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Time limits

One of a town moderator’s biggest challenges is keeping town meeting discussions moving. It’s hard to know how, or when, to cut off a speaker who can’t seem to get to the point, who makes the same point repeatedly, or who just doesn’t know when to sit down. Moderator Bill Barton does what he can by repeatedly urging speakers to be brief. But it doesn’t always work, especially with a highly controversial article.

In Groton, at the start of town meetings, the voters decide whether they want to limit the time each speaker has, and if so, what the limit should be. Typically, the limit is three minutes per speaker, except for the main proponent and opponent of an article, who can have seven to 10 minutes. There’s a timekeeper who holds up a warning flag when one minute remains. That doesn’t always work either, but at least it gives the moderator an agreed-upon framework for limiting debate without appearing to favor one side or the other.

Maybe it’s time we tried it in Harvard. It might do wonders for sharpening debate and even improving attendance, at town meeting.

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