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Email to Select Board, Finance Committee, and School Committee

Email to Select Board, Finance Committee, and School Committee

Good Afternoon,  Members of the Select Board, Finance Committee and Groton Dunstable Regional School District Committee:

There has been a lot of discussion and “Monday Morning Quarterbacking” in town and on Social Media, regarding last Tuesday’s Town Meeting.  I suspect that no one has done more reflecting on this meeting than I and the elected and appointed leaders of Groton.

Since I became Groton’s Town Manager on October 21, 2008 I have successfully planned and prepared for 34 Town Meetings in Groton.  I am proud that all of those Town Meetings were conducted without any issues.  Of those 34 Town Meetings, the highest turnout was 591 people for the Lost Lake Sewer Article in October, 2012.   The September 12, 2022 Fall Town Meeting in which the Town asked for an additional $9.5 million for the Florence Roche Elementary School, had an attendance of 494 voters.  371 voters attended the 2021 Spring Town Meeting, held outdoors because of COVID, in which there was a request for $76.5 million to build the new Florence Roche Elementary School.  The last time the Town Meeting was asked to consider an Override Budget was at the 2016 Spring Town Meeting.  286 voters attended the continued session on June 13, 2016 , when the Budget requiring an Override was considered. 

Town Reports show that, before my tenure as Town Manager, 613 voters came to the Sept 2002 Town Meeting to vote on (and reject) a proposal to build a Hannaford Grocery Store on what became the Mill Run Plaza, and to unanimously approve the purchase of Gibbet Hill.  In 2003, a Town Meeting in which an Override Budget was considered had 522 voters in attendance.

Preparing for the March 26, 2024 Spring Town Meeting was not typical, starting with the fact that on January 22, 2024, we made the decision to move Town Meeting up from April 27, 2024 to March 26, 2024.  With the help of Executive Assistant Kara Cruikshank, we were able to pivot quickly and prepare and post the Warrant for the Meeting on time. 

I anticipated a larger than usual attendance at the March 26, 2024 Town Meeting as there has been much community involvement in this year’s Override Request.  To prepare for the meeting, I called a meeting of me, Assistant Director of Finance/Town Accountant Patricia DuFresne, Town Clerk Dawn Dunbar, IT Director Michael Chiasson, Desk Top Specialist Perry Sisombath, Executive Assistant Kara Cruikshank, and Cable Director Ashley Doucette.  We discussed at length how to prepare for the expected large turnout.  The location of the meeting, the Performing Arts Center, which can hold 800 people, was never questioned and we did not consider moving the meeting. (In hindsight, we should have thought about other possible locations.)  That said, we discussed how to set up a “spill over” room.  We considered the Middle School South gymnasium but dismissed it for several reasons.  Most importantly, there was no way to provide a “real time” cable feed to that location.  If we set up TV screens in that room and ran the Groton Channel on it, there would have been a delay of anywhere from 30 seconds to 2 minutes.  In addition, there was no easy way to set up a microphone system that would allow voters in the Gymnasium to be heard in the PAC.  So we determined that the Gymnasium would not work.  That left the cafeteria, with a capacity of approximately 100 voters.  We were able to run an HDMI cable directly from the sound booth in the PAC to a TV in the Cafeteria that would provide “real time” video of the meeting.  In addition, the speaker system in the cafeteria tied directly to the PAC, so that anyone speaking in the cafeteria would be heard in the PAC.  It was the perfect location for the “spill over” room. 

The next item we discussed was the electronic voting devices.  The Town has 600 “clickers”, and since we were planning for a turnout of 900 voters, which is 10.2 percent of the Town’s registered voters, we reached out to the Town of Lancaster and asked to borrow 300 devices from them, which they provided.  The IT Department spent last week testing the distance between the cafeteria and the PAC to make sure the devices would work.  While we didn’t test them in the Middle School (in hindsight we should have), we had great success at a distance of over 200 feet.  We were confident that they would work.   Unfortunately, when we went to set up at the PAC for the meeting, we ran into some kind of radio interference in the building and the electronic devices did not work in the cafeteria.  (Again, in hindsight, when that happened, we should have immediately gone to voter cards and not tried to use the devices at all.) 

