Longtime West Tisbury moderator describes the view from the podium

West Tisbury town moderator Pat Gregory at the helm of the April 2012 annual town meeting. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

In 1992, West Tisbury had 1,815 residents, 1,226 registered voters, and a $4,508,749.15 annual budget, compared to 3,079 residents, 2,325 voters, and a $14,388,187.54 budget in 2012.

Neither the Public Safety Building, the new Agricultural Hall, nor the Charter School existed. Residents celebrated the town’s centennial with a parade, a picnic at the Fairgrounds (then at the Grange), and a festive ball. An upbeat mood prevailed at the annual town meeting.

“People were happy, the economy was good, everything breezed through,” said Pat Gregory who took over as town moderator that year.

In a recent interview, Mr. Gregory recalled 20 years of town meetings, and reflected upon what has changed and what has remained the same in West Tisbury.

Pat and Dorothy Gregory moved to the Vineyard from the Adirondacks in 1972. Pat taught at the West Tisbury School while Dorothy, a RN by profession, cared for their children, Shannon and Tim. In 1985 the couple began EduComp, a computer and office supply business in Vineyard Haven.

Not a New Englander, Mr. Gregory was unfamiliar with the tradition of town meeting government. He found it fascinating.

Mr. Gregory remembered the late Arnold M. Fischer speaking eloquently to voters against the town taking access to Tisbury Great Pond across his Flat Point Farm property by eminent domain. Then, he said, Mr. Fischer added, “And by the way if anybody wants to use the access, they can. All you’ve got to do is let me know, and leave some oysters on the porch!”

Inspired by town meetings, Mr. Gregory and fellow teacher Susan Goldstein instituted weekly meetings with their students. The youngsters sat in a circle with a student moderator and discussed and decided matters of classroom life.

“Many of those students are now active members of the town meeting,” Mr. Gregory said. “That’s one of the most satisfying things to me.”

Mr. Gregory’s first town service was helping draft West Tisbury’s Personnel Bylaw. Then he decided to run for moderator.

“It fit with the way I understood things, and it was of interest to me,” he said. “It’s the same as working with a classroom of kids, much easier actually.”

In 1992 he stepped to the podium previously occupied by Jeffrey S. “Skipper” Manter and Dr. Milton Mazer for years before him.

The next year’s meeting was more contentious. Mr. Gregory recalled his “fundamental error,” letting a selectman from another town speak too long and wildly divisively. Later, Selectman John Early said to him, “That really got away from you.”

“I decided I would learn from that, and make sure I was more actively monitoring the debate,” Mr. Gregory said.

He has kept that commitment. He aims to make sure that salient points are expressed “in an even manner.”

“I try to give everybody a chance to say what’s on their mind once,” he said, and calls on someone again only if necessary.

Wielding the gavel with athletic grace, the tall, lanky moderator explains knotty warrant details, recognizes voters by name (“I think that’s the polite thing to do”), and deftly keeps the discussion orderly. Despite his genial smile and easy-going manner, Mr. Gregory runs a tight town meeting.

“I like to think the town can take care of its business in one night,” he said, counting just two or three occasions when a second night was needed. Only once a quorum did not assemble due to stormy weather.

Aside from the growing town budget there have been few changes, Mr. Gregory said. In 20 years of town meetings he recalled most debates as restrained, even friendly.

He said there were several years of bitter differences about school expenditures. The finance committee balked at recommending the burgeoning school budget. (Then, as now, school costs accounted for some two thirds of the total budget.) Some concerned voters agreed, while school supporters insisted the costs were necessary. There were efforts to reduce or defeat the school budget and for the town to withdraw from the Up-Island Regional School District.

Although people on both sides felt strongly, they presented their arguments well, “in a parliamentary manner,” Mr. Gregory said. “The people listened to both sides and sided with the school committee, stayed in the district.”

Eventually those who wanted to withdraw “finally heard the people and moved on.” But the school committee and region got the message “that they needed to watch their budget more carefully.”

Location and construction of the Public Safety Building fueled another long and heated debate.

Mr. Gregory said that discussion can be passionate but there have been few serious controversies.

“I’m struck by how well the town makes its decisions,” he said. “Look at what happens in Congress and compare it to what happens in town politics.

“When you disagree with someone at town meeting you know you’re going to see them in the grocery store, on the porch. You can disagree without being impolite or making it so that you can’t look them in the eye.”

Road projects are sometimes hotly debated, he said, and capital building projects often entail lengthy negotiations. Mr. Gregory sees such discussions as productive.

“The renovation of the Town Hall was done very well,” he said of the lengthy process that involved many townspeople and numerous votes before a plan was approved. “It was a good example of democracy. The Town Hall is just brilliant — it serves the town well.”

Zoning regulations establishing larger lot sizes had a huge impact on the town, Mr. Gregory said. “We’ve made ourselves unaffordable for our children.”

He said that ever-increasing property values in town are partly due to zoning. Recent measures help a little: allowing in-law apartments and affordable rental units, permitting building on substandard lots in certain cases, and requiring developers to provide some affordable land.

Environmental concerns are more prevalent today, according to Mr. Gregory, illustrated by the Mill Pond maintenance discussions. “This is a good example of how towns really consider an issue,” he said.

“The build-out of the town infrastructure is coming to a conclusion,” Mr. Gregory said. He said only the new Police Station remains of what was once a daunting list of major building projects facing the town. The library project is underway. “We’ll have fire, police, town hall, school, library completed.”

Participation in town government is particularly important to Mr. Gregory, and he sees it increasing. “A number of people are willing to take on some legislative responsibility,” he said.

Voters often amend or rewrite articles on the town meeting floor. “That participation has increased over time, and I’ve encouraged it,” he said. “I just think the town meeting is such a great means of governing, and the power rests solely with the participants.”

Mr. Gregory cited the issue of allowing dogs on Lambert’s Cove Beach as a good example of this. After being turned down at a special town meeting, voters petitioned to put the question on the annual warrant. Regulations were debated and revised at length before a compromise was passed, ending the longstanding practice of after-hours summer beach romps for dogs.

School population increased rapidly for years but now has slowed. While taxes and expenses have grown significantly over time, voters remain willing to spend what is needed for their town.

“In general the town supports spending if it can be defended and shown to be the right choice,” Mr. Gregory said. “People weigh very carefully the question of the town spending money: I’m struck by the thoughtfulness people put into it.”

Town meeting attendance has remained similar for years, about 10 to 15 percent of registered voters, the majority on the older side.

Mr. Gregory looks forward to moderating his 22nd annual town meeting next April and has no thoughts of retiring.

“It’s something I really love doing,” he said. “It’s also a way to participate in town government that’s not so time-consuming that it’s your whole life. And unlike the town moderator in Chilmark, no one has ever hit me with my own gavel!”