Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Town Meeting: A Manner of Speaking (an uncommon House)

Town Meeting has been a rollicking rollercoaster of a political ride (to paraphrase "Blackadder") this season. Petition articles on national social and political issues generated speeches but no controversy and sailed through (1, 2), while zoning articles proved (as predicted) extraordinarily contentious. It has also been an unusually rude season.

Because of the census and reapportionment, all seats—rather than only one third of them—were up for grabs this year, and there are many new faces (new precinct map here, along with an explanation of that great Massachusetts invention, the Gerrymander; elected member roster here).

An infusion of new political blood is generally a healthy thing, but one never knows quite what will happen when old and new encounter one another. On a purely technical level, the rules of Town Meeting—in the sense of both formal procedures and etiquette—can take some getting used to. I think I still recall wondering, in my early days, why the proposal to come to a vote is referred to as calling "the previous question" when it in fact refers to the only question before the meeting at the moment.

Etiquette is another matter. Unless one studies the Town Meeting Handbook produced by the League of Women Voters, one may not realize that not only personal attacks, but even normal expressions of approval or disapproval following a statement or vote are strictly forbidden by the rules of the house:

The pattern of formality observed at meetings helps to preserve the Moderator's position of impartiality and to maintain an objective approach if serious divisions arise.

The Rules of Decorum require that speakers

• confine all remarks to the merits of the question pending,
• refrain from characterizing a member's motives or impugning the character of other members,
• address only the Moderator and address each other through the Moderator,
• as much as possible, avoid using the names of members and other participants, substituting, when available, titles and such terms as "the previous speaker,"
• refrain from profanity and vulgarity,
• refrain from making motions with the intention of opposing them,
• refrain from disturbing the assembly by whispering, talking, or walking about,
• refrain from audible signs of approval or disapproval such as applauding.

Amherst Town Meeting has a long tradition of civil debate. The occasional member who breaks a rule is usually called to order by the Moderator. (printed edition: p. 16; pdf: p. 23 ) 
Town Meeting members receive orientation training and are supposed to familiarize themselves with the rules and procedures of the house, but most are focused on the struggle to master the complexities of budgeting and zoning.  There was a noticeable learning curve this year.

On the first night, for example, after a proposal to restore some social services funding (1, 2) was rejected, a few disappointed proponents were heard to cry, "Shame!" and hiss or boo.  The Moderator tried to make his correction gently, reminding the assembly of the rules, and lightening the lesson with the humorous observation that Town Meeting is not the House of Commons. Some members later took moral pride in the little disruption, stating that Amherst is indeed not the House of Commons, and rather, the place "where only the 'h' is silent" (as the saying goes). Evidently, they missed the joke as well as the message: the British Parliament is known as an extraordinarily rowdy political body (perhaps they have never watched Commons Question Time? It used to be on PBS; it's still on C-SPAN.)

On another evening, when normally popular Town Manager John Musante responded to a question from the assembly about North Amherst Village Center rezoning, he ran over the allotted three minutes' time. The Moderator did not cut him off, and some members exclaimed loudly in outrage at what they perceived as a double standard, giving a town official an unfair advantage in arguing for the measure.

Another uproar came a short time later as discussion of the same zoning article ground on. As the Handbook says, "The occasional member who breaks a rule is usually called to order by the Moderator." This is precisely what happened to a new member (a student at the University of Massachusetts) who not only violated the rules regarding characterizations of others and their motives, but even presumed to challenge the judgment (and education) of the Moderator. (video via Larry Kelley's blog)

This may be "Amherst, where only the 'h' is silent," but even voluble Amherst has a few basic rules about behavior in Town Meeting. And as the great Renaissance educator Pier Paolo Vergerio said some 600 years ago:  "a youth who is silent commits at most but one fault, that he is silent; one who is talkative probably commits fifty."

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