The moderator on Meeting Day

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(Host) Today is Town Meeting Day, and all over the state commentator Paul Gillies says that Town Moderators will be calling their towns to order.

(Gillies) A gavel is a wooden hammer having little productive value other than to make sharp noises, for the purpose of restoring order. If you try to drive a nail with it, its head will split, and it becomes kindling.

I am the town moderator of Berlin. I know that my position will become kindling, if I try to run the meeting. That’s not my job. I’m just the referee, the one who keeps order, who reminds you of what the rules are, and tries to get everybody to follow them. The meeting is run by the voters. That’s the way it is with a system where, at least on one day a year, the people rule.

What I see from behind the rostrum is the heart of the town. Sometimes that heart is hard, sometimes warm and generous, sometimes startlingly eloquent, and always, I think, wise. Wise in a way that is larger than any one of us, because the outcome is the result of people reasoning together.

Just listen to the debate. Hear the elders of the town remind us of how it used to be; hear the young parents, anxious for the future of their children; hear the cranky and the distressed, the comics and the sober, and together you hear what’s in their hearts. This may be the only time all year that some people speak in public, but something in the discussion gives them the courage to state a position, and sometimes change the direction of the debate and the outcome of the vote.

Not everybody trusts everybody to make decisions. Throughout history, we have relied on the generosity of leaders to make decisions for us, and most of the laws and orders that rule us are made by elected or appointed individuals or representative groups. It’s more efficient that way, at least in principle, and frees up our time so that we can earn money to pay taxes.

But then comes the first Tuesday in March. The tables turn. The leaders sit quiet, while the voters decide the big questions of budgets and policy. What makes the air tingle with tension is the tantalizing possibility that any article might be turned down or amended.

The people rule. No, it’s not just a platitude or a politician’s nostalgic reference, not on the first Tuesday of March, in towns that hold traditional town meetings. Town meeting is the reason there is a Vermont as we know it. It brings out the best in us. It keeps our officials properly humble. And it is the best show in town.

We can’t do this all year long. We have our lives to live. But for one day, within the limits of Robert’s Rules and the warning, the power and the responsibility is ours. What a great idea that is.

This is Paul Gillies from Berlin.

Paul Gillies is a lawyer and historian.

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