Bill Barton, also a lieutenant for the Harvard Fire Department, is running, uncontested, for the position of town moderator at the 2020 annual Town Election following a two-year incumbency. The moderator serves as the presiding officer over town and special meetings and makes appointments to the Finance Committee and Capital Planning and Investment Committee. In Barton’s time as moderator, he has overseen three Town Meetings and appointed members to both committees.
Bill Barton. (Photo by Lisa Aciukewicz)
To explain the role of the moderator as presiding officer, Richard Johnson, author of “Town Meeting Time: A Handbook of Parliamentary Law,” makes a tongue-in-cheek comparison to a second definition of the term as understood in nuclear physics. “The term ‘moderator’ is used to describe the substance which is mixed with uranium in a reactor to slow down the high-speed particles to the point where they can do some useful work,” he writes. “This is not unlike the function of a moderator in a town meeting.”
As laid out in more somber terms in Article 2 of the Harvard Charter, the moderator has the jurisdiction to “regulate the proceedings, decide all questions of order, make public declaration of all votes, and may exercise such additional powers and duties as may be authorized by law, this Charter, bylaw, or other vote of the Town Meeting.” This means that the moderator grants voters permission to speak and keeps people from interrupting each other or otherwise speaking in an inappropriate manner.
Historically, it also gives him the power, according to Johnson, to have unruly voters removed by the constable and confined in a “convenient place” until the meeting is over. However, in Barton’s time serving the Harvard community, it has never come to that.
Barton said that a big part of moderating a town meeting is keeping discussions concise. “There are some times that … discussions go on and on about certain topics and at certain points I have to lean in to try to limit some of the conversation because it’s repetitive. I don’t like doing that, but I’m also trying to manage the time so that everybody there can get to the other items that … they may be there to listen to.”
He said that he tries to make sure all comments are adding something new to the discussion and don’t just reiterate an earlier point.
Value of incumbency
While he feels that term limits are an important check on power, Barton also believes that, with a term length of one year, there is an advantage to having an incumbent moderator. “I think the more anybody is in a role, [the more] they get to understand the process, the ins and outs.”
Running the town meeting takes cooperation from many people and committees, and he said that having those relationships already built keeps things running smoothly. “If we were to replace the moderator every year, I think it would be difficult to have the well-oiled machine we do at Town Meeting.”
Currently, the moderator is one of the few town agency positions with a one-year term. Barton believes that this could be problematic if it keeps candidates from receiving proper training. He suggests that the town consider changing the term to fall more closely in line with those of other town positions, which are typically three years.
When Barton first became interested in the position, the former moderator, Bob Eubank, had decided not to run again and let Barton work beside him for the latter half of his final term. “I was lucky enough to come in and listen and learn from him,” Barton said.
That year’s Town Meeting, when the elementary school building project was approved, was especially large and required two rooms, so Barton managed one while Eubank led the other, an experience that helped prepare him for the role he would be taking on.
When, in the future, new moderators are appointed, Barton would like to see them undergo a similar training period. “I like what I’m doing but ... if and when I step down from moderator, I’d want to do what Bob did and spend time with someone who’s going to step in. So, I would want to be thoughtful in that transition because it’s an important opportunity to get it right, and it easily can go wrong.”
During his time as moderator, Barton said the most important things he has learned are patience, active listening, and that he should never try to predict how long a discussion will take. “Our town is very passionate about every issue that comes up. We’re a very educated town, and I’ve learned that … even if I think something will take a certain amount of time, it can go either way pretty easily. Sometimes I think there’s going to be a large debate about a certain article and there’s not, and sometimes the smallest article in my head can stretch on for 20 to 30 minutes.”
A diversity of views
When appointing a new member to the Finance Committee, Barton said he looks for a strong background in finance but also an understanding of local issues and creative policy ideas. “What I’m looking for when I make appointments to that committee is, first, a knowledge of finance, a knowledge of what we’ve gone through … in town already around our finance, [and] ideas on how we can maybe generate revenue outside of the current categories where we currently draw revenue.”
He also looks to make sure the committee is representative of the community as a whole. “[The] Finance Committee is a backbone to this community and needs individuals from all different aspects of life … in a host of different ways in reference to knowledge, to life experience … age, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, all of those come into play because we have such a broad town. I want all those views reflected as that committee makes decisions that impact every resident in town.”
Similar considerations are taken into account when appointing members to the Capital Planning and Investment Committee. “I’m really looking for that knowledge and life experience,” he said. He explained that it is the job of this committee to look to the future to determine where money should be spent and to then propose a plan to the Select Board.
One of the biggest decisions Barton had to make this year was the choice to hold the Spring Town Meeting outdoors. “This year, with COVID, we had a very difficult decision of how, if at all, are we going to even have a Town Meeting?”
He said that he and other town leaders had to determine how to include the most people without compromising the health of the town. “That’s how we got to the outside Town Meeting,” he explained. “It is imperative that we get as many people as we can because these decisions need to be made by as many as want to represent themselves.”
It was that same goal of allowing the most people possible to participate and have their voices heard that led the town to schedule spring and fall Town Meetings beginning this year. This divided the Annual Town Meeting into two half-day sessions instead of a full day. “What we’ve tried to do in that way, overall, is reduce the amount of time during one sitting so that more people can come and participate,” said Barton.