Friday, February 18, 2000
Carlisle's Oral History Project Continuing a Discussion with Town Moderator Marshall Simonds
This is the second and final part of an interview of Marshall (Pete) Simonds by Jane Hart. It 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.
[Mrs. Katherine (Kate) Simonds joins the conversation at this point].
Hart: I'd like to ask you both, as Carlisle continues to grow, do you think Town Meeting will still be an effective form of government?
Simonds: Let me start because I wanted Kate to join in this particular subject because she was on the Finance Committee and Chairwoman of the Finance Committee and then on the Board of Selectmen and Chairman of that Board during a time when the town had some controversy about building public structures and so forth. She had, I think, a great familiarity with what was tape recorded because people used to show up at selectmen's meetings with tape recorders and microphones and take a record of everything that was said and then rush to the District Attorney to complain about the way the town was being run.
Kate Simonds: The Attorney General.
Simonds: Well, both, I think, the Middlesex D.A. and the Attorney General. In any event she was involved in some of the projects in town and she's also familiar with the difficulty of getting some of those issues through Town Meeting. The general question is do you think Town Meeting was less effective than when you were in town government?
Kate: I don't think there's any question about it. I would be so nervous before Town Meeting and so well prepared, I would wonder how I would get one foot in front of the other, and then I would go to Town Meeting and the citizens would all come and they packed the auditorium on some of these issues. We'd even have the cafeteria open. They'd have all kinds of sound systems between them. Everybody came and they asked a lot of intelligent questions. They aired all their views about whether the police station should be in the center or not. The biggest controversy was building the police station. They had been in a trailer behind the library for umpteen years. After they viewed everything and some people had gotten up and accused other people and yelled and screamed, the citizens would reaffirm common sense. I thought the system worked. I really did. I was very impressed by it each time we would go. There were times I wasn't at all sure this was going to work but it did work. They paid attention. There was a lot printed in the Mosquito ahead of time so they could all get their information, which they all got or most of them got. They all acted in a very intelligent direction. I thought the moderator did a good job.[Laughter] The situation could have gotten out of hand a couple of times. We had a particular group in town that were very adamant about not letting this go through for their own personal reasons, not town reasons, but their own personal reasons.
Hart: As the town grows, do you think it will continue to be effective?
Simonds: I think part of the answer is the comment I made before. I think the town has changed and we now have a transient population that works in town, that lives here in largely new homes for brief periods of time and then goes on to another career or another location and doesn't have the same investment in town that the people of 15 or 20 years ago had. On the other hand, the Town Meeting population still reflects the sort of hard-core people who are long-term residents of Carlisle. Only if there is a special issue does a particular neighborhood, that may include an unrepresentative body of newcomers, suddenly show up at Town Meeting. For the most part, the political interest groups that you see are easy to identify. The school lobby if it is a school financing issue, moms and dads are going to be there whether they are short-term residents or long-term residents. They want their kids educated. And that has always been true and it's still true, and that pulls new people in. If it's elderly housing or support for the elderly, there aren't enough of them to have a body but they're all there. You can see them in the audience. All these folks that are staying up past their bedtime because there's something that affects them. And their appeal is different. They appeal by, if you will, the Mrs. Goldsmith Conant route of attacking the conscience of the town and saying, "Hey, are you going to deprive these people who have spent their lives here from adequate participation and the good things of our community?"
So I'm not sure that Town Meeting is less effective. Town Meeting is still a group of 150 to maybe 450 people out of a voting population that is four times or five times that large. That's a statistic that you can say shows it's irrelevant. But the people who come to Town Meeting to vote in general care about the town, are better informed about the town and have a better chance to listen to differing views. Apart from the special interest groups who come to Town Meeting, the hard-core people who attend, in general are committed to the best interests of the town. I'm not sure that the town isn't better off by having those people in charge. What do you think?
Kate: I think, in general, that is probably right. I worry sometimes when I go to Town Meeting that issues go through like this [snaps her fingers] and they pass everything and vote to spend umpteen amounts of money. I don't know whether that is just a reflection of the fact that times are good now and that people have more money, that our population of all new people that move in and live in these new houses are a reflection that the socio-economic group we have is homogeneous. I don't know if that's it or whether that is the best way for Carlisle to go. I'm never quite sure about it. We certainly don't seem to be going in a bad direction. They do turn things down at Town Meeting and they do talk. That's what's important, I think. The fact is that people get up and give their views and talk about the way they feel the town should go and what it should do. That's what makes it effective. That's what makes Town Meeting Town Meeting and a good system of government.
