Town Meeting moderators gather for a tune-up

02/27/07 12:00AM By Steve Zind
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(Host) Town meetings are an exercise in grassroots democracy - everyone gets their say, as long as they abide by the rules.

The job of enforcing those rules belongs to the town moderator.

Today in Montpelier, moderators dusted off their copies of Roberts Rules of Order and gathered for a pre-town meeting tune-up.

VPR's Steve Zind reports:

(Speaker) " and both the pending resolution and the proposed substitute, both may be amended, but we have to deal with the amendments to the main motion before you deal with the amendments to proposed motion "

(Zind) Got that? Those are the kinds of procedural details it's a town moderators job to know, along with many others that crowd the 700 eye-straining pages of Roberts Rules of Order.

For Bob Backus, who's relatively new to the moderator's job in Wardsboro, a little pre-town meeting study is required.

(Backus) "It starts at the very first of the year. I start trying to bone up because I'm very new at this."

(Zind) The Vermont League of Cities and Towns brought Backus and other moderators together Tuesday for a refresher course on parliamentary procedure, but any one of them will tell you there's more to the job than getting the rules straight.

Voters want someone they have confidence in - a person who'll be impartial and can guide them through a maze of amendments and motions.

Ed Chase fits the bill. Westford voters have elected him as moderator for a quarter of a century. He makes the job actually sound fun.

(Chase) "Don't take yourself seriously. Have a good time. Understand the rules and facilitate the will of the voters."

(Zind) There are challenges. A moderator has to be diplomatic even when other people are rude. You can sense from the way Dennis McLam talks about the rude people that he has the right skills.

(McLam) "The hardest thing about being a moderator probably is when there's several people on one side of an issue that won't let other people talk."

(Zind) Unlike some hard-to-fill year- round town jobs like lister and zoning board member, towns don't have a problem finding a moderator.

In fact people tend to stay in the job for a long time. Patricia Pusey of Halifax says that's why she's one of just a handful of women moderators in Vermont.

(Pusey) "If you asked the people in this room today at this meeting, you would find that a lot of people have been moderating for twenty years. In days gone by, moms were in the home and men were in the position of government."

(Zind) Long time Cavendish moderator Rolf Van Schaik says he's a moderator because he wants to help preserve the town meeting tradition. But Van Shaik's concedes there's also a bit of the performer in many town moderators.

(Van Schaik) "Oh I think so. All the world's a stage. Sure there is. Yes."

(Zind) For Vermont Public Radio, I'm Steve Zind in Montpelier.
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