Town Moderators: Making Meetings Move
Moderator Gwyn Gallagher tallies votes in favor of an amendment to increase the fire department's capital investment fund by $13,000 during the Cornish town meeting in Cornish, N.H., on March 11, 2014. The amendment passed. (Valley News - Will Parson)
Orford Moderator Peter Thomson explains the next order of business during the Orford Town Meeting at Rivendell Academy in Orford, N.H., on March 11, 2014.
Valley News - Sarah Priestap
Moderator Kevin Peterson leads Lyme's Town Meeting on March 11, 2014. (Valley News - Jennifer Hauck)
Cornish — An hour before convening the business portion of Tuesday’s Town Meeting, Gwyn Gallagher was starting to get nervous.
“It doesn’t really ever go away, I think,” said Gallagher, Cornish’s town and school moderator.
The jitters aren’t surprising. Ensuring that a meeting runs smoothly requires solid preparation; moderators need to understand the issues and stay current on procedural changes. But fair-mindedness, humility and a sense of humor are also crucial, local moderators say.
Laughter is “the lubrication that makes things go,” said Paul Franklin, school and town moderator for Plainfield. “It’s serious business you are doing, but you can have fun while you’re doing it.”
Self-deprecating humor is especially useful, said Franklin, citing a minor mix-up at the recent school meeting. He was halfway finished reading Article 6 when the crowd began to murmur.
“What about Article 5?” someone asked.
He’d overlooked the short article, mistaking it for a paragraph from a previous one, Franklin said, laughing. “You just swallow hard” and keep going.
When it comes to the transaction of town and school business, moderators are responsible for conducting meetings that not only comply with legal requirements but with people’s expectations for fairness.
“Probably the most important thing about moderating is to be impartial — not only act impartial but also be perceived as impartial,” Franklin said.
And, as several moderators stressed, to keep their egos out of it.
“Your job is to make sure the meet ing goes along in an orderly fashion,” said Franklin, who has been town moderator for three years.
Meetings should also be clear, with the procedures and votes explained along the way.
“One of primary functions of the moderator is to make sure everybody understands what they are doing,” said William Waste, who has been Lyme School moderator for about 17 years, and formerly served as town moderator. “The other thing that’s very important is ... setting ground rules that lead to respect on the part of people speaking, and respectful listening.”
For Gallagher, who became town moderator in 2010, that means having “some common-sense rules people know about and agree to,” such as showing civility.
“We are dealing with our neighbors here,” he said.
The three men were quick to credit their predecessors for establishing a positive tone in the annual meetings.
“Steve always had a good relationship with the townspeople,” said Franklin, who took over from longtime moderator Steve Taylor.
Time is also a factor, as moderators try to balance the need for ample discussion on various issues with their responsibility for keeping a meeting moving.
“It’s just so important that everyone feel they are being heard and that their vote counts and their message counts,” Gallagher said. Without that baseline, “I think we would start to erode our democratic system right at its very foundation.”
Saturday’s school meeting started off with a long discussion of the budget, focused on various proposed amendments. At a certain point, he “felt the body was ready for a vote.”
“You don’t want anyone to feel they are shut down, but after two and a half hours I think we heard most of the arguments,” he said. “It’s important for me to take that time, though, because the citizens need to bring that information to the floor. ... It doesn’t come from the moderator. It doesn’t necessarily come from the selectmen.”
Part of moving the meetings along involves suggesting the proper procedures. At Tuesday’s Cornish Town Meeting, someone pointed out that the dollar amount in the warrant article allocated for “cemeteries and perpetual care” differed from the figure in the budget.
“I’d be happy to take an amendment to get it where you want it to be,” Gallagher said. And within a few seconds, the article was amended.
They may be front and center a few days a year, but much of a moderator’s work is done behind the scenes. While planning how to run the meeting, they meet with the board of selectmen, school board or other officials and committees. The moderator has other roles, depending on the town.
For instance, Gallagher appoints people to the Zoning Board and Finance Committee. They are also in charge of elections “from start to finish,” a job that changes in voter ID laws have made even more complicated, Gallagher said.
“The hardest part for a moderator is the general election,” such as the most recent presidential election, which attracted the highest turnout Cornish has ever had, he said. “It’s quite a different skill set to run a meeting than run an election.”
To learn the various parts of the job, they study on their own, attend workshops by the New Hampshire Municipal Association, and look to manuals and state officials.
“It’s still a learning experience. I’m still green,” said Franklin, who picked up some of his skills while serving as assistant moderator for Taylor. “Nothing beats having a good mentor.”
Aimee Caruso can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3210.