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In Valley, Local Gov’t Bodies Fade to Blunt Coronavirus…

Off limits at Springfield City Hall. (created via WMP&I images & Google image search)

As the threat and infections from the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19, has swept the country and the commonwealth, cities and towns in the Pioneer Valley have not been immune. The 413 more broadly has already seen some cases and a few scares, including ones that directly affected North Adams city government. Several big events like the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day event have been called off, but now local elected bodies themselves have begun to pull back.

The closure of schools, libraries and senior centers are becoming a common theme as are work-from-home policies to maintain social distancing and discourage spread of the virus. Now boards and commissions are cancelling meetings. Some city councils are taking advantage of Governor Charlie Baker’s waiver of open meeting law quorum rules. Others have simply suspended themselves unless a meeting becomes necessary.

With leadership ranging from lacking to bumbling in Washington, save Dr. Anthony Fauci, local and state officials have become more central than ever to the response. Yet, events have moved quickly with ever-changing recommendations restrictions and guidance has been uneven.

That had begun to change recently as Baker began issuing additional restrictions on the size of gatherings and the Centers for Disease Control guidance began to catch up to the moment. Local officials are trying to coordinate amongst themselves, too.

“I’ve spoken to the mayor almost daily,” Shane Brooks, Chicopee City Council President said. “We’ve tried to be as proactive and not reactive.”

In his day job in human services, Brooks said COVID-19 information has not always been readily available. Within City Hall, things have been much better.

Gov. Baker’s original State of Emergency declaration waived several open meeting law requirements (created via wikipedia & Google image searches)

That coordination can matter a lot. While Baker has waived certain open meeting law requirements, notably about public access and tele-participation, the easiest thing for many boards and commissions is simply not to meet. That presents challenges for some bodies.

Select boards are the only responsible entity in some communities. Even boards with managers may be reluctant to fully fold up shop.

Baker plans to file legislation to smooth things over for localities, however.

Mayors across the region have declared states of emergency and reached out to the public in a variety of ways. The mayors of the Pioneer Valley’s largest cities had all declared emergencies.

Some, like Agawam Mayor William Sapelli used Facebook to record messages to the public about what to expect. West Springfield Mayor Will Reichelt, long a practitioner of video on social media, has dedicated many of his recent posts to the COVID-19 response.

COVID-19 Update

Mayor Sapelli & Kathleen Auer, City Health Agent, give an update on the Coronavirus and actions currently being taken by the City.

Posted by Town Of Agawam on Friday, March 13, 2020

COVID-19 Update for March 16th

COVID-19 Update for March 16thLocal UpdatesThe Town Hall, Senior Center, and Library are closed to the public until March 27th.Staff will still report for now but we will be reducing our workforce but we will have people working remotely to continue critical government operations.State UpdatesAll Massachusetts schools to close for three weeks until April 7th.As of Tuesday, March 17th restaurants and bars to be closed except for pickup and delivery thru April 7th (does not apply to grocery or drug stores).All gatherings reduced to 25 people.Nursing home visitors banned.Hospitals must cancel non-essential elective procedures.More telehealth options being made available.Pharmacists can make hand sanitzer to reduce shortage.STOP HOARDING FOOD AND SUPPLIES.

Posted by Mayor Will Reichelt on Monday, March 16, 2020

The Agawam Council’s Monday meeting was cancelled, but it was not immediately clear if the West Springfield’s Monday meeting went ahead.

Up in Northampton, following Mayor David Narkewicz’s declaration of emergency, the City Council is planning to conduct all of its business remotely for now.

Even before Baker ordered all schools to close and public gatherings limited to 25 or less people, virtually all schools, libraries and senior centers had closed. City halls and municipal buildings have now followed.

Last week, Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse formally closed City Hall last week after declaring a state of emergency and closing schools. He urged boards and commissions to avoid meeting if at all possible.

“Thank you all for your patience and understanding during this unprecedented time,” he said in a statement last week about the closure. He went on to note that officials were investigating childcare options for people who are still working.

Trying to prevent this. (created via WMP&I images & Google image search)

Mayors continue to work full-time, but councils face challenges to remain available, if necessary, while not risking spread of the virus.

As Morse noted in his statement, the Holyoke Council suspended its regular and committee meetings for the foreseeable future. The statement sent by the Council’s administrative aide and not attributed to any specific official, stated that the body would meet “to take up urgent matters if necessary, and will notify the public of any and all such meetings that may take place.”

In Springfield, coordination between Mayor Domenic Sarno and the Council was not as clear at first. However that is changing for the better. At Monday’s Council meeting, Hurst said the Council would be having weekly meetings with the administration, like remotely, to keep councilors informed about developments.

Sarno announced his declaration of emergency last week. Following some riffs about his sweeping powers under the declaration—which mostly just unlocks money—he turned things over to universally trusted figures like Health Commissioner Helen Caulton-Harris.

On Monday Sarno said City Hall would be closed to the public for now starting March 17. That may or may not have any impact on the Council, though the body does not plan to have any in-person meetings after that date for the foreseeable future.

Last week, Springfield City Council President Justin Hurst announced broad curtailment of the Council’s schedule. April meetings were cancelled and the Council’s meetings in March and May were consolidated to fewer meetings in each month.

In addition, Hurst cancelled public speak out sessions—save those for permit hearings—and proclamations. Even administration staff were sharply limited under the new rules to either certain department heads or their designees. The public is barred save for the press.

While the Council’s March 16 meeting proceeded as scheduled, the schedule was in some doubt with City Hall formally closed. The mayor’s closure of the building would not actually inhibit the Council, but it could create logistical challenges especially for permit hearings. While Baker’s order allows for teleconferencing and waiving public access, meetings must be accessible to the public via broadcast.

Subcommittees are less likely to be impacted as Hurst urged chairs to cancel their meetings.

“My ask of all of you is not to hold any subcommittee meeting,” Hurst told councilor’s during Monday’s meeting.

Locked for your safety. (created via buychicopeenow.net & Google image search)

In Chicopee, Mayor John Vieau instituted many of the same changes as communities throughout the region.

Brooks said his council would consider whether it needed to make changes to scheduling at its Monday meeting.

“We have explored doing tele-committee,” he said Sunday.

Aside from financial transfers, councils probably do not need to meet as often during the crisis. However, some meetings may be unavoidable. Brooks said his Council will be available to work in some fashion when and if it is called upon should the body all but suspend.

“I’m confident that we would be able to provide any resources needed,” he said.

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