Simonds: I don't think the example you gave that people spend money on this, this and this happens very often, and when it does happen there is almost always a circumstance that the Town Meeting has said no to some major expenditure. They have looked and agonized about something that some group wanted very badly and they said no. Once they've said no, then the capital items that come along after that tend to get passed. It's like a conscience response. "Oh, that was a hard vote we turned down that big article, we'd better not do it again. We'd better not really be mean." I think that has happened from time to time.
Kate: Yes, that does.
Simonds: But I think, in general, the Finance Committee and the tax-conscious citizens in good times or bad keep a pretty tight hold on the budget.
Kate: I think the Finance Committee is generally very effective. I think they work very hard. It's a big job, and it gets bigger every year. I know when I was on it, we worked hard to try to get things to come out right. I was on it when [Proposition] 2 1/2 came in. I was a selectman from '84 to '87 so it was six years before that, so it was in the late '70s to the middle '80s that I was on the Finance Committee. I know we spent hours on the Finance Committee and I suspect they spend even more now trying to get finances evened and the budget balanced and keep Carlisle on track and still not have to raise taxes any more than they have to. They do a good job and I think they're very responsible. I think the town listens to them. At least it's been my experience that people want to know what the Finance Committee has to say and why they have to say it. They bring their books and they read them. Don't you think so?
Simonds: I think the experience with the budget appropriation at the last annual meeting last spring was very unfortunate because the data that was coming to the Finance Committee came late, and they didn't have a chance to assimilate it and there were, therefore, estimates and calculations and judgments made that were in error, and the Town Meeting itself was unnecessarily confusing. The form of votes that were required for the various levels of override were very complicated. I think the Finance Committee was embarrassed and angry at the way the system had worked. There was stress between the Finance Committee and the selectmen about that. But I think that was aberrational and not typical.
Kate: That's not the typical way it works. I think all the boards are important. They're what makes the system of government work. I think people like to hear from them. The format that is used at Town Meeting of having the boards make their presentations first on a big subject is very useful and people like that. I think they like to know who thinks about what. It works, and I think it will continue to work, at least for the foreseeable future. I don't think we need a representative Town Meeting like Concord has.
Simonds: Concord doesn't have that, they still have a direct Town Meeting.
Kate: I thought they had a representative Town Meeting..
Simonds: It's been proposed, but they haven't gone to it yet. They still have a direct Town Meeting. Well, we're a small town. We're not legally large enough to have a representative Town Meeting. I'm not sure but I think the population has to be 10,000. I'm not sure we're ever going to get there. Our population is supposed to limit out at 7,500 or something like that.
Hart: Let's turn from the Town Meeting to the town itself. The two of you have lived here for more than 40 years. Would you like to comment on how the town has changed?
Kate: Well, there've been a lot of changes. When I first moved to Carlisle, the first year I lived here, I did a campaign for Emerson Hospital. That was in 1958. There were 900 houses in Carlisle. That was it. I had myself and four captains and we did the whole town. We went to every house. That also included the houses that nobody lived in. We used to go hunting in the back yard, pheasant hunting. It was pretty rural and very nice. It's not that it's not nice now but it was just different. There's been a tremendous amount of change in the years we've been here as far as physical changes, housing . . .
Simonds: An example: we're looking out the window of my living room and there is a pond out there which was put in before there was regulation on construction. So we did not go through the conservation commission approval process, we didn't need to. In any event, Kate and I used to hunt out here. Actually I shot a grouse here one day. Probably the last grouse I shot in Carlisle. Shot some pheasant. We used to hunt on Henry Hosmer's land, over on River Road. Shoot pheasant. No problem. We trained retrievers. And we periodically used a shotgun to simulate hunting for training retrievers at the pond out here. Used to do that routinely.
Several years ago, maybe eight or nine years ago, we were down training retrievers out at the pond. I had a shotgun out. Kate was running the dogs. I was shooting the shotgun. I shot the shotgun perhaps three times and I became aware that someone was coming through the woods. I looked over and, sure enough, it was a Carlisle police officer with his hand gun drawn, walking through the woods. I looked up the hill and there was a patrol car in my driveway with the blue light flashing and another police officer coming down. We had been out there less than 15 minutes and someone had called in and reported the discharge of a firearm. The place we were was in full compliance with the law. We were more than 500 feet from any residence and the requisite distance from a public way and we were on our land violating no law. But the atmosphere of the town had changed so that the discharge of a shotgun had the police there in ten minutes. Fifteen or twenty years ago I could have gone hunting down there and somebody would have called up and said, "Did you get anything?" That's a measure of how much the town has changed.
