Friday, February 11, 2000
Oral History Project...Carlisle's Town Moderator Marshall Simonds
This interview of Marshall (Pete) Simonds by Jane Hart is another in a series of videotapes, audiotapes and transcripts produced by the Carlisle Oral History Project. When the edited video is completed, it will be available at the Gleason Public Library. The Simonds interview was produced and videotaped by Ellen Miller, with audio by Paul Gill, on November 11, 1999.
Hart: After 33 years on the job, can you tell us what you find the most interesting or rewarding part of it?
Simonds: I believe that one of the really wonderful opportunities of living in a town is the chance to participate in the management of the town, and I believe that direct Town Meeting as practiced in this part of the world is a unique opportunity for people who do not devote their lives to politics or local government to have a role. I believe that that hinges on having an atmosphere in the meeting that permits people 1) the opportunity to talk and 2) a feeling that the atmosphere is one where they can dare to talk and express their views. I think that creating an atmosphere where people can express their views even when they disagree with their neighbors is difficult. It's difficult because, on the one hand, you need to invite people to participate and make them feel comfortable. At the same time, it's difficult because you need to discipline people who, if they feel strongly about an issue, may want to launch a personal attack or a level of criticism and a level of irritation and irritability that transforms the give and take of views into an angry confrontation which does not produce civil, thoughtful judgment.
The moderator is basically the rulekeeper and I think it's a wonderful, challenging job that you always do a little bit wrong because you always go a little too far one way or the other. I encourage somebody to come up and speak for five minutes and I end up finding they took 15 minutes and repeated themselves three times, and I have to not be irritated with them even though I sense that the meeting has heard more than they want to hear about it. On the other hand, I jump on someone who I think is about to say something confrontational and want to nip it in the bud, and I find I judged wrong. They weren't going to say anything confrontational, they just wanted to get a viewpoint out. So it's a job that you always fail at but to the extent you can succeed, and at the end of the meeting people come up and say that was a good meeting or when people stay and participate, then you've achieved an important role in a small town.
I wish more people would participate. The fact that we get a quorum and that people participate as much as they do I think validates the procedure.
Hart: What do you consider the most difficult or frustrating part of the job?
Simonds: Well, I don't think any of it is frustrating. What I've just said, trying to strike the right note between a civil intercourse in which people are comfortable exchanging views and disagreeing and discussing an issue and in which there is at least a core sense that we're after the same goal, which is the best interest of the community. That's difficult. Achieving that is difficult. With some issues which are NIMBY issues (not in my backyard), or a polarizing issue where there is a particular interest group that is not going to be swayed by anything except the stake they have in that particular decision, it becomes all the more difficult and it switches. Instead of becoming necessarily an organized community-wide dialogue, you see one of the problems is making sure that those people have a fair hearing. Often they are in the minority. Often they are going to leave the meeting feeling the town is against them. One of the things you need to do is to make sure they get a chance to be heard even when people are saying, "Move the question," or "Let's cut off this debate." It's important, in my view, that the people who are probably going to lose and whom we could vote out by speeding up the meeting don't feel they got unfair treatment. I think that is the moderator's responsibility.
They feel heard even if they don't win. An interesting example is at this most recent special Town Meeting. The neighbors abutting the Conant Land with their petition article are anxious to protect against further development. The affordable housing rule, which has been troubling the town for years, was, in the opinion of the Town Meeting, not to be denied, so they weren't prepared to grant the easement even assuming the article had been legally drawn so that it could have been granted. On the other hand it's pretty clear to me that once affordable housing is solved, there is a general tendency on the part of the town to protect the rest of the Conant Land, as the Mosquito recently noted -- I think that was evident from the meeting and the people that were there fighting for that special article in fact achieved quite a lot. They're not going to win it all and they didn't win last week. But they're likely to win the next time it comes up. That's a process that is encouraged by the dialogue at Town Meeting, so I think that's a big positive achievement.
Hart: So a process like that can be difficult but not necessarily frustrating?
Simonds: I don't think it's frustrating. We never decide to do things the first time they're offered to us, no matter how well presented. We don't build school additions when we need them, we don't build town halls when we need them, we don't build police stations when we need them, we don't tend to do a solid waste disposal when we need it, we take two or three years to get there. For a lot of people who work hard on those projects, that's very frustrating. For the moderator to watch something that has been well presented fail, when you don't have a vote, when you come to the job as an advocate and you put on a non-advocate hat, that involves some internal stress. But, I've been managing that for years so I don't really think about that very much. I think more about trying to control my natural instinct as advocate and not take a role on one side or the other of the argument. But, I think doing it slowly
Take another example which may not be relevant. Saint Irene's today it's vacant land in the center of town. The argument that was made at Town Meeting that if we can put it away in the bank and save it for needs that we may not identify now for 20 years, that's going to be good for the town is an argument that I think is right. I think getting that land by eminent domain 20 years from now when you find you don't have any other choice is poor planning. But the short-term expenditure of, whatever it was, $290,000, was not going to pass the Finance Committee and was not going to sell to the town. You have that dynamic all the time. Is that bad planning on the part of the town? In my personal opinion, yes. Is it a bad decision by the Town Meeting? The Town Meeting does what the voters want to do, so it's their power to reject that and that's an important power even if it is exercised in a way that I think was probably not as wise as what Vivian Chaput was recommending.
