(Host) Town Meeting can be an inspiring event for the civically-minded among us, and election fever has struck commentator Caleb Daniloff. He went to his town meeting in Middlebury this week to plot his own run for office, and to check out the competition.
(DANILOFF) I know the next round of Town Meeting Day elections are a year off. But judging by Hillary and Barack and Rudy, it’s clearly never too early to throw your hat into the ring. So I recently formed an exploratory committee to study a possible run for Middlebury town moderator in 2008.
The incumbent has held the position for two decades now, a real career town moderator. I believe we need a new direction in moderating, a fresh voice, a more innovative grip on the gavel.
But unseating an incumbent is no small task. Especially when he’s also the sitting governor of Vermont. Longtime resident Jim Douglas has presided over Middlebury’s annual meeting since he served as secretary of state in the 1980s. But hey, the world has changed since legwarmers and Izods. These are complicated times.
So I headed to the municipal gym last Monday evening to get a closer look at Moderator Douglas and his apparent chokehold on the podium. When I arrived, the Selectboard was already seated, state reps chatting with early arrivals. The bleachers were soon packed and the knitting needles clacking.
J.D. showed up about ten minutes before go-time, obviously confident he could get things started at the drop of a dime. He was dressed in a somber blue suit and took time to chat with municipal leaders, even had a word with the local press. Well, now he was just being cocky.
But just after 7 PM, J.D. brought the meeting to order. Not bad. Still, I intended to watch his every move, my yawn detector on full alert. I sat up close in case he tried to sneak them through his nostrils.
Throughout the evening, he scanned the crowd with the scrutiny of an exam proctor. He knew most residents by name and never once mistook the swing of a knitting arm for a raised hand. Then, as if with eyes in the back of his head, he called on a questioner in the bleachers behind him. Oh, he was good.
After a $50,000 amendment to the budget was approved, I noticed J.D. scribbling on his agenda. Doodling probably, I scoffed to the old woman next to me. Then he lifted his head and reeled off the new amount to be raised by taxes. OK, I’ll definitely have to bone up on my math.
The voice vote sounded close but J.D. called it for the ayes. Several moans went up. He asked the ‘yes’ group to stand, then the ‘nays.’ The ayes had it almost two to one. This guy obviously knew his crowd noises.
Only once did he break a sweat. Around 11 PM, a non-binding war resolution was introduced under Other Business. By this time, the knitters had run out of yarn and I had lost feeling in parts of my limbs. But the lines at the mic were growing and the motions started flying.
J.D. argued that since the Select Board didn’t put the resolution on the agenda, it wasn’t subject to an official town vote. The crowd grew restless. Citizens introduced motions to overrule the moderator. J.D. suggested discussion continue and that an informal room vote be held. That seemed to quell what appeared a gathering mutiny.
With that resolved and with an emphatic slam of the gavel, it was over. Just like that. And for the briefest moment, our head of state had the look of a spent orchestra conductor, lacking only the swinging sweaty bangs.
And that’s the image I carried to my car in the gathering midnight freeze. And it’s what I saw when I woke the next morning. By the time I got in the shower, I was having serious second thoughts about my candidacy. But I wonder, who’s up for dog warden?