Everyone I spoke with was comfortable with our plans for 900 attendees.  On Saturday, March 23, 2024, the Town of Westford’s Town Meeting, in which they were asking for an Override, had over 1600 voters attend and they had to postpone the meeting.  That news caused concern for me and all of the Town’s leaders.  At their March 25, 2024 Meeting, the Select Board and Moderator Jason Kauppi discussed what would happen if more than 900 people attended, including postponing/dissolving the meeting. 

On Tuesday, March 26th,  Fire Chief Steele McCurdy reported that 713 Voters had been checked in, with approximately a dozen children accompanying them.  There were 173 in line outside at 7:03 p.m. and 237 12 minutes later with more people coming up the hill from Main St. There were also a few dozen more non-voters and department heads attending to help run the meeting.  Chief McCurdy stated, “My best guess is the total attendance at the time we decide to postpone was  around 1,000 and likely would have been over 1,100 by the time all was said and done.” 

It is important to recognize that this unprecedented turnout (approximately twice the attendance of the largest turnout in 20 years) is evidence of an extraordinary level of commitment by Groton’s residents.  I and all of the Town’s leaders were awed by this turnout and hope this high level of involvement will continue.  Nevertheless, this meant that we needed to dissolve the meeting and find a way to hold a much larger Town Meeting than Groton has ever had.   This is where, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, it is clear that it would have been better if we had been able to identify a larger space for the meeting, and a specific date to announce for the postponed meeting.

Having dissolved our Annual Town Meeting, we now must call a Special Town Meeting to conduct the Town’s business, including voting on the budget.  We considered holding the meeting outdoors but determined that weather considerations and not being able to project information on a screen made this option less desirable than an indoor location. My team and I have identified that the Groton Dunstable Regional High School Gymnasium can hold 1200 people, which is the location I am recommending to the Select Board.   I have discussed options for the day and date of the meeting with many town leaders.  Based on the observation that people of all ages were well represented in the turnout on Tuesday, I believe an evening meeting will allow for the most voters to attend. I  am recommending  either Monday, April 29th or Monday, May 6th.  The Select Board will make the decision at their (Zoom) meeting at 6pm on Wed April 3rd.

In addition to the High School gym, we will also have access to the cafeteria, which can hold a total of 600 people in its two sections located right outside the gym. This gives us a total capacity of 1800, which  is more than the 1746 voters, or 20.5% of registered voters, who took part in the Debt Exclusion Ballot Vote for the Florence Roche Elementary School, held on the same day as the 2021 Annual Election.  We could also use the Black Box Theater, with a capacity of 350 people, although there would be a delay in broadcasting to this room, which is not ideal.

I have asked our Police Chief to determine the number of parking spaces available at the High School.  We will investigate using a shuttle van from an off-site parking location if it seems necessary to do so.

I am aware that there has been speculation that we will be charged to use the Gym.  That is not true.  The Town does not need to pay a rental fee.  We will need to rent chairs, however.  Kara has reached out to the Company that provided chairs for our outdoor meeting and learned that we can rent 1400 chairs (delivered, set up and removed) for $2400.   Mike Chiasson has determined that the cost to rent an additional 1200 electronic devices for the meeting would be $10 per device, or $12,000.  This cost is not justifiable, so I am recommending that we use voter cards instead.  We are in the process of determining the cost of equipment to provide a sound and video system for the  meeting.  

I want to commend the voters for their commitment to Groton, and apologize for the inconvenience and confusion that dissolving the meeting has caused.  I hope this information about the planning process has been helpful and I hope that the voters will again come out for the Special Town Meeting.  Groton’s government benefits when everyone’s voice is heard.

I look forward to meeting with all of you at Wednesday’s joint meeting with the Select Board, Finance Committee, and GDRSD Committee.

Please feel free to contact me with any additional questions or concerns.