WILLIAMSTOWN — A letter from a local resident outlined the risks posed by high-density indoor gatherings very much on the minds of many people as transmission of COVID-19 variants remains high. Steve Dew, who led the effort last year to circumvent mass indoor town gatherings, is again pushing for options that allow for equitable access.
In a phone conversation, Dew summarized last year’s situation.
“Williamstown decided to hold its town meeting in the gymnasium of the Williamstown Elementary School,” explained Dew, “which is a very small space, poorly ventilated. Antiquated in its ventilation. And when I expressed concerns on behalf of myself and others to our health inspector last year, the official told us that windows would be open where possible and doors would be left open where possible. So ventilation could happen, which in my mind is an acknowledgment that the ventilation was poor in that space. So unfortunately, I went into court on behalf of a client of mine who is a person with a disability under the meaning of Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which is a very progressive, far-reaching law that protects people who are who are ill, who are sick, who have disabilities, and who need reasonable accommodation — the term of art in the law.”LTR-re-COVID-Town-Meeting-2023
These accommodations are exactly where the rights of a minority often run into obstacles when the convenience of the many, and tradition, have been enshrined in local law.
Dew continued, “The statute to attend public political events like a town meeting, which is especially important in New England, where we have the town meeting form of government, literally requires a physical presence to cast a vote — literally make your voice heard. And in voting on very important things, very significant things. Last year, for instance, there were a handful of zoning changes in the offing that required a majority of the members of the town meeting to say yes to. And those are things that affect people’s property rights, their wealth increasingly. And it was clear to me and to others last year that by holding the town meeting in a poorly ventilated, very small space it was not properly accommodative of vulnerable people in Williamstown who wanted to speak at that meeting and have their voices heard.
Special Meeting of the Williamstown Fire District (click here to read)
Special Meeting of the Williamstown Fire District February 28, 2023, at 7 pm Williamstown Elementary School, 115 Church Street
Williamstown, MA 01267 Notice is hereby given to all Inhabitants of the Williamstown Fire District, qualified to vote in elections and District affairs, to meet at the Williamstown Elementary School Gymnasium, 115 Church Street, in said Williamstown on TUESDAY, the Twenty-Eighth of February 2023, at Seven O’clock pm to VOTE on the following Article financing the proposed new fire station.
“To see if the District will vote to raise and appropriate, transfer from available funds, and/or borrow the sum of Twenty Two Million Five Hundred Thousand ($22,500,000.00) for the design, engineering, construction and equipping of a new fire station to be located at 562-580 Main Street, including site preparation, remediation, and demolition costs, and all costs incidental and related thereto; and to authorize the District Treasurer, with the approval of the Prudential Committee, to issue any bonds or notes that may be necessary for that purpose, as authorized by the provisions of G.L. c. 44, or any other enabling authority; and further, to authorize the Prudential Committee to apply for and accept any forms of financial assistance that may be available to the District on account of this project which amount received shall reduce the amount to be borrowed pursuant to this vote by a like amount; and further, to authorize the Prudential Committee to enter into all agreements and execute any and all instruments deemed necessary to effectuate the purposes of this article; or take any action in relation thereto.”
After receiving an unsatisfactory response from the town, Dew, an attorney, turned to the law.
“So unfortunately,” Dew recalled, “no one ever wants to do this. We went into court with an emergency temporary restraining order request to have the town meeting moved to a different location. That request was denied. But the judge did actually order that everyone who attended the Williamstown town meeting in the the Williamstown Elementary School gymnasium be masked. And I attended that meeting. And I didn’t see a single person who was not masked. That, to me, says that when people understand, they do the right thing. They do it and there’s no problem.”
In January of this year, Dew crafted a letter to the town well in advance of the February 28 town meeting, which will have such weighty topics as whether or not Williamstown should spend tens of millions of dollars on a new fire station at issue. Dew says he hopes that time is on his side this time. Whether the town’s response will be in line with with science will determine what the chances are for the meeting to be moved to the Williams athletic field — an outdoor venue that would provide maximum ventilation.
Dew admitted, “We were caught, I will be perfectly honest, we were caught flat footed last year. And I don’t think my client or I either understood that this decision was irreversible due to some obscure tenets of Massachusetts’ or even Williamstown’s kind of political procedure. So even though people of goodwill, including many members of the select board — I don’t want to paint them as villains here — a number of them took to Facebook, and this is literally mentioned in our publicly filed complaint from last year, that they literally suggested that people attend the Williamstown Elementary School meeting in order to move it to a better, safer location, which is what happened last year.”
The outpouring of support and understanding gives Dew a reason for optimism, he says.
“So I have all I’ve all the hope and trust in the world,” Dew said, “that the good people of Williamstown will do the right thing this year. I think here’s what I think happened last year, actually. Everyone wanted to believe that this awful pandemic had ebbed and no one was really at risk anymore. And that’s a very common and very human way to feel. Unfortunately, it’s not. It wasn’t the case then. And it’s not the case now. And for people who are vulnerable — my client is an example — we don’t know what this virus really does to the immune system. There are some indications that it affects the immune system very much like HIV does and did back in the day. So that’s the source of my concern.
Dew revealed that he, too, has a personal motivation for minimizing threats to viral transmission in town meetings. He was diagnosed last year with a form of lymphoma that, while not aggressive like some, still is enough to give him pause before subjecting his own immune system to any biological invaders.
“I would even represent myself pro se on behalf of myself,” Dew explained, “because I, as I mentioned, was diagnosed with lymphoma, called low-grade follicular lymphoma. It does not currently require treatment, but It’s one of these things that, according to my doctors, is something that we need to “keep an eye on.
“Nevertheless,” he continued, “having a compromised immune system creates a much higher risk of requiring treatment. And so I consider myself one of these people who is covered by Title II of the ADA. If I wanted to attend the Williamstown town meeting — and I, by the way, am an elected official in Williamstown, and serve on the board of the Williamstown Housing Authority — the idea that I would not be safe at a town meeting, to me is, this isn’t the town that I thought I lived in.”