Sengle: "Who Should Moderate Clinton Town Meetings"

"A Moderator who advocates for one side or the other is a poor choice no matter what side you are on."


A town meeting was held on December 12th.  The controversial item on the agenda was the purchase of 69 Killingworth Turnpike (aka the historic “Yellow House”) to be used as part of the new high school site.  I was nominated to “Moderate” the meeting along with the First Selectman.  Mr. Fritz was elected as he almost always is at these meeting.  That’s fine, I don’t need the job.  But it’s appalling to me that few see any problem and support this selection.  Although the school was the issue at hand, I have to emphasize that the issue raised here about Moderating has nothing to do with the school.  The standards I will describe below, apply to every town meeting, no matter how trivial the issue may seem.

The first selectman is the town leader and chief politician on the most political of boards, The Board of Selectmen.  He routinely takes positions on issues and leads the charge, trying to sell his position.  That is not a criticism; it’s his job to take positions.  I’d be worried if he did not take positions.  But a Moderator he should not be.  The definition of Moderator is “one who arbitrates, “one who presides over a meeting”, “a mediator”, etc.  Implicit in this is that the Moderator is neutral, impartial and fair, or acts that way.  Mr. Fritz is an unabashed new Morgan proponent as is his right.  My concern is that the school be authorized properly along with any other issue to come before a Town Meeting.

As Moderator, Mr. Fritz routinely cheer leads his cause, pontificates, buttresses this cause by answering questions, tries to influence the discussion to support the outcome he wants and at times has shut down the opposition or belittles them, feigning humor.  He was even heard to say to one resident at the December 12th town meeting, “I don’t want to hear anything else out of you”.  This statement was over heard by several attendees including two reporters.  Remarks of this nature are intemperate, even if the two have crossed swords previously.  These are not the actions of a neutral party.  A Moderator runs the meeting, period and does not involve himself in the discussion.  Neither is it proper for a Moderator to make motions.  If the first selectman wants to advocate, make motions, answer questions or “testify” to facts as he believes them to be, he should sit in the audience like the rest of us.  This is not only common sense for obvious reasons, but is required by standard parliamentary procedure.

The Charter guides us on this issue.  Section 4-2 Procedure; Moderator states in part: “A Moderator shall be elected and all business conducted in the manner provided by the General Statutes, as amended, except as otherwise provided in this Charter.  CT General Statute, Title 7, Chapter 90, Section 7-7 quoted in part provides as follows; Sec. 7-7. Conduct of meeting of municipal corporations. ------. “All towns, when lawfully assembled for any purpose other than the election of town officers, and all societies and other municipal corporations when lawfully assembled, shall choose a moderator to preside at such meetings, unless otherwise provided by law; and, except as otherwise provided by law, all questions arising in such meetings shall be decided in accordance with standard parliamentary practice,” --------.   Certainly, Robert’s Rules of Order is the universally accepted standard parliamentary practice referred to which bars the conduct noted above.  In fact these rules require that a Moderator wishing to be involved in the discussion must relinquish the chair until the matter is “disposed of” (aka voted on).

I attended a subsequent Board of Selectmen meeting on December 19th and made a few brief remarks about the need for cleaning up town meeting procedures.  Good governance requires this be done – again it’s not about any specific issue.  Any project or expenditure must stand on its’ own merits.  It its’ worthy, it will be approved.  At this BOS meeting Mr. Fritz did seem to be getting on board with regard to the need for a Parliamentarian at meetings where controversial issues will be decided upon.  With regard to giving up being Moderator, no position was given.

I offered myself as an alternative at the Dec. 12th meeting who would have done nothing to influence outcome.  Some may not want to believe that, but it’s the truth.  All would be allowed to speak in turn, of course including the first selectman, as long as anyone had something relevant to say.  No matter what, you should have a choice.  A Moderator who advocates for one side or the other is a poor choice no matter what side you are on.  If you don’t see the problem now, you will when you are on the other side of an issue that Mr. Fritz is ramming through.  The end does not justify the means.  If that becomes the norm in Clinton, our government will no longer serve the people.

