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School for Moderators

03/03/08 7:55AM By Deborah Luskin
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(HOST) Commentator Deborah Luskin has been facilitating book discussions in Vermont libraries, hospitals and prisons - and attending town meetings - for years. Tomorrow, she'll serve as School Moderator for the first time.

(LUSKIN) For the past two decades I've walked into Town Meeting with a Town Report tucked under my arm and a rusty recollection of Roberts Rules of Order in the back of my mind.  As the morning progresses, details about procedure return, and I can usually tell a main motion from a subsidiary, incidental or privileged motion by just about the time we're ready to adjourn. Every year, I'm impressed by the moderator and other Town Elders who seem to retain a tight-fisted grasp of these procedural details from one year to the next. Then, I was elected School Moderator, and I learned one of their secrets.
    
Just as the first Tuesday of March is reserved for Town Meeting, so the last Tuesday of February is "Town Meeting Tune-Up" - a Workshop for Moderators. Sponsored by the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, this daylong conference invites moderators from across the state to brush up on how Town Meeting works. In attendance this year were more than sixty moderators - from newbies like me, to people who'd been moderating Town Meeting for over thirty years.
    
I know that this workshop is supposed to help give me confidence at the podium, but listening to the old hands ask questions, request clarification, and tell stories about mishaps is humbling. Local government, we're reminded, has been ticking along daily since Town Meeting last year. This year's Town Meeting is the culminating event of work that's been going on ever since. It's the day citizens show up to do their job, which is to debate, deliberate and decide how we're going to keep the roads passable and the schools open for another year. It is the moderator's job to help the voters do theirs.
    
The day's speakers all tell us the same thing: The moderator executes the process; the moderator helps people govern themselves; the moderator steers the ship of state using Roberts Rules and Vermont Statues for guidance. Above all, the Moderator is impartial.
    
By lunchtime, I think I've got a momentary grasp of the differences between an Objection, Withdrawing a Motion and Postponing Indefinitely, but I lose hold as soon as we start discussing "Strategies For Handling Difficult Situations".

This is when I ask myself, "Why is it I wanted to be Moderator?" Then, one of the many experienced moderators says yet again, "The Moderator guides voters to accomplish the work of the day." A mental light bulb turns on. Almost everything I've done in my adult life has been aimed at helping people articulate their thoughts. As a mother, employer, teacher, and writer, my work has been to help others be heard.

Then I look around the room; and I see we're all a bit gray around the edges. It's a non-debatable point of order that for the most part, we're middle-aged. But hopefully, the combination of my life experience and this day-long tune up will allow me to moderate with the wisdom that comes with age.
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