Moderator Reviews Parking Issues, Use of Ballots at Town Meeting

LONGMEADOW, MA – After a record-breaking town meeting that drew more than 1,200 voters for a single warrant article, Town Moderator Rebecca M. Townsend met with the Select Board to solicit feedback and suggest changes for future meetings.

First, Townsend noted many voters arrived late. She said she later learned that a lack of available parking in and near the high school lot was the primary issue.

“Some reported driving around for 45 minutes looking for a spot, and ultimately not finding one in the lot,” she said. “I’m curious if the Police Department or DPW could somehow be involved, putting up ‘lot is full’ signs or helping to direct traffic when the lot fills to ensure a smooth flow of traffic when we anticipate large meeting like that one.”

Finance Director Paul Pasterczyk mentioned that when the town was voting on whether to fund the new high school several years ago, a shuttle service, using Council on Aging vans, was provided to transport people from Williams Middle School to the high school.

Townsend also noted challenges related to the voter check-in process.

“Any time we have a large number of people coming in all at once, it becomes a difficult process,” she said. “The clerk, assistant clerk and I have been working carefully to manage that (issue).”

Townsend told the Select Board that the clerk had experimented with “polling pads” at the town meeting held prior to the one on Jan. 25. These pads make check-in process more automated, and eliminate the need for people to wait in lines to check on their precinct.

“You don’t need to know your precinct,” she said. “You can say your name and address, and the pad automatically populates your information. Or you can just show your driver’s license, and it speeds the process along. That’s something the board may want to look at in the future.”

The town does not own these polling pads. Townsend said the units used during a previous town meeting were on loan as part of a demonstration. If the Select Board would like to pursue purchasing these pads, it would need to be part of an upcoming budget discussion, she said.

She also said she has the Rules Committee reviewing the option of voting pads, where voters would vote electronically. This would speed up the voting process, and potentially provide immediate, accurate results.

“Some towns own them, some towns lease them,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s a worthwhile investment, but that’s why I asked them (the Rules Committee) to do the research. It could cut out the time involved in a hand count vote.”

Townsend also mentioned some concerns from voters about the location of the town meetings, currently held in the high school gymnasium.

“I know the gymnasium is not as comfortable as other locations,” she said. “Those bleachers are hard seats, and I know it is difficult for people to sit on them for a long time. However, it is the location that offers the largest amount of seating when we do have those large town meetings.”

Townsend said she has completed a summary of attendance at town meetings over the past several years, and found the average number of voters is between 600 and 700. Given that average, she said is makes the most sense to stay in the gymnasium where people can easily see the presentations and speakers, have an easier time hearing, and are able to easily get up and speak when they need to speak.

“As uncomfortable at the gymnasium can be, for those larger meetings when we anticipate anything larger than 300 people, the gymnasium is still my general preference,” she said.

Instead of moving the meetings to a smaller, more comfortable space, such as the auditorium, Townsend recommends the town consider investing in new and better audio/visual equipment to be used for allow voters to participate in the meeting via overflow space in the cafeteria and auditorium. The current system allows live broadcast from the auditorium to the gymnasium, but not the reverse.

Finally, Townsend said some people were confused by the use of ballots at the Jan. 25 town meeting instead of the usual hand count system. Voters were asked to make their way to the front of the gymnasium, section by section, to cast a “yes” or “no” paper ballot.

“Some people thought the ballot process took a long time,” said Townsend. “I take some comfort knowing that with a 32-vote margin, out of 1,238 people voting, that a ballot was the right move. If we had done a visual assessment count first (with a vote by show of hands), I may have doubted my call. I wouldn’t have been comfortable doing that. Or people would have jumped up to debate the call, and we could have gone to a hand count. With a ballot, we have a vote that is accurate the first time.”

That said, Townsend noted she would change the layout and pathways people used to cast their ballots.

“We did not anticipate that so many people would want to evacuate immediately after voting, so one of our counters had made the suggestion of having the process work differently so pathways would be clear,” she said. “We are interested in doing that next time.”

– Article by Sarah Leete Tsitso