HANSON — Town officials are looking into options for going ahead with public hearings delayed by the coronavirus pandemic.
Town Counsel Kate Feodoroff said she has received several calls from the Zoning Board of Appeals as well as various other boards and commissions about the public hearings that have been delayed. Hanson is further hampered by its technology limitations, as virtual meetings must allow for public participation — not just listening in or watching from home.
“They have to, in real time, be able to ask questions and voice their concerns and positions,” Feodoroff said.
As a result, Hanson’s list of delayed public hearings is long, Feodoroff said, with some of them some near to a conclusion. One was already decided, but a public session was required to ratify the written conclusion.
She raised the issue with Hanson Health Agent Gil Amado and emailed the state Department of Public Health, which said they viewed the meetings as not an essential service, and still governed by the state’s 10-person limit for public gatherings. Gov. Charlie Baker’s most recent order did not address public hearings by municipalities, instead covering the legislative process — town meetings — Feodoroff said.
Regular Board of Selectmen meetings are considered executive board meetings and do not come under the order permitting in-person meetings unless it is an emergency.
Her email to the DPH epidemiologist argued the hearings were an essential service, which is interfering with other critical services such as construction and development.
The DPH deferred to Amado as the local health agent.
After discussing the issue with Amado and Town Administrator John Stanbrook to develop two options: hold hearings outside or at a school.
Outside meetings held at night raise problems from mosquitos, heat and other weather conditions and adequate lighting.
Amado said he would contact WHRSD Facilities Director Ernest Sandland about the possibility of using the Hanson Middle School to ensure social distancing of hearing participants.
Selectman Laura FitzGerald-Kemmett said she was “mystified” be the problem as Planner Deb Pettey had applied for a Zoom account that provides functionality to display documents on the screen.
“Planning just had a meeting last week using it,” FitzGerald-Kemmett. “It may be that people do not know how to use it … I understand there is a learning curve.”
She said she was also concerned about whether using the school facilities would incur COVID-related cleaning costs after the hearings.
“I like this plan, I just think that there’s another option, and it should be fully explored before incurring any costs to have meetings at the schools,” FitzGerald-Kemmett said.
Feodoroff said the Zoom purchase was news to her and that she has worked meetings that way, saying they work well. Amado had not heard about it, either.
Selectman Matt Dyer asked if the concerns Feodoroff raised about outdoor hearings applied to the town’s plan to hold its annual Town Meeting outside.
“There are actually no right answers,” she said. “I’ve been to two town meetings that were inside and, I have to say there were some hairy moments, because the town meetings are well-attended — better attended than in other years, for whatever reason.”
At one of those meetings, some people either refused to wear a mask or stay in mask-free areas, she said.
“I’m not opposed to an outdoor town meeting,” Feodoroff said. “I think it’s a better solution, although it does come with risks.”
She was discussing the matter with Town Moderator Sean Kealy