How Wellesley pulled off its techie Town Meeting

Not everyone came away from last week’s Wellesley Town Meeting happy with the voting results. But as non-Town Meeting member observers of a good chunk of the 9 hours of the town’s first-ever online Town Meeting, we were impressed with how smoothly it all appeared to run technology-wise.

The video and audio were consistent, and the tallying of votes and revealing of results took place quickly (we only recall hearing a couple of issues where non-Town Meeting members were allowed to do things they shouldn’t have been able to do).

Chris Shedd, a new Town Meeting member, said the online format worked well, with practice meetings helping to work out kinks. “I especially liked that you could see the name of who was talking and where everyone stood on voting, no voice votes,” he said.

We reached out directly to Wellesley IT Director Brian DuPont to get a post-mortem on the event and learn about how it was all handled. But he was in catch-up mode after serving as the center of what the town dubbed “Mission Control,” so Communications & Project Manager Stephanie Hawkinson answered our questions.

Choosing Zoom

The town mulled various options for holding Town Meeting in a safe way during the COVID-19 pandemic. This included possibly holding it outdoors, as other communities have done.

But Wellesley, which has become adept at running public meetings online since the crisis began, settled on the now seemingly ubiquitous Zoom platform (“Forget Netflix: Binge on Wellesley town government live streams”). The town set up both Zoom and Microsoft Teams at the start of the crisis to enable town employees and elected officials to work remotely.

town meeting 2020

For Town Meeting, the challenge was enabling all 240 members and other interested residents to participate in discussing the scaled-back slate of articles (mostly financial related).

“The League of Women Voters was a huge help with this, providing members/phone numbers for TM participants to call prior to the meeting with problems. We also followed the State legislation closely to make sure we could meet whatever was required by the Acts of 2020,” Hawkinson says.

The town conducted 3 tests in advance to make sure things would work and help TM members get comfortable. Zoom Meeting, rather than Zoom Webinar, was chosen in part because members wanted to see each other on screen as well as hear each other. Zoom Meeting also featured a crucial polling tool used to tally votes.

For each test and the actual meetings, critical staff was on location at the Great Hall at Town Hall. This included DuPont, Hawkinson, Town Clerk KC Kato and Moderator Mark Kaplan for the tests, and those 4 plus town counsel Tom Harrington for the meetings. They were supported as well by an IT staffer on site and another at a remote location, plus Executive Director Meghan Jop and Assistant Executive Directory Amy Frigulietti.

“We decided on the Great Hall because the internet is generally stable and strong there, and familiar if any issues popped up,” Hawkinson says of the Mission Control location.

Hawkinson gives the 83-year-old Kaplan, who wasn’t billing himself as a tech whiz, for working closely with DuPont to make the setup a success.

“While there were a few minor bumps, Mark kept his sense of humor and really set the tone for a successful Town Meeting,” Hawkinson says.

Even more prep

In the weeks leading up to Town Meeting, all presentations about articles were recorded remotely and dozens of them were transferred to video available via the town’s YouTube channel. The Advisory Committee reviewed and discussed the Town Meeting warrant articles in advance of Town Meeting to share its thoughts with TM members.

Whether Wellesley will be doing this all over again in the fall remains to be seen.

“No one knows what will happen in the fall, but we’ve learned a lot and we’ll be ready,” Hawkinson says.