Public Safety Under Covid: Temporary Restraining Order Sought Against Williamstown, MA Over Refusal to Hold Town Meeting in Safe Venue

Public Safety Under Covid: Temporary Restraining Order Sought Against Williamstown, MA Over Refusal to Hold Town Meeting in Safe Venue 1

Some citizens are not taking Covid risk sitting down. Attorney Stephen Dew has filed a suit on behalf of Janet Loux against managers, board members, and the town of Williamstown itself over its obstinacy in refusing to schedule its town meeting in one of the possible sites that would not pose undue Covid risk to participants. As you will see, Ms. Loux has been active in community and state politics and is diabetic. We’ve embedded the filing at the end of this post.

With Covid cases spiking and New York City again recommending indoor mask-wearing, the risk of Covid is real. Moreover, Williamstown held its town meeting in a safer location in 2020 and 2021, so it has implicitly acknowledged the importance of adequate space and ventilation for public safety. If the city does not quickly capitulate to avoid wasting funds on litigation, Ms. Loux may have to present data showing that even N95 masks protect user for only 2.5 hours against an unmasked person with Covid (and I’ve seen studies that suggest a mere 1.25 hours for an unfitted N95).

Note this story already made the Berkshire Eagle: A resident is suing to force Williamstown to move its annual town meeting to a larger venue because of COVID concerns. From the article:

With COVID cases again surging across the Berkshires, a resident is taking legal action to try to prevent the town from convening the scheduled annual town meeting tonight at Williamstown Elementary School…

Some residents have been pushing to move the meeting either outside or to a larger space to reduce the odds of the infection spreading at the meeting, while others are advising folks to take precautions such as wearing a mask and social distancing.

All of Berkshire County is listed as high risk for COVID transmission, including Williamstown, which reported 100 new cases in the last seven days, and currently has a 10 percent positivity rate….

In an email that was shared with The Eagle, Loux stressed the importance finding a change of venue.

“There are several important articles being voted on and it is important that these votes are not tainted by disenfranchised voters who can’t participate,” she wrote. “If this meeting goes forward in the current form, it is a clear statement to people who are immunocompromised or have certain disabilities that they are second-class citizens in this upcoming Williamstown Town Meeting.”

The legal argument is simple: Ms. Loux requires an accommodation under the Americans With Disabilities Act. And even though logically this argument ought to prevail, judges tend to be deferential towards government bodies.

However, absent a judge granting the restraining order, there’s a glaring procedural problem: citizens will have to go to the meeting at the dangerous location to vote to reschedule it and move it to a safer spot. Again from the Berkshire Eagle:

Town officials offered the proposed change of venue article this past weekend as a result of the residents’ concerns, according to Andrew Hogeland, chairman of the Select Board.

“At this point, the authority to adjourn Town Meeting rests with whoever votes on that question at Town Meeting on Tuesday night,” he wrote in an email to the community. “So if this question is important to you, you should show up if you can safely and comfortably do so to vote on it. Since such a motion may fail, you should show up if you can safely and comfortably do so to attend the full Town Meeting which would proceed.”

Talk about Catch-22. One has to wonder if the town officials deliberately addressed this matter too late to fix it themselves.

The Boston Globe even called for abolishing town meetings in 2020, arguing they were undemocratic because so few voters showed up that decisions are made ” a small, unrepresentative portion of the electorate.” While that may be the case, any other format is even less representative and accountable. And if there’s a hot issue to be decided, voters make the time to show up.

So wish Ms. Loux luck. And circulate this filing to others who might feel the need to press local officials to be mindful of Covid risk when they schedule public meetings.

00 Loux v. Filson et al

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