Hart: Can you share with us any stories of memorable Town Meetings, maybe something that was particularly humorous or contentious? Is there anything that sticks out in your mind?
Simonds: There are, I'm sure, a lot of things. I don't know that we have any one in this particular role in Town Meeting now. We talk about the Conant Land a lot. For years, Mrs. Goldsmith Conant was a devoted attendee at Town Meetings. This was before we acquired the Conant Land, and we would have discussions on a variety of issues in which there was a right and wrong concept. This is not a real example, but, for instance, should we do something to provide assistance to the elderly in town? We had a small, politically insignificant group of elderly who could not carry a vote at Town Meeting but who needed the support of others. We had a tax-conscious population who didn't want to incur any increase in taxes. The meeting was polarized around these issues. And Mrs. Goldsmith Conant could stand up, and did on dozens of occasions as I recall, and give a speech which basically lectured the voters of the town to put aside their personal views and talk about the best interests of the town and the best interests of the community. She was capable of bringing the entire Town Meeting into line.
Hart: I know you described her as the conscience of the town. She pulled people together.
Simonds: Yes. I thought that was a very dramatic illustration of how an individual could influence the legislative function of a Town Meeting. I don't think we have recent examples that are quite as clear as that, but I think we still see in every Town Meeting a presentation by someone, at the end of which the meeting is aware that this person has done a large amount of work, devoted a large amount of thought, tried to think of conflicting issues and sort through them fairly, and come to a good end result. Unlike the dismissive remark, "You'll get your reward in heaven," those people not infrequently get their reward right on the floor of Town Meeting. They influence the way town voters reply. So it still happens. I find that a remarkably encouraging signal about the health of the community.
Hart: And that's a common occurrence?
Simonds: No, I don't think that's a common occurrence. It's not a common occurrence because what you do with the fees from the dog officer is not an issue that rises to that level. What you do with affordable housing or what you do with conservation usages or what you do with planning for developments, and so forth, those issues frequently are issues that affect the character and nature of the town and determine the future course it takes. People that work hard at that and give good presentations in an organized way frequently have the effect of earning the respect of the body of voters and getting support. That's proof that the system works. That's proof that merit matters. That it's not all just friendship and politics. So, at this ground roots level I think the Town Meetings we have provide regular illustrations of the fact that the system can work. I'm a great admirer of Town Meeting. I'm not in favor of all these proposals to short-cut it. For the most part, I'm not in favor of the recommendations that have been made in Concord and elsewhere to streamline it, to make it more efficient. I think it is good for people to sit there and listen to different viewpoints and go through the process even though they get tired of it and get bored by it.
Hart: Can you describe for us some of the ways in which Town Meeting has changed over the last 33 years?
Simonds: It's changed mostly the way the town has changed. We don't have any working farms in town any more. We have a transient population that lives in expensive homes in expensive developments and doesn't have a career commitment to the town. Either they are two-income families where both parents work and somebody takes care of the kids or they are executives who are on a training program and moving through and going to be here for three, four, five years and gone. The nature of the population and the wealth of the population have changed and those reflect an impact on Town Meeting. A lot of those people don't come to Town Meeting. I can look out at almost any Town Meeting, regular or special, at 10:00 at night, and assuming I've still got a quorum at all, I'll see 150 people that I pretty much know will be there until the business of the town is done. They are people who are committed to Carlisle and its governance. Lacking are people who might have a great deal to offer because of their talents but don't have a big investment in the community because they are passing through. That changes the involvement in the town. It means they are ceding the governance of the town to a smaller group who comes from a different set of motivations and a different background. I'm not sure that's bad as long as they cede it to people who care. I'd rather have people who care or are invested in the history of the town or send their children to school here, grow up here, work here than people who came to visit for a while. The people who come to visit are oftentimes very bright, very successful, very talented, and it's too bad not to catch their attention and talent.
This is the first installment of an interview with Town Moderator Marshall Simonds for the Carlisle Oral History Project. We will continue the interview in a later issue.
© 2000 The Carlisle Mosquito