-- Phil Sengle

Phil Sengle January 05, 2013 at 03:51 PM
Jay Primack: Well thought out and useful comment, not that some of the others aren't. Thank you for an "outside" and reasoned perspective. Art: I'm good with that, but I would expand the list of non-eligibles as you know. My list of potential moderators would include Ray Rigat (former probate Judge), Anselmo Delia, attorney and Ed Miller, former Selectman and procedure expert. There are several others who would be fair and non-controversial. Willie stated at recent BOS meeting when asked to "clean up" town meeting procedures that former First Selectman Jim McCusker always Moderated meetings, as if to suggest, there is no problem. Of the six town meeting minutes I have seen during McCusker's tenure, it turns out this is not true. Among the moderators were Daniel Vece, Joe Schettino and Ray Rigat.
Jay January 05, 2013 at 03:52 PM
I agree with Mr. Kuever. None of us should be a moderator because we all have stong views that would affect our performance and, by my own rules, I would therefore not be able to participate in the debate or vote - and that is the reason I want to be there - not to play traffic cop. Ideally we should establish a regional volunteer force of moderators - even include a small payment . They would demonstrate no financial or political involment, have training and practice and be selected, prior to each town meeting, by pulling a name out of a hat. The strictures applying to "Ceasear's wife would apply. Please do not look to lawyers for any quidance in this area. Law schools do not teach honesty and evenhandeness for the courtroom or survival in the legal system and too many involve themselves in politics to gain notoriety for their professional services. A lawyer was overheard on this issue stating he " knew how to structure a town meeting to get what we want. "
Kirk Carr January 05, 2013 at 04:10 PM
To see Willie's denial that McCusker had others moderate Town Meetings go to: http://youtu.be/dhlDrcUbmWs To see the Town Meeting minutes go to: https://www.yousendit.com/dl?phi_action=app/orchestrateDownload&rurl=https%253A%252F%252Fwww.yousendit.com%252Ftransfer.php%253Faction%253Dbatch_download%2526send_id%253D1874548884%2526email%253D5bf73431af3ccdf2dafb2f3d7cf84515 The Board of Selectmen should adopt the following policy and procedures for the conduct of Town Meetings: 1) All electors and taxpayers shall be validated at the door by the registrars of voters or their deputies. 2) Numbered paper ballots shall be prepared in advance for each announced resolution and distributed with an identifying badge or color-coded card for hand votes to validated participants. 3) Selectmen and the First Selectman shall be ineligible to serve as the moderator. 4) The current version of Roberts Rules shall be enforced by a qualified parliamentarian.
Art Kuever January 05, 2013 at 05:17 PM
I believe we are now begining a meaningful conversation with good ideas, many of which should be be looked into so the meetings can be run smoothly. Maybe a max number should be made that would determine when a hand vote or paper ballot should be done, i.e., if the number in attendance is greater than 50, then mandatory paper ballot needs to be done. I also agree that everyone should be validated at the door, I expected that and brought my license for verification. These are basic, do I dare say, common sense ideas that would have removed the doubt of many. It will be hard to find someone to moderate that does not have a vested interest in the times that a moderator is needed within the town. I am sure that there are people that post here that could put aside their opinions and interests and do the job correctly(maybe with a roll of an eye here or there) but I believe it could be done. The detail would be in the rules: keep on topic, time limits, if someone keeps bringing up same issue over and over again they can be stopped, absolute time when the vote would take place so delay would not happen etc. It just so happens that this issue is big and the divide is big, most issues will not have this complexity or interest so moderation will not happen much.
Phil Sengle January 05, 2013 at 07:02 PM
Art: Agree with you pretty completely. And as you say most meetings will deal with less contentious issues which makes it easier. Yes, small crowds can be done with hand vote. On the Moderator, it's better if they are neutral, but it is not completely necessary. As long as the person is not outspoken on one side or the other so that their views are not widely known. The main point is they act neutral, do not betray their point of view by providing opinion or advocate for a position. Your plan is good to go.


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