Kate: When we first moved to town we had two or three dairies still working and Mr. Bates used to come along in the morning and he would come in and check the icebox to see if I had the right amount of milk and butter and cream (we drank and ate all those things in those days!). Herb was the chief of police and he delivered the paper. He'd bring the paper. I asked him once, "Herb, why do you bother to deliver the paper with all you've got to do?" (because policing was a part-time job). He said, "Well, you know, this way I keep up on everybody and make sure everything is okay by checking in with them every morning." That was wonderful. It was really fun to live that way. You knew everyone, of course, because there weren't that many of us.
Simonds: If you wanted to find out what was going on in town, you stopped by the gas station and spoke to Mutt Foss who was either the chairperson or a member of the board of selectmen. The board of selectmen met in a little circle of chairs that leaned back against the front corner of what used to be Daisy's Garage, and that's where town affairs were conducted.
Hart: Is this Foss of Foss farm?
Simonds: Well, it's a brother of Bill Foss, nicknamed Mutt. I don't know what his real name was. Two-acre zoning came about because a man named Henry Hosmer, who was formerly a partner of mine in law practice and owned land over on River Road, decided that two-acre zoning would protect the town against development. When zoning control came in, he drew a plan and got it voted, and we ended up with two-acre zoning. It may not be the most creative zoning today but it was probably the single most important decision the town made in terms of regulating development. They made it in the '40s. I'm not sure but I want to say something like 1948. That 250-foot frontage and two-acre zone had a major impact on defining the character of the town.
Kate: When we moved out here there were kind of two groups of people. There were farmers, real farmer -- Guy Clark farmed, the Bateses farmed, Farnham Smith farmed over on Curve Street, the Swansons farmed. They were farmers, that's what they did for a living. There were still some second homes out here. People that lived in Boston and came out for the summer. I don't know who they were. And then there were some young people, of which we were one, maybe there were 15 or 20 of us, who were just starting out. We couldn't afford to live in Concord because that was much too expensive. And Carlisle was way out. Nobody lived in Carlisle, so we moved out here as an alternative. It was really an exurb. I can remember the first time I drove to Carlisle the real estate agent showed us the house that the Reichenbachs lived in which hadn't been added on to, just this little Cape and I looked at this place, and I thought, "That is the end of the world, I don't want to live out here, I won't see another soul! Where will my children go to school? This is unbelievable!" [Laughter] So I ended up buying a little house on West Street. It was way out in those days.
Simonds: You can still politic at the dump, but you can't shoot rats at the dump anymore. You can't take a .22 down and shoot rats at an open dump any more.
Hart: Did you shoot rats for practice?
Simonds: I don't think I ever did shoot a rat down there but there were people who did that. You'd go to the dump and sit around and visit on a Saturday morning, maybe even on a Sunday morning before church.
Kate: It was a very sociable spot to be in!
Hart: Pete, our final question is: we'd like to know what qualities you would look for in a successor?
Simonds: Assuming as I do that my successor will be selected before it's legal to be engaged in human cloning, I think the answer is that the important quality in my view for a successful moderator is a familiarity with the town based on having lived here and having participated in at least some level of town activity, a willingness to exercise discipline in conducting the meeting so that people are given a fair hearing but not ceded control of the meeting. You have to be fair but forceful, and a perception that whether you like the issue or don't like the issue, whether you like the speaker or don't like the speaker, you have absolute respect for the process that is involved in creating a fair environment for dialogue.
I don't think there is any identifiable package that you can pick out ahead of time to select who a good moderator is going to be. Just like somebody said about good trial lawyers, they come in all kinds of packages. They have all kinds of different personalities and despite my joke about cloning, I don't think I'm looking for someone who has my particular package of qualities as the ideal successor. The commitment to the goal of the job and the ability to instill patience, and attention and respect at Town Meetings are important. I can't think of anyone who is more different from me in terms of managing a Town Meeting than Guy Clark was. Yet I think Guy Clark did a superb job of running the Town Meeting. I don't think he necessarily could have done a superb job today because of the complexities of the meeting. But the qualities he brought to the Town Meeting for twelve or thirteen years were exactly what was needed. When I've had substitute or alternate moderators, I think generally they've all done a very good job. So I don't think there will be any problem finding a successor.
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