The Board of Selectmen at a special meeting on May 19 decided to reconvene the Annual Town Meeting to adopt the 2021-22 budget on Wednesday, June 2. The meeting had been started virtually on Webex on the third Monday of May — as required by the Charter — but came to an abrupt end after participants became increasingly unwilling to show identification while the meeting was being recorded and broadcast on YouTube, as most meetings are.
In talking to town officials after the meeting, it seems that few had considered the fact that they had to check everybody in while the meeting was broadcast on the Internet. In addition, the platform did not account for the fact that in many cases — if not most — there were two or more voters (family members) using one device. After that issue was brought to his attention, Moderator Jeff Ginzberg said a formal count became inevitable.
But that required people not only to show themselves — including the family members — but to state their name and address, the date of birth and to show an ID, all on camera, so that the registrars could check it against the voting records. The information requested is part of the public record, Ginzberg said.
Administrative Assistant Betsy Yagla called people up, and they would identify themselves. That went on until one young woman pointed out that the process was being recorded and posted on YouTube. “This is raising lots of red flags for me,” she said. “We teach our children to be very cautious when they are online,” she said, adding she was not inclined to show her license or state her address. “I would question this process,” she said.
Ginzberg was not moved. People can choose not to identify themselves, he said, but then they can’t vote. “The only way to do it virtually is to do the count,” he said.
The next voter in line showed his driver’s license with the fingers covering the information. Luckily, he was known to the registrars.
Ginzberg said all they were trying to do is to comply with the charter, which requires a quorum of 250 for the Town Meeting to vote on the budget. In addition, when there is a quorum, the Charter requires a 60 percent majority of those voting to pass any changes.
“I have to determine what 60 percent is,” he insisted, asking Betsy Yagla to continue with the count. But even when the registrars relented and made due with name and address, people in the audience started suggesting to start over.
“If you waited three days you could have a public meeting instead of this charade,” said one resident, referring to the state allowing indoor gatherings starting on May 19. “What’s the urgency.”
Resident Holly Pyne pointed out that under “extraordinary circumstances” the Town Charter allows the Board of Selectmen to set the meeting at a different date, “as soon…as such circumstances permit.”
Finally, Ginzberg, after receiving a notice from the Board of Selectmen and presumably the Town Attorney, declared the meeting over.
That left the question for those who had already provided their ID, whether it would be posted on the Internet. Selectwoman Sandy Stein quickly jumped in. Since the total number of voters on the call never was fully established, it was not “a complete meeting” and should not be recorded or posted anywhere, she said, and her fellow selectmen agreed.
The video was removed immediately.
At the subsequent meeting of the Board of Selectmen, Stein said she talked to state Freedom of Information officer Thomas A. Hennick about the conundrum. Hennick told her that Town Meetings do not need to be recorded since they do not fall under the FOI requirements, because they are meetings of all the people rather than meetings of boards or commissions.
He also told her that other towns that have Town Meetings have tried to conduct them virtually, but none have been very successful, even when using break-out rooms. “They also gave up,” she said. “This is a common issue for the towns that actually have annual meetings.”
By the time this paper is published, all eligible voters should have received in the mail a postcard from Town Hall inviting them to an in-person Annual Town Meeting to be held Wednesday, June 2, at the firehouse, starting at 6:30 p.m. However, doors will open an hour earlier, at 5:30 p.m., so people can check in before the meeting. Parking at the high school and shuttle buses will be available to take people from the high school parking lot to the firehouse.
Masks will be required and social distancing adhered to. Eligible to vote are only U.S. citizens who are at least 18 years old and “are liable for taxes assessed against them on an assessment of not less than $1,000 on the last-completed grand list.”
At 6:30 p.m., the start time is an hour earlier than that of regular town meetings. Selectmen also agreed that, should there be a line of people waiting to be checked in, all those in line at 6:30 p.m. will be admitted to vote, but people arriving after that time will not be admitted.
The vote itself was a subject of much discussion at the selectmen’s meeting. Provided there is a quorum of 250, it has to be maintained throughout the meeting.
“We have to make sure it’s crystal clear,” said Selectman Dwight Rowland. “if they leave [and the count drops below 250], the vote stops. They need to stay there for the entire time.”
“People have to understand that if they want to effect change, they have to maintain that quorum,” agreed Sandy Stein. She also pointed out that with people coming and going, each motion may require a new count. “For each vote we have to know whether people left,” she said. “I’ll bring my pillow,” she added in jest.
People can vote on any line item they choose, but they cannot vote on the mill rate. That is being set by the Board of Finance.
Also, the Amity budget is set by separate referendum, and cannot be changed.
Finance Director Anthony Genovese pointed out that if budget line items are being changed, and the new budget deviates from the proposed budget by 10 percent or more, it will require a second meeting.
Woodbridge Board of Education vice chairman Joyce Shavers; however, expressed concern about what the process could mean for the local school budget. At the May 18 meeting of the board, she encouraged her fellow board members to come out and support the school budget.
Fellow board member Dan Cowan was not happy with Shaver’s characterization of people coming out to vote as “rallying the troops.” Lor Ferrante Fernandez agreed. “It’s important for residents to come out and make a decision,” she said.
by Bettina Thiel – Woodbridge Town News Correspondent