The Importance of the Moderator: Why Town and School Meetings Don’t “Just Happen”

Christine Fillmore

For most New Hampshire voters, the annual town or school meeting is the one opportunity they have to make decisions about spending money to run the local government and schools. But the annual meeting doesn't just happen. Without the artful skills of the moderator, decisions to appropriate money, adopt or amend ordinances, or make governmental changes may have no legal effect.

The moderator is the person who runs the meeting. He or she stands at the front of the room, welcomes voters, and explains the meeting protocols. A moderator should understand the issues to be discussed but is most effective when he or she has done a thorough job of preparing for the meeting.

Unless they have served in local government, most voters don't understand the scope of what goes into a successful meeting, or the moderator's central role in the success of the meeting. It never "just happens." Dozens of people working together for months have to meet a demanding set of deadlines in exactly the right way. It is little wonder that the weeks leading up to the meeting can include frazzled nerves, emergency meetings and a few panicked telephone calls.

An effective moderator understands the issues on meeting day. He or she pays attention to the budget and warrant as they are developed over the months leading up to the meeting. The budget committee, board of selectmen, town administrator and department heads all play a role in creating the budget, and it develops over time during meetings and hearings that are open to everyone. The planning board, zoning board of adjustment, conservation commission, library trustees, recreation commission, and other local boards also spend months preparing proposed warrant articles. Some of these are the subject of public hearings (such as zoning ordinance amendments) and others are presented at public meetings to the selectmen for their consideration. While it is unlikely a moderator will attend every meeting and hearing, the skilled moderator pays attention as the issues develop. Having a handle on the hot-button or complicated issues is critical for avoiding surprises on meeting day.

Preparation also usually includes one or more meetings between the moderator and the board of selectmen, school board, budget committee, and town administrator or manager. These meetings are an opportunity for the moderator to ask questions, point out potential issues or areas of confusion, and plan the best way to run an efficient and effective meeting. It is also the perfect time to seek legal opinions on articles or budget items that may be questionable. This preparation allows the moderator to identify which person or board is the most appropriate to respond to questions or provide additional information to the voters during the meeting so they can make informed choices.

And speaking of voters, an effective moderator recognizes the power that voters have. While the moderator is in charge of running the meeting and makes the procedural rules, the voters themselves have the authority to vote to overrule any decision the moderator makes. RSA 40:4.

They may also approve warrant articles or budget items even after being advised that the action is illegal or unenforceable, or vote to conduct the meeting in a way that violates the law. It is the moderator's role to explain, or ask someone else to explain, what the problem is and the potential consequences of that action, and to find alternatives. Voters look to the moderator to make sure that they can understand each article they are asked to vote on; they do not have to agree with the explanation. Ultimately, voters at the meeting will make the decisions. The moderator's responsibility is to allow this to happen.

An effective moderator must be impartial and fair. He or she should be a person with integrity, common sense, and a thick skin. Above all, the moderator must remain calm.

It is not a job for the faint of heart. The moderator will be questioned. Voters will not always be pleased with his or her rulings, or with one another or with other local officials. Tempers flare from time to time. It is the moderator to whom everyone looks for answers and guidance. A moderator who is prepared, knowledgeable, and can respond without being defensive, can make the difference between a smooth meeting and a train wreck.

Experience is, of course, one of the moderator's best teachers. However, there are other resources available for those who are starting out or who are seeking better ways to run their meetings. A firm understanding of the law as it applies to the annual meeting is essential. The 2013 edition of NHMA's Town Meeting and School Meeting Handbook is now available, including updated information on laws governing annual and special meetings. This publication is useful not only for moderators, but also for the many other local officials and boards which play a role in preparing for the annual meeting.

It is also important to consider what might go wrong at the meeting and how to react and recover from those mistakes. (A discussion of some of these issues is included in this month's Legal Q&A.)

Finally, NHMA's annual Moderators Workshops will be presented on January 19 and February 23, 2013. These sessions, the first for official ballot referendum towns and districts and the second for traditional meetings, are opportunities to learn about the law, and they are also a chance for moderators to share their successes, challenges, and advice.

Christine Fillmore is a staff attorney with the New Hampshire Municipal Association. She can be reached by email or at 800.852.3358, ext. 3408.