Traits of a Good Moderator

Natch Greyes, Municipal Services Counsel

Despite the deep political involvement of our state in making (and breaking) presidential hopes and operating the world’s third largest legislature, most New Hampshire voters only have a single time of year when they engage at the municipal level – town meeting. It’s often the only time that most citizens of any given town think about the nuts and bolts of how their town works (and how to pay for it).

The key to town meeting, as any long-serving municipal official knows, is the moderator. Without the staid hand of the moderator artfully guiding the citizens of a town through the warrant, town meeting would grind to a halt. Not only would it be encumbered by side discussions and ineffective
procedures, but the voters would also not have anyone to rely on for determinations which could impact the legal effects of attempts to appropriate money, adopt or amend ordinances, or make governmental changes.

The moderator is, of course, the person who runs the meeting. He or she is charged with standing before the voters, welcoming them, explaining the meeting protocols, and explaining the issues that are discussed and the procedures used in discussing them if questions arise. Many moderators, particularly experienced moderators, find that it is a valuable use of time to explain whatever needs to be explained to the voters in great detail as, inevitably, some voters are new while others are misinformed. The moderator’s explanations can provide a solid basis for voters to understand the issues and make the determinations which need to be made without getting caught up on ancillary issues.

Effective moderators are prepared moderators. Town meeting never “just happens.” It’s a bit like a big wedding. Town meeting is the result of dozens of people working long hours over the course of months and meeting demanding deadlines in order for the meeting to happen in just the right way. If all goes well, voters will walk away with the impression that town meeting went “as it’s supposed to” and there won’t be any hitches with getting through the ceremony.

An effective moderator has a deep understanding of the issues on meeting day. Even though it is not required, many moderators find that paying attention to the warrant and, particularly, the budget and controversial funding issues in the months leading up to the meeting pays dividends at the
meeting. That requires a high-level overview of the machinations of municipal government as well as a deep dive into particular areas. The budget committee, board of selectmen, town administrator or manager, and department heads all play a role in creating the budget. 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, such as zoning ordinance amendments, are the subject of public hearings while others are merely presented at public meetings to the selectmen for their consideration. While it is unlikely that a moderator will attend every public meeting and every public hearing, an effective 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.

An effective moderator’s 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 for the governing body to realize that it should seek a legal opinion on a tricky article or budget items. (Note, of course, that the New Hampshire Department of Revenue Administration can be of assistance with monetary items through its lengthy publication “Suggested Warrant Articles” as well as its pre-review process through the Portal). The moderator’s preparation during this stage also allows him or her to identify which person or board is the most appropriate to respond to questions or provide additional information to the voters during the meeting. No moderator wants the experience of having hundreds of eyes fixed upon them at town meeting and having no idea which municipal official to turn to for a lengthier explanation.

This is also a good time for moderators to remind municipal officials that, pursuant to RSA 40:4, the voters themselves have the authority to overrule any decision that the moderator makes. The power of the voters to determine the course of the meeting, even against the best advice of the
Moderator, is something that moderators should inform municipal officials, especially when discussing controversial items.

Note, however, that even though voters can overrule a moderator, a moderator should ensure that voters are informed when an article or budget item is illegal or unenforceable. No matter how much the townspeople may wish to ban nuclear weapons from their towns or require elected officials to work certain hours, neither are enforceable and the townspeople should be informed of as much. It is the moderator’s goal to explain – or find someone to explain – what is illegal or unenforceable about the article or budget item and the potential consequences of ignoring the moderator’s advice. That may require the moderator to defer to town counsel or, for an issue known well-in advance, a select board member with a letter from town counsel about the issue. Voters look to the moderator to make sure that they understand each article, even if they do not agree with the explanation. Ultimately, of course, it is the voters at the meeting who will make the decisions and the moderator must let them, but that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be forewarned of the consequences of their actions.

In overseeing the meeting, a moderator must exhibit the judicial traits of fairness and impartiality. He or she should be a person with integrity, common sense, and a thick skin. 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, and they will often be upset with one another or particular municipal officials or boards. Tempers flare from time to time and it is critical that the moderator remain calm and above the fray. It is the moderator to whom everyone looks for answers and guidance. A moderator who is prepared, knowledgeable, and can respond judiciously, can make the difference between a good meeting and a disaster.

While experience is the best teacher, moderators are not left out in the cold. NHMA annually presents a Moderator’s Workshop in advance of town meeting times. For this coming town meeting season, NHMA is holding workshops for SB2 Meeting moderators on Jan. 11, 2020 and Traditional Town Meeting moderators on Feb. 15, 2020. NHMA also produces a publication called Town Meeting and School Meeting Handbook, which includes the most up-to-date 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.

Natch Greyes is Municipal Services Counsel with the New Hampshire Municipal Association. He may be contacted at 603.224.7447 or at legalinquiries@nhmunicipal.org.