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Ashland selectmen re-visit possibility of virtual town meeting


January 06, 2021
ASHLAND — At their Jan. 4 meeting, the Ashland selectmen again discussed the option of a virtual town meeting instead of an in-person meeting, as well as the imminent departure of the Town Manager, Electric Department billing problems, and the refund of health insurance money.

The selectmen had previously discussed the option of having a virtual meeting and a drive-though election, as provided under state law, instead of the usual in-person deliberative session and election. At their Dec. 21 meeting, the selectmen seemed to be leaning towards an in-person meeting and election, but were not sure if they could hold them in the school gym, which seemed to be the only building in the community that could house a socially distanced meeting. So, they were waiting for the decision of the School Board at its Jan. 5 meeting on the use of the gym. At this meeting, however,

there seemed to be more interest in the virtual meeting option. Under that option, there would be two virtual sessions instead of the deliberative session. At the first informational session, the warrant articles would be explained. The voters would then have a week to send their comments to the selectmen. At the second meeting, the selectmen would consider those comments and decide whether to amend any of the

warrant articles. Only the selectmen would be able to vote on the amendments. The voters would then vote on the articles on the usual second Tuesday in March, but that vote could be drive-through instead of in-person.

Selectmen Eli Badger, Fran Newton and Kathleen DeWolfe all noted the continuing rise of Covid-19 infections in Ashland and the area. The deliberative session could therefore possibly contribute to the spread of the disease. Newton had heard of a number of people who did not want to go to an in-person deliberative session. She was concerned that a very small number of people, perhaps unrepresentative of the general population, would have the power to amend the warrant articles. So, she felt that the virtual meeting could allow more people to express their opinions on the issues.

Selectman Andy Fitch asked if the Town could do all that was necessary for the virtual sessions. Every voter has to be notified by mail of the new procedures. The virtual technology was also a question, as the Town's current Zoom account is limited to 100 participants. The possibility of using the Town Garage for an in-person meeting was investigated by Fitch and Public Works Director Craig Moore. Fitich reported that

everything, trucks and equipment, would have to be removed from the Garage for the meeting, which could be a problem in February. He did say that the Town Garage site might be a good place for a drive-through election, with the newly paved roads and parking area behind the garage allowing for one way traffic, entering from Depot

Street and exiting on Collins Street. The discussion ended with no decisions, but the selectmen agreed that a decision has to be made soon. So, they scheduled a meeting for 1 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 6. In the meantime, Selectman Newton would attend the virtual school board meeting on the 5th on behalf of the Selectmen.

Town Manager Charlie Smith informed the selectmen during a non-public session at the end of their Dec. 28 meeting, that he was resigning, effective after the deliberative session in February, to take a position in another town. Chairman Badger has sent an email to his fellow selectmen with issues that should be discussed with Smith before he leaves and asked the other selectmen to add other issues if they wished.

Selectman Newton asked about the problems with Electric Department billings, particularly with payments that are not being credited to customers' accounts. She herself had made two monthly payments that are still showing up on her latest bill as past due and still owed to the utility. She had heard of others with similar problems with their payments. Other selectmen reported more such complaints from customers. The Town Manager has also been receiving complaints. He explained that there has been turnover in the Electric Department with two new employees replacing one with ten years of experience. The staff is working with the billing company to resolve the issues. Smith said that a letter will be included in the next round of bills to reassure customers about their payments. Ultimately, he felt that the solution was automation of the billing process, starting with new meters that automatically send their information to the utility

office, and a system that would allow customers to pay by credit card.

Health Trust, that provides health insurance for town employees, is refunding $18,898.47 to the Town for the July 2019 - June 2020 year. $2,405 of that refund will be passed on to 17 employees to reimburse them for their payments. After a public hearing on this unanticipated revenue, with no comments from the public, the selectmen voted to accept the money. They also decided to reschedule their Jan. 18 meeting to Tuesday, Jan. 19, to avoid the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday.

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