Updated May 17, 2022 03:20PM
Judge Denies Request to Delay Williamstown Town Meeting
UPDATE Tuesday, 3:20 p.m.: A Superior Court judge in Pittsfield Tuesday denied a request for an injunction that would have postponed Tuesday’s meeting but required that all participants wear masks. The town previously had announced it would provide masks to any attendees needing one.
UPDATE Monday, June 20: Earlier versions of this story incorrectly identified Huff Templeton as a party to the motion seeking an injunction.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Board of Health on Monday morning strongly recommended that attendees at Tuesday's annual town meeting wear masks and relayed that masks will be available for anyone who arrives without one.
But a groundswell appears to be developing for that meeting to be adjourned to a new date and location in light of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.
The town moderator said last week
that he has no intention of unilaterally postponing the meeting or adjourning it to a "date certain" at a different venue. And on Friday
, the town posted a statement on the issue on its website.
Such an adjournment is possible if an attendee moves for one at the outset of the meeting (identifying a time and location for the meeting's resumption) and that motion passes.
On Monday afternoon, the chair of the Select Board circulated an email to chairs of various town boards and committees identifying a potential Plan B if attendees choose to go that route.
"I am grateful that both the college (on the football field) and the high school (in the gym) have agreed to make facilities available on Tuesday, June 14, at 7 p.m.," Andrew Hogeland wrote, specifying that he was acting as a concerned resident and not in his official capacity on the Select Board. "If Town Meeting votes this Tuesday to adjourn, I believe the high school gym is the better choice. It has a significantly larger seating capacity than the [Williamstown Elementary School] gym, is not subject to weather events like cold or rain, and would be partially set up already since it will just have been used for graduation. The college football field is subject to weather, has been the subject of complaints about difficulties to hear, and would necessitate a process for setting a rain date."
Hogeland said he has heard numerous comments from residents expressing concern about holding the meeting, as scheduled, in the elementary school gymnasium. The last two annual town meetings have been held on the Farley-Lamb football and lacrosse field at Weston Field on the campus of Williams College.
A move to Mount Greylock's gym would not be unprecedented. The town has held meetings at the middle-high school in the past when unusually high turnout is expected. The last time was in 2013.
Calls to make some other arrangement for this spring's annual meeting prompted, among other things, an online petition that seeks signatures from residents who favor a change whether or not they personally feel comfortable attending a meeting at the current venue.
"It is therefore likely that many people will not attend, either owing to health or employment concerns or concerns about vulnerable family members," reads the petition, whose author is not identified. "Disenfranchising so many of our neighbors — particularly the most vulnerable — will produce an undemocratic result. …. If you are unable to [attend the meeting], or would prefer not to, you can sign this petition so we can speak (if not vote) on your behalf."
The petition specifically calls for the meeting to be held outdoors "if possible."
Two residents say they have Resident Janice Loux filed for a temporary restraining order in Berkshire Superior Court to prevent the town meeting from happening. Loux and Huff Templeton, a candidate for state senator and supporter of Loux's effort, said in a statement that voters shouldn't have to chose between "democracy and COVID."
"We are hoping for a ruling that will eliminate the need for anyone to show up to the meeting in order to vote on a change of venue," Loux said. "If this meeting goes forward in the current form, it is a clear statement to people who are immunocompromised or have certain disabilities that they are second-class citizens in this upcoming Williamstown town meeting."
On Monday, the Board of Health discussed the possibility that the meeting could be adjourned to a new date and resumed in the much larger gymnasium at Mount Greylock Regional School.
"I think the high school is larger and has been more recently renovated," Dr. Devan Bartels said. "As long as we can open doors and have fans going, that will be the optimal place to have it."
In an email responding to a question from iBerkshires.com, the school district said the "air change" rate is similar in both building's gymnasiums.
"The ACH in the two gyms is comparable, but the Mount Greylock gym has a significantly larger volume of air," Mount Greylock Business Administrator Joe Bergeron said. "So the Mount Greylock gym should probably be considered a safer choice."
Mount Greylock's capacity is 1,500 people; at WES, the capacity is 800.
The Board of Health Monday declined to take a stand on whether the Tuesday meeting should be adjourned and relocated and, if so, where.
It likewise refused to institute a mandate, following a course the board has charted throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
"We have gone through the concept of mandating something, and we have decided it's a personal decision," Dr. Jim Parkinson said. "If we had a mask mandate, some people wouldn't come to the meeting because of that. And if we didn't have a mask mandate, another group of people — and I would editorialize, perhaps with a different political leaning — may not come.
"I assume the people coming to the meeting will be civic minded. Therefore, wearing a mask makes the most sense: protecting yourself, protecting others."
Dr. Win Stuebner pointed out that there would be enforcement issues with a requirement that residents wear a mask at the meeting, where all registered voters in the town are allowed to vote on issues
ranging from the town budget to proposed changes to the town's zoning bylaw.
As for the regular, posted Tuesday evening meeting at the elementary school, the Board of Health voted 5-0 to strongly recommend that attendees wear masks.
The town plans to provide face coverings to anyone who needs one upon arrival at the elementary school for the Tuesday 7 p.m. meeting at WES.
Earlier in the meeting, the board heard encouraging updated COVID-19 numbers from Health Inspector Jeff Kennedy.
Kennedy said that the current six-day cycle of COVID incidence in town shows that there are 63 active cases, down from 93 as recently as Sunday night. And of the 63 cases as of Monday morning, Kennedy said 47 were associated with Williams College — primarily students.
"The numbers in Williamstown are looking good because mainly they're college driven," Kennedy told the board. "The college students will be leaving soon, and they're having gatherings and get-togethers with their friends.
"The college, as always, has been very good about monitoring and reporting their cases."
Stuebner told his colleagues that while the testing center at Berkshire Medical Center reports a 20 percent positivity rate that is comparable to numbers it saw in December, the numbers indicate significantly lower severity of COVID-19 cases.
"The latest figures I've seen from BMC show they have been running between eight and 14 COVID patients in the hospital," Stuebner said. "In December, there were 30 to 40 patients in the hospital."
On a personal note, Kennedy told the board that his own experience with the novel coronavirus provides anecdotal evidence of the effectiveness of vaccinations.
"From what I'm seeing — and I can personally attest to this — the symptoms are still mild," he said. "I tested positive yesterday and went from having allergies to having COVID with no change in symptoms — except Claritin doesn't work as well."
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