Eaton Peabody is working hard with our municipal clients to respond to the COVID-19 public health emergency. Part of this response is staying informed as the federal and State government enacts new laws and regulations to combat COVID-19. Of particular important to municipalities, last week omnibus bill LD 2167 was passed by both bodies of the Legislature and signed into law by Governor Mills. The legislation includes provisions designed to aid municipalities to address the COVID-19 public health emergency, including:
- Flexibility for Municipal Budgets and Elections. For any municipality that is required to postpone its annual Town Meeting, LD 2167 allows municipalities to fund operations using the previous year’s approved budget. Additionally, if a budget is not adopted in 2020, the new law allows the municipal assessor(s) to commit property taxes on the basis of the previous year’s budget. The new law also allows municipal treasurers to disburse money on the authority of a warrant that is seen and signed by the municipal officers outside of a public meeting. Last, municipal officers are permitted to postpone the date of a municipal secret ballot election and/or referendum election when nomination papers have already been issued or filed by posting notice of the postponement in a conspicuous public location at least 2 days prior to the date of the election. This new law applies retroactively to March 1, 2020, and is repealed on January 15, 2021.
- Allowing for Remote Access under the Freedom of Access Act (“FOAA”). LD 2167 expands FOAA by allowing municipalities to conduct public proceeding through telephonic, video, electronic, or other similar means of communication as long as certain specified conditions are met, including notice of the means of holding the meeting, ensuring that members of the body can speak and be heard by the other members of the body and members of the public, and requiring that all votes are taken by roll call. This expansion of FOAA is valid until 30 days after the termination of the COVID-19 emergency. Important to note, Town Meetings and elections cannot be conducted remotely.
- School Budgets. School administrative units may continue operations at the same budget levels approved for the previous year if the school board meetings are delayed.
- License and Registration Extensions. Deadlines for registering motor vehicles, all-terrain vehicles (“ATV”), watercraft, snowmobiles, trailers and dogs are extended until 30 days after the end of the public health emergency. Moreover, municipalities are permitted to grant a request for a renewal of a liquor license without conducting a hearing to grant a request for a renewal of a liquor license.
Regarding Town Meetings, LD 2167 permits municipal officers to postpone and reschedule a secret ballot election and/or referendum election so long as specific notice requirements of the new legislation are followed. For traditional “open” Town Meetings, so long as the warrant has not been publicly posted for the requisite 7 days, the municipal officers may direct the warrant be taken down wherever posted, in effect calling off the meeting. However, if the warrant has been posted for 7 or more days, there is no means to cancel a traditional “open” Town Meeting under Maine Law. Fortunately, as few as 2 voters and the clerk can open the meeting, elect and swear in a moderator, and then move to immediately adjourn the meeting, effectively cancelling the meeting.
While LD 2167 provides relief and flexibility for conducting municipal business during the COVID-19 public health emergency, it did not address many issues still facing municipalities, such as the scope of municipal emergency powers or what to do if there are conflicts between newly passed legislation and municipal charters. Undoubtedly, other issues will arise for municipalities as they act to respond in these unprecedented times.
We are ready to assist our municipal clients in any way we can be helpful, whether it is addressing issues of elections and budgets, properly implementing remote access meetings, employment matters, or otherwise. We are here to serve you.
These materials have been prepared for general informational purposes only and are not intended as legal advice.