, to figure out what action town employees needed to take. “One [contagious] visitor can trigger a self-quarantine,” Davis pointed out.
To illustrate the potential spread, Davis said that he knows of several college kids, some of many whom were sent home by schools or trips abroad, who just arrived in town over the last week, some by plane, all of whom are back with parents who are probably still going to work. Matt Krasnow, Selectboard chair, said he agreed that the risk was high of “people coming in and contaminating the place.”
The board decided that town offices, pending agreement from Town Clerk Mary Mead, would switch to the new open-office-but-closed-door policy as of 4:00 p.m. on Tuesday, March 17. Regular services will still be open to townspeople, but there could be a delay in responses.
The board also decided that town employees, if they wish, could work from home and possibly alternate being at Town Hall in person so that only one member of each department with institutional knowledge would be there at a time in case another eventually had to be quarantined.
Another, more complicated item of business was what to do regarding Planning Commission and Zoning Board decisions that have already been brought up in a meeting and therefore legally have to be decided within a certain time period. Selectboard Vice Chair Frank Tenney, who is also a member of the Zoning Board, said that he thought meetings could be canceled as long as agenda items were only warned; he thought complications might arise for agenda items that are continuations from other meetings.
In light of a recent recommendation from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that people not gather in groups of more than 10 people, the Selectboard decided to postpone as many meetings as possible, not accept any new planning or zoning applications for review until they can meet the legal requirements for warnings, and look into postponing this week’s Thursday night public hearing regarding changes to land use regulations and zoning laws regarding parking. This vote will determine whether or not Charlotte Crossings will eventually be able to move their parking lot to the front of their building.
Bloch said he would look into the laws regarding meeting changes, consult with the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, and report back during an emergency Selectboard meeting on Wednesday, March 18.
“Anything we’re allowed to cancel, we should,” Krasnow said.
The Selectboard decided to check in with sanitation or deep cleaning services should the Town Hall need to be heavily disinfected at some point.
April 7 Australian ballot vote
Tuesday, April 7, is the scheduled date for the town-wide vote to approve all budget and budget-related items voted upon at town meeting; per the expiring Town Charter, that vote needs to take place within 30 days of Town Meeting. Krasnow said that Mead estimated there would be 60 to 70 people voting—the remaining 70 or 80 votes she anticipates coming from absentee or early voting. Krasnow said someone emailed him to suggest getting a tent and placing it on the Town Hall lawn for voting booths, since the school, where voting is usually held, will be closed until at least April 6, possibly longer.
Bloch said that, should the location of the vote change, it could render the vote illegal, since the original warning stated that voting would take place at school. After much discussion of the proper protocol regarding who should be the one to figure out what the law is regarding the location change (Selectboard member Carrie Spear thought Mead should do the research; Krasnow thought Bloch would be sufficient to do the job; Tenney originally supported Bloch doing the research but said he was fine with Mead doing it; and board member James Faulkner encouraged everyone to come to a consensus), the board decided that Krasnow would contact Mead in the morning and figure out the process, while still including Bloch.
Bloch pointed out that Mead already offered, via Front Porch Forum, to mail absentee and early ballots to any Charlotter who requests one; the group agreed that encouraging as many people as possible to vote in that fashion would be helpful.
Emergency Management Director Davis said that CVFRS had ordered additional equipment for a potential coronavirus spread in town. The equipment, which includes new masks and protective suits, cost about $1,000 and will be kept in a separate category in the budget in case Federal Emergency Management Agency funds will reimburse the town for the expense. “Responding crews are equipped as well as they could be,” Davis said. He and the fire chiefs will continue to communicate regularly with the Selectboard regarding any information they receive from the Vermont Department of Health and the CDC.
The board then postponed at least until April 6, with the possibility of further extension, all meetings of town boards, commissions, and committees, with the exception of the Selectboard and any meetings that are required by statute. They also moved to approve town staff to work remotely when appropriate and available.
The board adjourned after agreeing to ratify these decisions and to continue discussion of the town’s response to the pandemic at another emergency meeting on Wednesday, March 17.