After postponing their annual school district meeting due to COVID-19, the Bow School District will now hold their meeting virtually next week, allowing townspeople to call in to the meeting, submit comments and concerns via email, and ultimately vote directly from their cars.
James Hatem is the school district moderator for the town of Bow. He spoke with NHPR’s Peter Biello earlier today to tell him more about how the town has adapted their annual meeting to comply with the state’s social distancing guidelines.
Instead of using the usual school district meeting, Bow is going to hold a series of meetings virtually starting next Tuesday. So how did you come up with this plan? And what's the process going to look like?
Well, you know, right before the regularly scheduled meeting, the world was starting to adjust to living in a COVID-19 environment, and there was a lot of concern about actually holding the meeting. And because of that concern, we pushed it off. And ever since March 13th, we've been trying to figure out a way to, in effect, hold an annual meeting and simulate everything we do at an annual meeting, but do it in a way that accommodates the safety and health concerns of people who are dealing with COVID-19, as well as make sure that it was a proper meeting for the voters.
And one of the things that you were trying to simulate is the ability to have the public sort of stand up and make comments in front of a crowd. I think you're having people e-mail or telephone their comments in ahead of time. Is there something lost by not having that kind of experience?
There's certainly something lost, but not lost to the point where I think it troubles the process. You know, we… Typically in a meeting, we have the presentation of the articles, and then the people participate in discussion and debate. And we're really just accommodating that while people are at a distance. So, yes, we won't be able to see our neighbors talking at that time. However, the comments will be made and they'll be introduced to the process and they'll be considered. And frankly, if they disagree with this entire process and the way we've been trying to work around it, they'll have the opportunity, actually, to reject the entire process and ask us to figure out a different way to handle the meeting.
So it's possible that this whole voting process might be scrapped if enough people are dissatisfied with it?
Well, the vote and the meeting belongs to the voters. I've done my best as moderator to accommodate the process given the environment we're in today. The first question on the ballot they will see is whether or not they accept my process. We know the procedures have been published and we're working through them. But the first decision that the voters will face is whether or not these procedures are acceptable.
One of the things that you've worked out is a kind of drive-through voting process. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Sure. The voters will, in effect, drive into the school, which they're very familiar with and proceed in a line. And they will first do what they always do at a town meeting and check in with the supervisors where their names will be reviewed on the checklist and they will be certified as voters of Bow. And at that point, they will receive a written ballot. In that written ballot, we'll have the list of questions that they're asked to vote on in a yes or no fashion. They will write in their car either 20, 30 or 50 feet into the next stop, where they'll have an opportunity to cast that ballot into the ballot box. And that ballot box will remain closed until 1 o'clock when the meeting is going to close, or the ballot box will close. And we will count the votes.
What guidance, if any, have you received from the state about how this meeting should be conducted?
Well, the school district attorney has been in communications with the... I believe the governor's office and the Secretary of State's office, the commissioner of Health and Human Services regarding the process and the procedures from a compliance standpoint with the governor's orders relating to social distancing. And separately, you know, we've been working with our town public safety officials to make sure that, you know, what we decide to do is compliant with their understanding of those orders.
And what additional support do you need, if any, from the state to make sure the elections run smoothly?
Honestly, the only support we really think we need from the state is their feedback on whether they think we're complying with the law and complying with the governor's orders. I mean, these elections are run by town officials. There's a lot of volunteers who spend a lot of time getting the ballot ready and the issues ready for presentation to the voters. You know, I see our responsibility to try to make sure the voters have an informed process to review those proposals and vote in an informed and efficient way. So I think really it's up to the town officials and the voters of Bow to help us work through this process.