WHITMAN — The Board of Selectmen on Tuesday, April 20, voted to approve Town Administrator Lincoln Heineman’s draft article 2, and approved in-person early voting, subject to Board of Health review, for the annual Town Election.
The balance of the articles will be reviewed during the first meeting in May.
“It was a good team effort by everyone,” said Selectman Randy LaMattina, noting the budget preparation process was complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the deficit the town faced.
He did note that the “bump in pay for a potential hire” should be fully explained to Town Meeting, stressing that no one has been hired yet.
“What we’re doing is putting a salary out there to see [if we can get] the best possible candidate,” he said.
LaMattina said the budget has also reflected the least amount of one-time funds the town has used over the last five years.
Selectman Justin Evans said he would like to see long-time employees paid equitably with surrounding towns first.
“I don’t want to become the town that just pays market rate for the new hires, I’d like to take care of our long-time employees as well,” Evans said. “I love the presentation of the budget and we’ll see how Town Meeting reacts,”
Selectmen also voted to postpone Town Meeting from Saturday, May 3 to Tuesday, June 2, with a rain date of June 3 on the grounds of WHRHS.
“The best option at this point … would be using the high school field for Town Meeting,” said Heineman, noting that the Town Meeting was originally slated for Monday, June 7. The field would still be set up for the Friday, June 4 graduation.
With Town Moderator Michael Seele asking for a switch to June 2, which would be “95 percent a good option” with Superintendent of Schools Jeffrey Szymaniak, Heineman reported.
The board also approved the election warrant for May 15 with an eye toward approving the entire Town Meeting warrant at a later date, voting on article 2 only.
The board also voted the Town Meeting warrant in order for the Finance Committee to be able to make their recommendations.
Heineman made some “non-substantive” changes to the warrant, breaking out the salary lines for town clerk and treasurer as elected officials in compliance with state law.
“There is no change to the bottom line,” Heineman said.
The also received feedback from ZBA Chairman John Goldrosen regarding a $202 reduction from the final request for the board’s budget.
Heineman said they were not singled out, but that the ZBA was one of several boards that have not fully spent their appropriations over the years. He did not rule out transferring funds later if they are needed, suggesting a reserve fund transfer could be made during the year.
Town Clerk Dawn Varley said state law extended changes to voting rules, due to the pandemic, until June.
“It is required,” she said, of early voting by mail, estimating that it should cost about $800, but some people don’t trust the mail. She recommended conducting in-person early voting during Town Hall hours only from May 10 to May 13 for the Saturday, May 15 town election.
Early voting differs from absentee in that only disability, religious objection or absence from town are acceptable excuses for the latter.
Kowalski said his two concerns were cost and COVID. While he said Varley had cleared up the cost concern, the town’s status in the red zone at the moment presents a concern.
LaMattina also reminded the board they had just decided not to permit people in Town Hall because of COVID.
“We want to encourage voter participation,” Kowalski said. “On the other hand, a knotty problem is the pandemic.”
Evans noted that, because Town Hall has to be open anyway, it made some sense to spread them out a bit over a few extra days.
She said there were 300 early voting by mail voters in 2020 and expects about the same, if not more because of some contested races.
“The voter themselves are doing all the process,” she said.
“We are still in a pandemic and the state is offering it for a reason.”
Heineman said the board received a redlined copy of the current COVID-19 protocols, adopting an advisory that employees on personal travel are no longer required to quarantine. Employees are still urged to avoid unnecessary travel.
Heineman had suggested amending the COVID-19 protocols, specifying that town services are available by appointment only, in designated areas outside town buildings, to advise in-person services be available by appointment only.
The town is still in the red zone.
“I want Town Hall to be open, but I want people to be safe,” Salvucci said, asking how the Board of Health felt about it. Heineman had not discussed it with them. “It’s a real tough decision.”
LaMattina asked if the town would be better off simply suspending the travel policy for now, especially if the pandemic flares up again. Heineman said the policy would automatically require quarantine.
“We’ve been following the Board of Health’s recommendations all along,” said Kowalski who requested that Heineman discuss the issue with them.
The board passed the revisions excluding travel guidelines.
“Clearly we have more work to do,” Heineman said.
He also said a Civil Service list has been requested for Fire Chief Timothy Grenno’s replacement.
He has received what he believes is the official list, but is waiting for confirmation.
Kowalski said he would like to meet with the top candidate, but took care not to describe such a meeting as an interview.
Salvucci said it would be a good opportunity for that person to introduce themselves to the community.
Heineman also updated the board on the MSBA’s elevation of the Whitman Middle School to the feasibility stage. [See page 7].
The Building Committee must still decide if it will be a grade five to eight or grade six to eight school.
“It’s about getting the project done in the most fiscally responsible way to benefit our students,” LaMattina said.
Memorial Day plans are also being dicussed, Heineman said, noting that right now, parades are still not permitted.
The VFW is still planning to visit cemeteries in town on the morning of Memorial Day, beginning at 9 a.m., asking for suggestions from residents for other ways of honoring those who gave their life for their country.