Former Town Officials Reflect on the Qualities of a Good Moderator

January 8, 2024

Process. Fairness. Preparation. Execution.

These are among the attributes of an effective town moderator mentioned by several former town officials interviewed about the position, a vacancy that as of today – less than nine weeks from the town election – has no announced candidates.

The town caucus, scheduled at 7 p.m. on Tuesday in Town Hall, is one opportunity for a prospective moderator to emerge.

“The love of process is a must,” declared former Moderator Cathy Cordes. “A good moderator is there to ‘conduct’ Town Meeting – setting the tone, keeping it moving, balancing the discussion, conducting the vote. One has to be willing to put in the time needed to understand how Town Meeting rules itself and how to apply the rules of Town Meeting.”

“Our bylaws have very specific rules,” said Cordes’s predecessor, Betsey Anderson, noting that she would review them each year before Town Meeting. 

“Ideally, the moderator should have a solid background in town government through prior service, with knowledge of the town charter and bylaws,” said retired Town Manager Rick Reed. 

“Town moderator is one of the toughest positions in town government,” asserted former Selectman Lora Goldenberg. It’s a combination of “the need to follow laws and bylaws and appear fair to all residents wanting to express their opinions, at the same time as moving the proceedings along.” 

“Fairness is the most important thing,” said Sandra Hackman, who was elected to five Planning Board terms and now chairs the Council on Aging. She observed that there should be a “balance” between participatory democracy and order.

“I really tried to stay out of any issues,” said Anderson, who served as moderator from 1999 through 2015. “I didn’t want to get embroiled. I was aware of the issues, but I didn’t go to meetings all the time; I tried to follow things and was informed. The moderator needs to stand a little bit apart from the fray.”

“Your opinion does not matter and should never be stated,” Cordes said. “An ability to be fair is most important, above all.” 

Ed Pierce, who was elected five times to the School Committee and twice as selectman, said the moderator “has to leave opinions at home, and I’m sure that’s not always easy.”

The moderator should “care about the town and be a person of high integrity who would be fair to all,” said former five-term Selectman Joe Piantedosi, now a member of the Volunteer Coordinating Committee. Piantedosi added that another qualification for moderator is “an excellent speaker and communicator.”

Reed stressed the same point. “The moderator should set their own political leanings aside when presiding over the Town Meeting.  She or he needs to be impartial when it comes to any issue being considered by Town Meeting.”

“Be prepared,” advised Cordes. “Work ahead of time to know the issues, the motions to be made, and work with town officials to provide clarity and information to the Town Meeting voters.” 

Anderson related that annually she would consult before Town Meeting with the town manager, town counsel, and selectman chair “and go through each article and any questions we thought might come up so I would be well prepared.”

“The position does not require the investment of a great deal of time compared to serving on an elected town board,” Reed pointed out. “However, there are obvious periods of time when the moderator should invest time in preparing for the Town Meeting to be familiar with the issues to be considered and to interact with town officials and citizens in preparing for a successful meeting.”

Hackman looks at the position and the institution like a symphony orchestra. “It takes a lot of skill” to preside at Town Meeting, she said, and “it’s just brilliant when it’s done well.”

Added Goldenberg, who is one of a three-member team that runs the Bedford League of Women Voters, “If you’re a town government ‘geek,’ you would be able to get satisfaction from a well-run Town Meeting.”

“There are pros and cons and you have to be aware that there are people who want to speak and have questions,” Anderson said. Those variables were part of her pre-meeting considerations. She added that she learned just from watching her predecessor, Robert Folweiler.

Cordes observed, “The biggest challenge is the unknown and having to respond to it. Even when you are well prepared, someone will propose some action, and you must determine what course of action is needed by the meeting, and how to get there. A sense of humor is helpful. A little humility can go a long way. An ability to listen is critical.”

Pierce cited situations where the moderator relies on judgment, not always to everyone’s agreement. For example, “How long do you allow debate to continue when people start making the same points?” he asked. There’s also the need to interrupt a voter who isn’t “speaking to the article. People who are really impassioned may feel you didn’t give them their due. It can be a lonely road.” 

Hackman concurred: “It takes a lot of courage to step in and close debate.”

“Sometimes individuals can be a challenge,” Cordes acknowledged. “But as moderator, you have power invested in you by the State of Massachusetts to conduct the meeting in a way that you determine has the most benefit for the meeting, as a whole. State government has your back!” 

Anderson agreed, saying, “You’re not totally on your own.”

Anderson and Cordes both lauded the value of the Massachusetts Moderators Association. The organization offers training for new moderators, Anderson said, and its interactive “gavel line” is a source of idea exchange open to members only. There’s a committee of three experienced moderators “who will give suggestions on special issues,” she added.

“You have a support system to help you, a marvelous source of training, advice, and collegial sharing,” Cordes said. “One of the best parts of being a moderator in Massachusetts is being with other moderators. I learned so much from others.” 

Anderson added that she is “always available to help” the next moderator.

“All moderators that I either worked with directly or know have met or exceeded the qualities and had the required experience in town government that I would hope for,” Reed said. Siegenthaler, Folweiler, Anderson, Cordes, and Joe Sweeney. All five served as selectmen before running for moderator.

“The biggest reward is when Town Meeting is over and everyone leaves more or less feeling like they were heard and had an opportunity to weigh in on the issues in a fair manner,” Cordes declared. 

The position, Hackman said, “is so critical to strengthening our community.”

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