Dan Waters steps to West Tisbury annual town meeting helm

In a bittersweet change, Mr. Waters will pick up the gavel Pat Gregory wielded so adroitly until his murder last year.

Dan Waters will step to the podium Tuesday in his first annual West Tisbury town meeting. — Photo by Michael Cummo

Dan Waters knows he will be filling some big shoes when he steps to the podium to conduct his first West Tisbury annual town meeting Tuesday. Being a novice town moderator is challenging in any circumstance, but Mr. Waters will be taking the gavel wielded by the late Francis “Pat” Gregory since 1992 until his murder last year.

On May 16, 2014, Mr. Gregory, 69, and a 76-year-old friend and hiking companion from the small nearby town of Manton, Calif., were not far from a trailhead just off heavily traveled Highway 36E, north of the county seat of Red Bluff in Tehama County, when they encountered a man who robbed and then shot them. The men did not resist, police said. There have been no arrests.

The news shocked the Island community. His family and friends were devastated. West Tisbury and Island residents had lost a friend, neighbor, colleague, teacher, and a community-minded business leader.

West Tisbury’s well-liked and respected town moderator was gone. Voters had come to appreciate his gracious, measured, and knowledgeable style at the podium. Many found it hard to imagine a town meeting without him, and doubted that anyone could take his place.

Last fall Dan Waters came forward, expressing his intention to run for moderator. Although widely known as a poet, printmaker, and musician, Mr. Waters has been long involved in West Tisbury community life. He served on the cultural council, working to join six town councils into a regional body. Elected library trustee in 2007, he worked tirelessly on the expansion and renovation project, often serving as public spokesman at forums and town meetings.

“I was the person least shy about talking in front of a group,” he said.

He has served as development director for the Martha’s Vineyard Museum for two years.

Born in New Jersey, raised in Brazil, and educated at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, Mr. Waters has lived on the Vineyard since 1977, moving to Oak Bluffs with his partner, Island native Hal Garneau, who would become his husband in 2004. They built a home in West Tisbury in 1984, and established the small Indian Hill Press, which Mr. Waters now uses for his own work.

Kicked in the gut

When Mr. Gregory was murdered, Mr. Waters grieved with his neighbors. Soon he began searching for ways to help the town heal.

“We all felt we’d been kicked in the gut,” Mr. Waters said. “You could not believe what you were seeing in the news. There was no way that could be true. How do you respond to this?”

“Someone needed to step up,” Mr. Waters recalled thinking. “We are bigger than this. We will rise above this somehow.”

Mr. Waters thought for a long time about what could be done to begin alleviating the widespread despair and disorientation. He believed he could play a part by running for moderator, a significant role.

“A moderator’s job is helping people work through problems and come to a consensus as a town as to the best way forward,” he said. “The moderator is a lens that helps people focus on their thoughts.

“Pat was a wonderful man. He was generous and fair. He was part of our identity. He made town moderator a job you’d want to do well. He brought pride to it.”

Mr. Waters said many others in town were well qualified, and he would have welcomed competition, but none appeared. He was grateful to receive a number of appreciative notes and calls from residents when they heard he was a candidate.

“I am not a genius, I am not great at math, or law, and government, but I am a writer, and that helps a little,” Mr. Waters said. “I have brought people together over some issues. I am determined to be the best moderator I can be in my own way.”

Mr. Waters was elected, running unopposed on the November ballot. West Tisbury had its new moderator. And Mr. Waters had a lot of preparation to do.

Preparing for the role

He had the advantage of knowing many residents from living for years in town and working on the library project. Learning the nuts and bolts of the moderator’s job was another hurdle.

Mr. Waters said Town Meeting Time: A Handbook of Parliamentary Law, published by the Massachusetts Moderators Association, has been a valuable resource. He noted that Robert’s Rules of Order are not as applicable to the unique New England town meeting, “a particular kind of animal.”

“There are things you can’t do at town meeting you can in regular organizations,” he explained.

“Tradition is more important than a manual,” Mr. Waters said, adding that even the book advises moderators to follow what their town meeting has done in the past, “because that’s how people are used to governing themselves.”

Mr. Waters familiarized himself with current town affairs and projects and the budget. He attended a board meeting to hear details on one issue slated for consideration at town meeting. He joined the Massachusetts Moderators Association, and attended his first meeting.

Recently he has been carefully watching a decade’s worth of West Tisbury town meetings on DVD, faithfully filmed by the late Jonathan Revere for MVTV, footage he calls “an incredible resource.”

He said he wishes he could have prepared for the job by working with Mr. Gregory, but that watching the longtime moderator on film has been instructive and inspiring.

“He had a combination of tact and humor and humility that built trust,” he said. “He could make a mistake, he would readily admit it, do a hand count, be corrected, laugh it off, and be perfectly on his feet for the rest of the meeting. That kind of grace is something I can only hope to achieve.”

Now that he has the job, Mr. Waters said, many townspeople are anxious to share their ideas and opinions.

“I get a lot of advice from people in Cronig’s,” he added with his characteristic wide smile.

With April 14 approaching, Mr. Waters reviewed the warrant with selectmen and town counsel to consider major articles and those that may engender debate, identifying individuals who can be called on to answer questions.

Mr. Waters said it is unpredictable which articles will pass readily and which will bring controversy. It may not be a major expenditure, but an inexpensive measure that is hotly disputed on principle, he observed. He is determined to be sensitive about managing discussion.

“I’m happy to give people time if they’re making a new point,” he said. “But I don’t want a talkative person to discourage a shy person from sharing what may be the telling point of the evening. An important point can be made in very few words.”

Mr. Waters said no amount of homework or memorization can prepare a moderator for everything that may come up.

He recognizes it may be challenging for him when articles require a certain percentage in favor and votes must be counted, when discussion wanders outside the scope of an article, when one item is contingent on another’s passage, when voters amend an article from the floor, which invariably leads to a struggle over wording.

“A room of 200 or 300 people room really can’t put two words together,” he quipped.

Mr. Waters said he is very thankful that town counsel Ron Rappaport has pledged to be at his side, helping sort through any knotty legal or procedural details.

“I’m looking forward to the moment when we adjourn and it’s before 11 o’clock at night and everybody goes home relieved,” Mr. Waters said with a slight chuckle.

“We’ll get through this together, we will,” pledged Mr. Waters. “I think there will come a moment in the night, probably early on, when we realize it’s going to be OK.”

Despite the preparation and guidance he has received, Mr. Waters is mindful of the weighty significance of stepping to the podium and calling the West Tisbury annual town meeting to order Tuesday.

“I’m sure my heart will be in my throat,” he admitted.