Behind portal opening town's first virtual Special Town Meeting

Arlington's Special Town Meeting, which began Nov. 16, is like none of the 214 that came before -- it is virtual: Members representing up to 252 seats will discuss and vote on town business from computers.

Empty Town Hall AuditoriumTown Hall Auditorium is empty as members attend from home.

In June, the delayed annual meeting dealt with financial articles outdoors, at Peirce Field, behind Arlington High School, in one evening

The special meeting addresses 25 articles, connected by Zoom videoconferencing while using a portal developed by Lexington Select Board member Joe Pato. The number of  sessions is hard to predict, in that the first one was slow, as members adapted to new ways.

This tradition continues: Residents will continue to watch Town Meeting on cable TV or streaming on devices. View on ACMi’s government channel (Comcast 22, RCN 614, Verizon 26) and streamed live at acmi.tv.

Changes afoot

Some meeting procedures depart from tradition, and that a few members fearing change. In a Nov. 12 interview, Town Moderator John Leone acknowledged the concern but downplayed the worry.

Meeting members "are excited about it," he said, following a two-hour dress rehearsal of the virtual setup held Wednesday, Nov. 11. Participating were 11 town staffers and 197 meeting members, a number similar to a typical, in-person meeting at Town Hall Auditorium.

Leone estimated that 20 to 40 staff and meeting members attended seven training sessions, each 1 and 1/2 to 2 hours, held evenings in recent weeks.

Town Meeting logo

As members work with the new process, Leone said he expected "comfort would increase."

What differs for members?

So what's different for meeting members? Here is a partial list:

  • When connecting on Zoom, members also open the ZPato portal via a login and password, so two screens will show up on your device.
  • When Town Meeting opens, members see Leone plus some staff but not individual members; bandwidth issues require limits to how many faces may be streamed.
  • Instead of having nonmember experts as guests, testimony will be read by a meeting member; for example, Amos Meeks is expected to offer guest testimony for Article 5 (fossil fuel infrastructure). If a town department head needs to address a question, he or she may be promoted to Zoom.
  • On the ZPato portal screen, members can raise a point of order or speak after recognition by the moderator. Members use the participate button, below your profile image, and a member of the tech staff unmutes the member.
  • Five-minute video presentations, which anyone can do, will be projected on YouTube.
  • Voting on the portal will differ in its online procedures, and members should review the details here >> Leone expects the process to take longer than in-person voting.
  • At the end of the evening, you do not walk out the audiorium door -- you click on the logout button on the online Town Meeting portal home page.

Some praise

Leone praised the work of Adam Kurowski, the town GIS director; meeting members Len Diggins and Eric Helmuth, as well as Pato, a former visiting scientist professor at MIT, who arranged for a dedicated server and made adjustments to the setup he devised nightly after town training.

Leone expects to place 12 articles on the consent agenda, but some may be challenged, so those will have separate votes, which occurs at the in-person meeting.

If members have trouble voting, they can use the "raise-hand" function for help, and, if need be, voting can occur manually.

Leone noted that one meeting member has no computer, and he expect the issue to be worked out.

At a recent Massachusetts Moderators Association meeting, members compared notes about how virtual sessions are working out for representative Town Meetings. He said the members he spoke with thought Pato's portal was "the best."

Virtual or in-person, Town Meeting has always been something of a family -- with all of the disputes, doubts and successes that families have. As you watch the debate, think of the song "Tradition" in "Fiddler on the Roof."


Town guide to virtual Town Meeting for members

YourArlington's main 2020 Special Town Meeting link

June 16, 2020: Covid-19 reshapes 2020 annual Town Meeting


This news summary was published Sunday, Nov. 15, 2020.