Recognizing the need for citizens to gather and debate at town meetings, and in an effort to protect the health and safety of all those in attendance, the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development (DECD) has issued guidelines governing town meetings under the COVID-19 orders set forth in Governor’s Executive Order 56.
For developers with projects that require ordinance amendments or contract zone approvals at town meeting, these provisions will affect how the town conducts the debate and vote on those matters. These guidelines may also influence how towns conduct other types of public meetings, such as for planning boards and boards of appeal.
The DECD guidance offers three options to allow towns to hold public meetings safely and effectively. The key requirements of each option are:
- Indoor or outdoor town meetings of 50 or fewer individuals. Under this option, town officials must limit the number of individuals that gather in a shared space. The town must have a backup plan to ensure that voters are not turned away in the event that the total number of participants exceeds 50, including voters, clerks, and town officials. Microphones should not be passed from person to person, and ballots should be collected by a ballot clerk with a collection receptacle rather than passed from hand to hand.
- Drive-in town meetings. If the number of attendees exceeds 50 individuals, the DECD recommends organizing a drive-in meeting where individuals can remain inside their vehicles in an outdoor space where vehicles can be spaced a minimum of six feet apart. The outdoor space should have a clear entrance where voters check in upon arrival for voting, and voting should occur by distributing colored cards of sufficient size to allow “show of hands” voting through vehicle windows. Towns should ensure that there are appropriate social distancing procedures in place if an individual needs to exit their vehicle to use shared public facilities, such as restrooms, or to offer public comment.
- Indoor town meetings using multiple rooms within one facility. If the number of attendees exceeds 50 individuals, towns may choose to hold a meeting in different rooms within one facility, such as a school. Organizers should utilize technology to maintain the continuous ability for all voters in attendance to hear all discussions and motions, and to allow real-time voting in each meeting room. A deputy moderator should be present in each meeting room to facilitate voting. Gathering in common areas prior to or after the meeting should be discouraged.
The DECD also highlights a number of common practices that municipalities should follow across all three options described above, including:
- All individuals should maintain six feet of distance at all times.
- All individuals should wear face coverings at all times, but at a minimum during any interaction with an individual outside of their household group, such as during check-in. While the use of face coverings is strongly encouraged, officials may not turn away participants for failing to comply with the face-covering recommendation.
- Individuals checking in voters and collecting and distributing ballots should wear a face shield in addition to a face covering.
- Towns must provide a separate location for non-voters or members of the public to view and listen to the proceedings.
- Towns should consider putting restrictions in place so that individuals who are at a higher risk of illness—e.g., those over age 65 or those with underlying medical conditions—are not responsible for checking in voters and/or collecting ballots. Towns should also train election workers on hand hygiene, social distancing guidelines, proper use of personal protective equipment (PPE), and cleaning protocols.
- If a town hosts a meeting indoors, then it must provide a separate space for isolating an individual who becomes ill during the meeting. Towns should also take steps to improve indoor air ventilation and prop open doors where possible to decrease the spread of germs.
- In general, meeting organizers should take steps to notify the public of all policies and procedures through signage and other means of communication, modify traffic flows and eliminate lines, and provide adequate supplies for personal hygiene, including hand sanitizer and disinfecting soap.
If a municipality cannot comply with the gathering protocols outlined in the DECD guidance, the governor’s executive order also authorizes municipal officials to move a vote on a matter to the ballot box instead of seeking approval at an in-person town meeting.
For information about how municipal operations and town meetings are affected by COVID-19, including how these guidelines could affect the strategy for your project, please contact Pierce Atwood land use attorneys Brian Rayback or Matt Manahan.