During the month of April, five Island towns will hold their annual town meetings; Aquinnah will hold its in May. To paraphrase former MVTimes editor Nelson Sigelman, town meetings are like orchestras, and each town moderator is a conductor. From Dan Waters in West Tisbury, who has presided over just two town meetings, to Jeff Norton in Edgartown, who has presided over more than 40, each moderator must conduct town meeting with a careful balance of personal style and professional acumen.
The six moderators come from a wide range of backgrounds, but they all share a common fascination with and appreciation for the significance of annual town meeting. In case you’ve been asleep throughout your tenure on the Vineyard, that’s when each town meets to decide its budget for the upcoming fiscal year, as well as other town-related issues. It is one of the purest forms of direct democracy in America, if not the world, and it is used in small towns throughout New England. It gives even people with no interest in politics the opportunity to vote on where their taxes go.
Attorney Jeff Norton, who has the distinction of being the longest-serving town moderator, began his tenure as the Edgartown moderator in the 1970s, when moderator Joseph Robichau retired. He ran against one other contender that first time, and has run unopposed ever since. “It’s a privilege and an obligation to go to town meeting,” he says. “And you might just as well be doing something while you’re there, so I just thought, what the heck.”
Everett Poole, who sells marine supplies at the Chandlery and grew up on land his family held for more than 350 years, also began to serve as Chilmark’s moderator in the 1970s. “The town needed a moderator and nobody else wanted the job, and somebody had to do it …” he explains. Although originally he took the position out of a Yankee sense of civic obligation, he came to enjoy his job. “I like slamming the gavel down and telling people they’re out of line,” he says wryly, adding, “I only ever had one person come after me trying to hit me on the head. It’s generally noncombative. And it’s nice not being involved in politics — as moderator, I can’t take a stand on anything.”
Tisbury’s Deborah Medders was elected to her position in 1999. As with Mr. Norton, she initially competed to replace a retiring moderator, but has run unopposed ever since. Finding herself “absolutely — and this still holds true — awed” by the experience of town meeting when she first arrived in 1988, she was drawn to the role of moderator because it aligned well with her professional skill set in mediation and facilitation. “It’s a happy match,” she says.
Jack Law has been involved in Oak Bluffs town government for more than 40 years, beginning with the town’s FinCom in 1973. He has since “done just about everything” — board of selectmen, police officer, personnel board, cemetery commission — and is now going on his sixth year as moderator, having run unopposed from the beginning, when Dave Richardson retired. Although his family is from here, he describes himself as “a wash-ashore, because I’ve been here for 42 years straight.” Moderator was a job he always wanted, and he’s enjoying it.
Mike Hebert, Aquinnah’s town moderator and a 35-year vet of Cottle’s Lumber, moved to the Island in 1982. After serving on the board of selectmen for a couple of years, he agreed to step in to replace the longtime retiring moderator, Walter Delaney, and has since run twice unopposed. “I enjoyed my time as chairman of the BOS, running meetings. I felt it was important to keep order and get things done in a minimal amount of time — we are all volunteers, after all, and I thought I could bring the same type of order and adhering to the rules as I did at selectmen’s meetings. I’m fairly happy with the way meetings have gone.”
Of all the Vineyard moderators, Dan Waters is newest to the gavel. The first poet laureate of West Tisbury, Dan agreed to be appointed on very short notice in May of 2014. Although Mr. Waters had previously served on the West Tisbury Cultural Council and the Library Board of Trustees, “I came into this absolutely cold — Pat [Gregory, the longtime town moderator] died, and there was nobody.” To prepare himself for the responsibility, he relied on the advice of Deb Medders, and watched videos of 10 years’ worth of town meetings to see how Mr. Gregory had handled the role. “The position of trust the town puts you in is something to be honored and treasured and protected,” says Mr. Waters. “As moderator, I see my job as making the process as transparent and unmystifying as possible. The moderator’s purpose is to protect the discussion. Town meeting doesn’t belong to the moderator, it belongs to the town, to the assembly that night. The moderator is there to serve that assembly. It is to protect the minority, and the time of everyone there. It’s a very delicate balancing act.”
Anecdotally, each town is perceived by both its residents and its neighbors to have certain ineffable qualities. These are manifested in the town meeting setting. So to rely on both archetypes and stereotypes, it seems fitting that Edgartown’s moderator is an attorney, while Chilmark’s is a man of the sea, and West Tisbury’s is a poet (West Tisbury’s town meeting begins with a poem). To avoid het-up letters to the editor, I’ll refrain from further typecasting, but the modus operandi of the towns also bears out these differences.
The random-lottery approach
Most famous is Tisbury’s random-lottery approach to moving through the warrant. While many people assume this is an invention of Ms. Medders, it’s actually a town bylaw passed in 1991, before she was the moderator. The idea was to prevent blocks of people showing up to vote for a single article, and then leaving en masse. She has found it generally works.
From his days as an Oak Bluffs selectman, Mr. Law developed his own approach to voter “mass exodus”: he allows a 15-minute window for an article to be reconsidered after it’s been voted on, and after that it’s too late. “People might vote for something, and then a different article makes them reconsider it,” he says.
Each moderator has his or her own approach to managing the floor. The Oak Bluffs annual town meeting attendees will always find zoning at the end of the Town Meeting, “because it’s boring and people are tired, so it passes right through,” says Mr. Law; on most other issues, however, he welcomes vigorous discussion, because whoever is presenting the article can bring far more information to the floor than simply what is written in the warrant.
