After more than a year of remote meetings by Hull’s governmental boards and agencies, in-person sessions could be in the offing if state-imposed limitations are lifted.
Gov. Charlie Baker recently called an end to the COVID-19 state of emergency in Massachusetts effective next Tuesday, June 15. That could signal a return to in-person meetings unless pending state legislation passes that would allow remote meetings to continue for a longer period of time.
Also effective on June 15, the suspension of certain provisions of the Open Meeting Law, including the ability for public agencies to temporarily meet remotely, will also expire unless Baker’s proposed legislation passes before then.
This legislation, if approved, would extend through the summer measures providing for a temporary suspension of certain Open Meeting Law requirements, as mentioned above, along with a later expiration date for special permits for expanded outdoor dining at restaurants approved during the pandemic and billing protections for coronavirus patients.
Under current pandemic-related regulations, special permits held by restaurants for outside seating, approved under a special expedited review process during the pandemic, will expire 60 days after the end of the state of emergency, or on Aug. 15, which is the height of the outdoor dining season.
Town Manager Philip Lemnios said the town is considering the possibility of offering a remote option for the public in addition to in-person opportunities if the technicalities can be worked through successfully and if the legislation does not pass or has not yet been adopted.
Town Counsel James Lampke said during Wednesday’s remote Select Board meeting that the Senate Ways and Means Committee was expected to vote on the proposed legislation today, June 10, and that the House was also expected to consider it today.
“I think they realize the importance of the need to slow these changes down in the return to ‘normal’ for proper planning,” Lampke said. “If approved by both [chambers], I believe the governor is poised to quickly sign off on the legislation. I’m hopeful there will be further clarification on this issue by this weekend.”
The Select Board, at the suggestion of Lemnios, agreed to keep the state of emergency in place in Hull for the purpose of potentially reserving the right to claim any available future COVID-19 reimbursement funds. (Select Board member John Reilly was not present.)
However, that decision does not affect the requirement to return to in-person meetings effective June 15, unless the pending legislation passes.
Lemnios noted that Baker had initially announced an expected lifting of most COVID-19 restrictions effective Aug. 1, but instead moved that date up to May 29 with only a few days’ notice. “This caught towns, local restaurants, and other businesses by surprise,” Lemnios said. “We need some flexibility in order to allow time to thoroughly clean [the meeting spaces] so that they’re ready to accommodate normal meetings.”
Select Board meeting room alternatives include its usual downstairs location at Town Hall, a second-floor space, or the Hull High School Exhibition Room, if available.
In the meantime, Hull TV Program Director Peter Seitz will be invited to an upcoming Select Board meeting to discuss the various possibilities. “We’re working on a plan, but we’re not yet ready for prime time,” Lemnios said.
He noted that there was overall “better participation through remote board meetings than during in-person meetings.”
If the legislation has not been approved by then, the board’s June 23 meeting will be held in person, with details to be posted on the town website.
If the legislation does win approval, all Hull town government meetings would be held virtually until the end of July to allow time for a deep-cleaning of meeting spaces and also to accommodate those who do not yet feel comfortable attending in-person meetings.