(Gavel) (Moderator) "Good evening ladies and gentlemen. We are here for the Rockingham School District meeting and the Rockingham Town Meeting."
(Host) That’s a sound that will be ringing out across the state this week as moderators call their town meetings to order.
But for the men and women who oversee town meetings, there’s a lot more to the job than banging a gavel.
One-hundred town moderators gathered recently for a refresher course on the finer points of parliamentary procedure and protocol.
VPR’s Nina Keck was there and has the floor.
(Keck) Since town moderators typically work only one day a year, it’s easy to forget all the rules they’re supposed to follow. Which is why many packed a Montpelier meeting hall for a tune-up.
(Chase) "You’ve been through a main thing, you’ve amended it, you’ve amended the amendment. We had an objection of the consideration of the question and then we voted that . Where are we? I had one like that and I had to draw a picture." (soft laughter)
(Keck) Westford Town Moderator Ed Chase can quote Robert’s Rules like a preacher cites scripture. A frequent speaker at town meeting seminars, he works the crowd like a professorial rock star.
(Chase) "That’s Robert’s Rules of Order page 436, line 6 – now it says should. There’s not a statute that requires you to do that. The moderator’s handbook says… ."
(Keck) While many at this workshop have been moderating for years, Kelly Green will be rapping the gavel in Randolph for the first time this year.
(Green) "There’s absolutely more to it than I initially thought. Because the moderator who moderated for years was so good at it, he made it seem seamless. I enjoy speaking to crowds. I have no stage fright or anything like that. But this nearly 700-page book of rules governs town meeting and you have to know the rules."
(Keck) And have the moxie to enforce them. Just ask Patti Pusey, moderator for the southern border town of Halifax.
(Pusey) "I’ve raised 7 children and people in town joke and say, ‘If you can raise 7 children you can keep peace at town meeting. It’s a cake walk.’ And sometimes I wonder. In fact this year, I wonder if I need to wear a bullet proof vest because things have really gotten hot and heavy at town meeting."
(Keck) Pusey says people are more frustrated and overwhelmed by their finances today. But some heated discussion can be a good thing, she says, because it lets townspeople express how they feel. As moderator, she says, she just has to be ready for it.
(Pusey) "You never know when someone raises their hand what’s going to come out of their mouth. It’s like being a defensive driver and you have to be prepared to avoid a collision."
(Keck) Pusey admits some town meeting collisions can hit too close for comfort. Like the meeting she had to ask her husband to leave.
(Pusey) "Because he was out of order – repeatedly out of order. And now it’s kind of been a joke where people come and they kind of hope Bill is there so they can watch me banter with him and eventually you know – ask him to leave."
(Keck) Many moderators, including M.B. Neisner of Killington, say they like to use humor to set the tone.
(Neisner) "I’ve had times where I’ve put on goggles and a hard hat. We had what was going to be a contentious meeting and I had the constables come up and put a bullet proof vest on me."
(Gailmor) "I remember during the Dick Cheney incident – the hunting incident – I said, ‘Anyone who is unruly or disrespectful will have to go on a hunting trip with Dick Cheney.’"
(Keck) That’s Jon Gailmor, town moderator in Elmore. He says workshops like this are not only great refreshers – but they get everyone excited about the process.
(Gailmor) "I want to make the meetings entertaining and fun. And I really want to emphasize how important it is in terms of democracy, in terms of having a say. It’s a primal need people have to have a say. And I want to let them know, ‘Please have a say. This is your day.’ For people to have a floor. I mean what’s better than that?"
(Keck) And if he forgets one of Robert’s rules along the way, Gailmor and every other moderator at the refresher course, say their neighbors will usually cut them plenty of slack.
For VPR News, I’m Nina Keck.