Mr. Hebert focuses on keeping a balance between making sure people can express their opinions and not letting the conversation grow repetitious. Mr. Poole says he is sometimes criticized for letting people speak too long, “but it’s the one time that everyone in town has the chance to question everything; they should all have their say.”
Ms. Medders says her town has an expectation that “their moderator will allow people to talk, and that there will not be arbitrary time limits for people to take the mike, whether it be for a question or a point of clarification, or an opinion. They are very liberal when allowing townspeople to speak.”
Similarly, Mr. Waters says of the floor at the West Tisbury town meeting, “There is a lot of wisdom in a room of 300 people. West Tisbury likes to feel as though they’re being fair, and if there is somebody who has a question, they will have an almost infinite amount of patience. So sometimes meetings go long, but there is a lot of empathy for, for instance, first-timers.”
In contrast, the Edgartown town meeting appears by all accounts to run like a well-oiled machine, with discussion focused and succinct.
While each town’s meeting has a unique character, the moderators are remarkably in sync, given that few if any of them have ever attended another town’s annual meeting.
For one thing, remaining neutral comes organically to each of them. “It’s never a challenge to stay impartial,” says Mr. Norton.
Mr. Waters agrees: “The moderator should show up as a blank slate. I announce at the beginning of the town meeting that I won’t vote even to break a tie. It is important to be completely impartial, and in a small town it’s impossible that a moderator won’t have an interest in some question somewhere, in which case he must recuse himself even from moderating,” as did Mr. Water’s predecessor, Mr. Gregory — the owner of Edu Comp — when a warrant item came up involving computers in the town hall.
Ms. Medders is so committed to impartiality that she declines even to comment on ways in which the town meeting might be improved. “To answer your question,” she explains, “means that I have a judgment about the town meeting floor, and I do not.” She also does not vote in the case of a tie, because voting on it “means I would have had to have given thought to an article, relative to what I think about its merits, and I do not do that.” She adds that running the town meeting requires so much focus that she finds it easy not to form an opinion.
‘An amazing thing to watch’
All six moderators also express tremendous admiration not only for the concept of the annual town meeting, but for the process itself and the people who make it happen. Says Mr. Law: “When people get up and love what they’re talking about, they talk well, the process is great. It’s an amazing thing to watch, just an amazing thing to watch.”
Other qualities that the moderators see in their fellow townsmen are the contrarily twinned traits of intelligence and yet a lack of familiarity with the warrant articles. In fact, the single biggest change moderators across the Island would like to see is for residents to educate themselves more on what they are coming to vote on.
Mr. Hebert expresses the general sentiment: “It would be helpful if people arrived fully informed, but it’s not realistic to expect that.”
Mr. Waters adds, “It’s frustrating for a moderator to get into the level of detail that should have been hammered out long before. And when people are in doubt about something, they are likely to leave things the way they are rather than change them.”
The possible exception here is Mr. Norton, who says Edgartown residents are “well-read, knowledgeable, and some are articulate. I don’t think anything needs to change here. We do pretty well. I’m absolutely happy with how town meeting runs.” But most moderators see room for improvement.
Mr. Poole has presided over a sea change in the Chilmark population. “I can no longer call everybody by name, which happened within 10 years, I think in the late ’80s. We have a lot of people who are registered in Chilmark but don’t really live here. Back in the ’60s when this started to happen, a lot of the old-time residents wouldn’t come to town meeting anymore.” He says the majority of the approximately 150 people at meeting each year are “new.” “Back when I was in grammar school, we had the town meeting during the day, and teachers would march us over to the town meeting for the whole meeting, from the first grade on. We knew how it ran, how to speak to the moderator, how to present ourselves. I think schoolchildren should all have that experience. It’s the best form of government there is. One of my first recollections is an old man who argued for 30 minutes against spending 50 cents for a new baseball at the school.”
Mr. Hebert — presiding over what is by far the smallest town meeting, where everyone knows everyone else — wishes that things would not get personal, especially when a person’s salary or job description is involved. “People get hurt or combative,” he says. “Town meeting floor is not the place to discuss that. Discuss it in the budget meeting — go to the selectmen or FinCom meetings. Hashing it out at town meeting is not the place.”
Mr. Law would like to see more civic engagement in general: “You have 150 people who will decide a $28 million dollar budget for the town … and then all these people who didn’t come [to the town meeting] are bitching about it on the street corners.”
In Edgartown the fate of the Yellow House is likely to be a big deal, while in Oak Bluffs, there will likely be some focus on the town hall. Aquinnah will be operating with the benefit of an active finance committee for the first time in several years, which Mr. Hebert hopes will accelerate processing a warrant that is likely to be concerned with the town’s rising budget. In Chilmark, Mr. Poole says, “They’ve got the liquor business on again; that is going to bring the old-timers out.”
While neither Ms. Medders nor Mr. Waters knew exactly what was on their warrants when this story was reported, each commented that their towns veer toward the parsimonious when it comes to spending. Mr. Waters, contrasting this with West Tisbury’s renowned liberal leanings, says, “It’s a great reminder that thrift, at heart, is a liberal value — it’s about not wasting resources.”
Collectively, our six town moderators embody both the Yankee spirit in general and what makes the Vineyard unique. But don’t take our word for it. When the time comes, go to your town’s annual town meeting, and see for yourself.