Friday, April 17, 2009
Moderator Tom Raftery reflects on Town Meeting
Tom Raftery, having served since 2003 as Town Meeting Moderator, is retiring after this year, and he recently shared his thoughts on the role of Moderator and the Town Meeting form of government.
“The toughest thing is to be fair,” says Raftery. “You need to let people have their say, but also cut it off when the discussion is becoming repetitive.” The audience can be helpful, he laughs, “Someone from the floor will remind you, ‘move the question!’ Then you know it’s really time to move on.”
What does Town Meeting do?
“Town Meeting is the legislative body of the town,” says Raftery. Every spring, Carlisle holds an Annual Town Meeting to appropriate money, vote on salaries, change town bylaws, and otherwise approve or disapprove requests made by the various town boards and committees.
The Moderator is an elected official who runs Town Meeting, allowing debate, calling for motions, and declaring the outcome of votes. Although towns can pass bylaws governing town meeting, in Carlisle the moderator has much discretion.
The Selectmen, functioning as the town’s executive officers, decide what issues to bring before Town Meeting, says Raftery. Voters can then engage in debates that end in votes to approve or reject each Article. Depending on the nature of the decision, the matter then moves to Town Elections for a confirming vote.
This year’s Annual Town Meeting is called for Monday May 4, but with over thirty Articles on the Warrant, the meeting could spill over to Tuesday. “I’d love to go in one night,” says Raftery, “But I try not to go beyond 11 p.m.,” though Town Meeting must agree with any motion to adjourn. The Selectmen’s recent decision to eliminate an Article supporting mosquito control has given Raftery hope the meeting can be contained to one night. “Had it been on, a ton of people would be speaking to it,” he says, pointing to a lively mosquito control discussion on the City in the Woods Carlisle blog. He adds, “Inevitably, there’s some item that seems mundane and someone wants to debate it.” This year it could be an Article proposing fines for marijuana possession.
“Consent agenda” can speed voting routine items
Another change that may shorten Town Meeting is the use of a consent agenda. “I think it’s a great idea,” says Raftery. A consent agenda combines several routine budgetary Articles into a single vote. This will be the first year Carlisle has used it. Anyone wishing to debate an Article can have it removed from the consent agenda by calling “hold” when it is announced. “A lot of Articles deal with routine budgets about which people are not asking a lot of questions,” says Raftery. In fact, he has noticed a trend toward less controversy on the money Articles. After once being told he was running through the numbers too fast, he decided to give people more time to respond. “The silence was deafening,” he says.
Discussion sometimes longest
on inexpensive items
Raftery finds it ironic to see millions of dollars allocated “without a peep” while a proposal for a Veterans Memorial costing less than $100,000 will generate a half-hour of discussion. “Environmental issues are also something about which people can get emotional,” he says, pointing to past controversies around artificial-turf playing fields and water quality in the Town Center. School issues are guaranteed to attract a following. “Maybe because these are issues people can wrap their hands around. The town budget they don’t delve into.”
On the plus side, it seems that “people have paid attention” and are coming to Town Meeting prepared. The Warrant is sent to each home, and committees sponsoring various Articles often produce their own flyers and hold public forums. Raftery says voters should take the time read the Warrant and Mosquito to become informed, so that the majority of Town Meeting time is spent on substantive discussion, not Q and A.
Articles come to Town Meeting as proposals, and voters should come expecting to give “yea” or “nay” votes, says Raftery. “People should attend the committee meetings beforehand in which the Articles are being formed” if they want to affect how a proposal is put forward. By Town Meeting time, it is too late to make substantive changes. Although there is a mechanism for amending Articles from the floor, this is typically used to correct small technical problems.
Voters pass most Articles
Most Articles at Town Meeting are passed, and Raftery thinks this communicates that most voters believe “the job being done [by boards and committees] represents their interests.” He is disappointed to see many Town Meeting attendees vote on their favorite issue and then leave. “It’s sort of unfortunate. They should stay and be part of the democratic process.”
can make leaving early risky
In addition, it is possible for a vote to be reversed later. A motion for reconsideration could be called “and their pet issue endangered.” He notes that in Concord one year, a decision on playing fields was overturned under reconsideration after many voters had left.
In Carlisle, voters abandoning ship may have influenced the outcome of a vote one year, also on playing fields. The measure required a 2/3 majority and lost by two votes. “Once it failed, people got up and got out,” says Raftery, so a recount became impossible. “No one moved for reconsideration,” he says, “but had they, I would have allowed it” because there are no restrictions on reconsideration motions. In another instance, a Planning Board proposal defeated one night was passed the following night under reconsideration.
“The Moderator has no right to say no” to legal motions from the floor, says Raftery. For example, any voter can make a motion for a secret ballot. This option was proposed only once, when the Benfield Land purchase was at issue, but the vote to allow the secret ballot failed.
Raftery will be moving to the Cape soon, and he says he will miss Town Meeting. “It’s fun, it really is. I look forward to it, to seeing friends and neighbors.” The only down side to moderating is “I can’t draw cartoons” the way he used to for the Mosquito. “I wish I could.” His advice to the next Moderator? He laughs, “You need to be balanced and let people have their say even when you think it’s nuts.”
“Town Meeting is the purest form of democracy we have,” says Raftery. Although some complain that the 300 voters who show up may not represent the many who don’t, “that’s true in any representative government.” He pauses and adds, “I can’t think of anything better. This is a good place to decide – the perfect forum to discuss the future of the town.”
This year’s Town Meeting is May 4 starting at 7 p.m. in the Carlisle School auditorium. Town Election will be held on Tuesday, May 12 at Town Hall. ∆
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