What happened for a short time at last Wednesday’s Tisbury town meeting was disappointing, unacceptable, and should never happen again.
When a reporter and photographer from The Times arrived an hour early for Wednesday’s session, which was expected to draw an overflow crowd, they were told by moderator Deborah Medders that they would have to sit in the overflow room with other nonvoters. That room, in the basement of the school, had a video and audio feed of the meeting.
Medders told the reporter and photographer that the night before, some voters were in the overflow room while there were nonvoters in the main meeting room, the Tisbury School’s crowded gym. (Perhaps the best evidence, besides the overflow room that’s actually used as classroom space, that this school needs to be replaced.)
We weren’t alone. Superintendent of Schools Matt D’Andrea was also initially sent to the overflow room — the SUPERINTENDENT OF SCHOOLS. Sorry for yelling there, but it just seems ludicrous that accommodations could not be made on the dais for the leader of the school system during debate about the need for a new school building.
While we understand the frustration of voters not being in the main meeting room Tuesday night, there was a simple solution for them: Show up earlier. Medders and town clerk Hilary Conklin went before selectmen a month ago and told the board they expected a large crowd at town meeting and would be making accommodations as a result.
We heard that and reported on that. We even reminded voters in our town meeting preview. We also asked Medders about how the press would be accommodated well in advance of the meeting, and we were assured that we would be allowed to sit in the main meeting room.
That happened on the first night of town meeting. Reporters from The Times and Vineyard Gazette sat in the nonvoter section, while photographers for each newspaper walked around and snapped images from the event. That’s four people, two seats. (MVTV, by the way, which has a contract with the town to film the meeting, took up two rows of seats with its equipment. Guess that’s OK.)
The newspaper plays a vital role as the eyes and ears of the community members who could not, for whatever reason, attend the session of town meeting. That’s a large percentage of the town’s registered voters, as only 11 percent went on Tuesday, and the crowd was similar on Wednesday. It’s an even bigger percentage of the town’s population.
Both newspapers were tweeting information about the debate and providing updates on what was happening in real time.
Newspaper reporting is often called the first draft of history, and there is no doubt that what was happening inside that gymnasium was an important part of Tisbury’s history. Would voters, like those in 1927, agree to stretch themselves to pay for an important new school or would they insist that town leaders come up with an alternate plan?
On Tuesday there was a standing vote to see if the gathered voters would agree to vote by secret ballot. You can’t really get a sense of that sitting in a basement room watching a video feed.
Ultimately, our reporter and photographer were allowed into the meeting room Wednesday night. But precious time was taken by reporters and photographers having to advocate for that opportunity. And Medders, in our conversation after the meeting, blamed that advocacy for delaying the start of town meeting.
We also got no assurances from Medders that the situation would be handled differently should it arise again. The closest she came was to say that she doesn’t foresee this happening again.
That’s no way to handle an important issue. For all their talk of being prepared for an overflow crowd, it doesn’t seem as if Medders and Conklin really talked about what that would look like and what contingencies they should make.
This wasn’t the only problem with town meeting. Too many people were allowed to give prepared speeches, rather than add to the dialogue and deliberations toward making a decision. Planning board chairman Ben Robinson, in particular, was allowed to go on and on and on, talking about issues no longer relevant to the debate. It was clear from the groans of town meeting voters they had heard enough when Medders attempted to have him wrap up and Robinson said, “I have one more page.” Nevertheless, he persisted.
The best town meeting moderators allow for spirited debate, while insisting that speakers either seek answers to questions that will inform a vote, stay on topic, or add something new to the discussion. That didn’t happen.
Let’s hope Medders has learned from her experiences.