Some remarkable “good government” happened this summer. Across our region and across our state, municipalities moved through this pandemic to offer residents access to their traditional Town Meeting form of government. This was not accidental. This was the result of hard work, careful attention to detail, communication, collaboration, creativity and patience. As a result, we have learned some lessons that we should try to apply to other venues. With patience and good humor, many of us had an experience unlike any other.

Before the legislature adjourned prematurely due to the pandemic, we passed emergency legislation that, among other things, allowed remote selectboard meetings. In March, local town councils and selectboards “went remote,” using everything from Zoom to Facebook Live to Youtube to connect with one another and accomplish their work. Town offices closed to the public, but municipal operations continued. Spring Town Meetings became the immediate concern – how do you gather safely and allow the public widest participation?

After we adjourned, it was up to the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) to develop guidance for public gatherings. The Governor’s Executive Orders during the pandemic also addressed various local government actions, allowing municipalities to hold Town Meetings beyond the end of their fiscal year. Another Executive Order, for instance, allowed towns to avoid the traditional written ballot on LD 1’s tax levy limit.

As a selectperson as well as a legislator, I believed that safely holding the Town Meeting was a priority. Like so many other town officials in our communities, we poured over DECD guidance and recommendations from the Maine Municipal Association (MMA), which was also helpful in interpreting what was possible.

DECD offered Town Meeting guidance in several formats: a “drive in” where residents would stay in their cars; indoor with multiple rooms each holding 50 people; Town Meeting by referendum vote for towns who have not used that format before; and using outdoor space keeping people separated.

Many towns adopted hybrid forms of these plans. For instance, Phippsburg was facing a grant deadline and needed town approval to proceed. Not wanting to conduct its entire Town Meeting by referendum, Phippsburg instead added one referendum article to its July 14 primary election, accomplished the approval needed, and as a result will be able to rehabilitate the public pier at Fort Popham. Phippsburg’s traditional Town Meeting will be Saturday September 12. Other towns split up their Town Meeting functions and separated local elections from Town Meeting.

Our local elected officials and staff spent hours planning these events. Once Woolwich decided on our plan, we conducted a town-wide mailing to every resident outlining the plan. Town officials ordered tents, solicited good sound systems, made liberal use of spray paint to mark 6 feet for standing in line and also sitting down (some towns asked residents to bring their own chairs), provided copious amounts of hand sanitizer and made use of portable toilets. Towns also used the face shields and sanitation materials that came from the Secretary of State’s office. The public responded by keeping themselves socially distant and wearing facial coverings.

For those towns that chose to meet outside, the biggest challenge was how to create multiple socially distanced groups of 50 or less. To facilitate that, Woolwich placed its ballot boxes at opposite ends of its large tents. Dresden and Arrowsic separated their groups by opening the Fire Department doors and having half of the residents inside, and the other half outside. Topsham did a drive-in at the local fairgrounds.

In addition to the creative use of space, towns collaborated, sharing what went well, what didn’t, what we learned and sometimes even sharing equipment, such as tents, which are now being repurposed as outdoor classrooms at Georgetown Central School.

Lessons learned? Let’s use our outdoor spaces. Let’s use what we learned about holding remote meetings to expand participation in our democracy. Let’s continue this trend by expanding the state’s access to broadband. Finally, can we maintain health and safety and also conduct public meetings? I think we’ve answered that question with a resounding “yes.” Let’s use what we’ve learned and apply to other venues, such as the state legislature.

I’ve never been prouder of our local officials and staff who worked hard to make this happen safely and with the widest public participation possible. But having worked with these local officials in the past, this surprises me not one bit.

Allison Hepler sits on the Woolwich Selectboard and represents District 53 — Arrowsic, Dresden, Georgetown, Phippsburg, Woolwich and part of Richmond — in the Maine House of Representatives.

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