Residents in Benton will still hold their scheduled annual Town Meeting at 10 a.m. Saturday. But instead of gathering inside the elementary school as planned, they’ll be outside in the parking lot.

A single article will be voted on and the annual meeting will be quickly adjourned, rescheduled at a later date (probably mid-May) so actual town meeting business can be decided.

Benton’s actions were among the first signs this week that the spread of the coronavirus in Maine is adding to its list of disruptions the annual town meetings held by many local towns to decide municipal spending, local elections and ordinances.

In the wake of Maine’s first confirmed cases of coronavirus, state officials and health experts have suggested not holding indoor events that involve more than 250 people. While most local town meetings are unlikely to reach that threshold — a few dozen to just over 100 is more typical — local officials have still been grappling with the question of whether to postpone as sports, colleges and other events are rapidly shut down.

Residents in Benton were voting on town elections Friday afternoon from 1 to 6 p.m. and anticipating a Town Meeting on Saturday. The annual meeting, which in past years had been at the historic grange building, was to take place at the Benton Elementary School to provide easier access to the elderly, said Town Clerk Sue Rodrigue.

But as the first positive test results coronavirus were announced in Maine in recent days, prompting a flurry of postponements, Benton selectmen heard concerns about gathering townsfolk inside the school. The abbreviated gathering Saturday morning will be simply to vote on providing “essential items to keep the town running,” Rodrigue said.

Selectman Doug Dixon said the select board made the call on Friday.

“We were going to do it at the school, but then this epidemic came up,” Dixon said. “We decided, that’s not a good idea. This is more serious now. It was a change in our plan.”

But for other towns, it will be business as usual.

In Athens, elections were still on Friday from 4 to 8 p.m. with Town Meeting at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at Somerset Academy. Town Meeting usually attracts around 50 people, but officials have no idea what to expect Saturday, but hope 30, or enough residents to conduct business, show up. Coronavirus is not on the agenda, but officials expect to discuss it at the next select board meeting.

A Palmyra resident casts his ballot Friday at the Palmyra Town Office during local elections. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

In Palmyra, elections were still on all day Friday and Town Meeting was still scheduled for Saturday, according to town administrative assistant Priscilla Jones. In 2019 the meeting drew about 30 residents. Jones said the meeting will address the warrant articles. As for the coronavirus, she said, “I know people are watching the news and we’ll keep up with it.”

The town of Rome also held elections Friday and will convene Town Meeting at 10 a.m. Saturday at the town community center. Starks and Smithfield also had town meetings scheduled for Saturday.

Nicole Labbe emerges from behind the curtain of the voting booth Friday at the Rome Community Center after casting a ballot in the local election. Morning Sentinel photo by Michael G. Seamans

But for about a half-dozen central Maine communities with annual Town Meetings already scheduled, the way ahead is less clear.

In West Gardiner, where the Town Meeting and municipal election are scheduled for March 21, town officials have not yet discussed what impact COVID-19 might have.

“We’ll have to talk about it this evening,” Greg Couture, chairman of the West Gardiner Board of Selectmen, said midday Thursday.

Washington Selectman Tom Johnston told the Kennebec Journal on Thursday that no discussion of postponing the town’s March 28 annual Town Meeting has taken place. The warrant has been signed, he said, and will likely be posted next week.

“The swine flu was worse and nothing got canceled,” Johnston said.

Not long after that, the Maine Municipal Association, which offers professional services to its member cities and towns, issued guidance about what options are available to towns that are hosting budget meetings this month.

“Theoretically, a public health emergency declaration by the governor could prohibit certain public gatherings, but that has not yet occurred,” the memo notes.

“We have a selectmen meeting on March 17, and I don’t know how much (coronavirus) will be discussed,” Smithfield Town Administrative Assistant Nicole Clark said. “We will share more information from the state and what’s been going on, but we don’t have any events planned.”

If the Town Meeting warrant has been posted for the required seven days, no procedure in Maine law exists to cancel a Town Meeting once it has been legally called or to vote remotely or by proxy. Maine law also has no provisions for canceling a secret ballot election.

If the warrant has not been posted, the posting can be delayed as can the Town Meeting.

The association guidance also notes the dates for some annual election and budget meetings are dictated by municipal charter. Even when they are not, all municipalities must hold annual elections and budget meetings.

But municipalities have some options, including promoting absentee balloting, where appropriate, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued public health recommendations on its Coronavirus Disease 2019 page for election polling locations, which includes early voting, and urging people to cast ballots at off-peak times to lessen risk to both poll workers and voters.

The association recommended holding Town Meeting in the largest venue available to allow voters to not be in close contact with one another.

But that’s not possible in every community.

Jean Ambrose, chairwoman of the Pittston Board of Selectmen, said the cafeteria at the Pittston-Randolph Consolidated School where Town Meeting is held is the largest available room in town.

“We can’t hold it in a bigger room and keep it in Pittston,” Ambrose said.

Attendance at Town Meeting isn’t mandatory, she said, and people should use their best judgment.

The association memo notes that although the meeting cannot be canceled, as few as two voters and the clerk can open the meeting, elect and swear in a moderator, and then move to immediately adjourn the meeting without acting on any other business.

If the majority of voters present agree, the meeting has effectively been canceled. Note that there is no guarantee that the voters attending will approve the motion to adjourn.

 

Kennebec Journal reporter Sam Shepherd and Morning Sentinel reporter Taylor Abbott contributed to this report.

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