The Gavel Stops Here: Confessions of a Town Moderator

Before leaving for town hall, I pull a list from my copy of Robert’s Rules of Order and review what to bring. I’ve been the Norwich town meeting moderator for nine years now, but there’s always a touch of stage fright.

First on the list is a tall chair from the kitchen. I like to sit once in awhile — particularly during lengthy school board explanations of state funding formulas.

Next are cough drops, bottled water, Kleenex, two pens (in case one runs out of ink) and a kitchen timer so I can warn people when their time to speak is nearly up. I also bring a small wooden gavel in case the huge one at town hall goes missing, as it did once. That was the year I banged the gavel only twice to call the meeting to order. (“You’re supposed to bang it three times,” I was told the next day.)

Somehow it’s all worth it — even standing out in the February cold at the dump collecting signatures on my nomination papers each year. Most folk appreciate what I do, although some feel compelled, year-round, to offer suggestions on how I might improve. It goes with the turf.

Everything but the kitchen chair fits into the plastic Co-op shopping bag I take to town hall. Generally, I arrive about five minutes before the meeting starts, which makes anxious people anxious. But I’m a procrastinator, and live only a mile away, so near-lateness is chronic. Being almost-late also cuts down on requests for special favors.

“Could you make a brief mention of the pancake supper next Saturday?”

“Will you lead a round of applause for Mr. Fugamo, who’s retiring?”

“Would you ask the town manager why he got such a big raise?”

Giving in to these requests is sure to get your ear chewed off for the next three weeks at the general store, the post office and the dump for letting the meeting go on too long.

People say they attend town meeting to be well-informed before they vote the next day. But they judge the meeting’s success by how long it lasts. If it starts at 7 p.m. and goes until 8:45, I’ll be told what a great job I did. But if it goes until 9:30, regardless of the reason, I’ll hear, “You gotta cut people off quicker, Warren.”

To counter this, I always begin with a voice vote on how long I should let people talk. For several years, the preferred limit was two minutes. Ouch. But for the past few years, it’s soared to three. About 30 seconds before their time is up, I signal to speakers that they should conclude their remarks. This usually goes OK, but sometimes results in comments such as “He’s cutting me off. I can’t believe it.”

Speakers are supposed to address their comments to me rather than shouting at each other. But when a shouting match did ensue a few years back, I just let the parties go at it because it was kind of interesting and I figured they’d stop in 30 seconds anyway, which they did. (Besides, I didn’t want to join in the shouting, too.)

Standing at the front of the hall gives you unique insights into town politics. As someone is speaking, you can see who in the crowd is rolling his or her eyes or nodding in agreement about the bandstand reconstruction, the new firetruck or the amount of salt spread on roads. Some speakers — never mind who — bring about bathroom breaks en masse at the rear of the hall as they approach the microphone. This is especially true if most of the really juicy warrant articles have already been discussed.

There are occasional hazards. Last year, when I had the cold from hell and should have stayed home, I moderated town meeting anyway. And halfway through the meeting, a friend raised her hand at the back of the hall.

“Point of order, Mr. Moderator,” she said.

Ears buzzing and head pounding, I panicked at the very term “point of order.” Robert’s Rules and parliamentary procedure were never my strong suits, and my mind went blank. Friends began calling out conflicting suggestions on what to do next. Somehow, the crisis passed, although without much help from me.

One year when there were nasty political battles brewing, I started with a plea for civility and cooperation, based loosely on St. Francis of Assisi’s Prayer of Peace. I thought everyone liked it until the next day at the post office.

“What were you thinking? You can’t do a prayer at town meeting.”

“Um, it wasn’t really a prayer. I mean, there was no ‘amen’ or anything. I was just hoping people would think about it and be nicer to each other.”

“People were shocked. Don’t do that again.”

Warren Thayer lives in Norwich.