Representative Town Meeting awaits a plan

Moderator Lawrin Crispe has Town Meeting members stand up to vote during annual Representative Town Meeting in 2018.

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BRATTLEBORO — As one of his self-proclaimed “last duties” as town moderator, Lawrin Crispe shared his thoughts and observations informed by the decade he served in the position.

“Town Meeting should be a reflection of the community,” he said. “Leave politics in Washington, where it belongs.”

At an informational event hosted virtually and in person by the Representative Town Meeting (RTM) Steering Committee last Monday, Crispe took questions. Committee Chairwoman Millicent Cooley said the committee is exploring ways to make RTM “more efficient and more effective.”

RTM could be improved by holding it live if it can be done safely instead of virtually like the last two years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Crispe said. The remote meetings suffer, he said, because they’re tedious and there’s a “loss of character.”

Crispe advises Town Meeting members to attend informational meetings held before RTM. He said too many times, questions get asked again at RTM and it wastes time.

Crispe suggested town staff “streamline the town report.”

“It can be overwhelming to new Town Meeting members,” he said, adding that parts of it are very important.

Crispe said the portion at the end of the meeting where “other business” is addressed should be limited to municipal matters as the Vermont Supreme Court has suggested.

“Brattleboro has a unique charter, which has unique terminology, which also controls our meeting,” he said. “It says that Town Meeting is the guiding body of the town and a source of ideas, proposals and comments, and that language has been used to argue that other business should be broader in scope. This moderator has taken the view that this may expand the limitations of Vermont case law in fact but there’s a lack of clarity and I have erred on the side of allowing questionable items of other business for that reason.”

Crispe called for a charter review process to begin again to explore this issue and others.

Also, he emphasized that participation at RTM doesn’t require Town Meeting members to stand up and talk. He called listening “far more important.”

Crispe said candidates for moderator will need to take out a nominating petition, secure at least 30 valid signatures of registered Brattleboro voters and submit it by 5 p.m. Jan 24. His successor will be elected by ballot on March 1.

Crispe described the moderator as the presiding officer who guides the meeting with “fairness and impartiality” while maintaining decorum and a respectful environment. He noted the moderator reviews the articles warned for voting before publication to ensure motions are properly framed, working with the town attorney and town manager to tweak language when needed.

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Articles should be put in the appropriate sequence to avoid any parliamentary confusion, Crispe said.

“For example, you want to make sure any future money articles come before you vote on the budget,” he said.

Crispe pointed out the moderator might become involved in logistical planning. For instance, when COVID-19 hit, he helped organize virtual meetings.

One area of improvement identified by Crispe has to do with training in parliamentary procedure. He said an effort to get new Town Meeting members acquainted with the way things work halted during the pandemic.

Crispe said the moderator should have the abilities to remain fair and impartial, and respect the opinions of each Town Meeting member. Experience with parliamentary procedure would “certainly be helpful” and “some background with Robert’s Rules [of Order] wouldn’t hurt you either,” he said.

Asked about the challenges of the position, he said, “For me, it was balancing the need to engage broader voter participation in Brattleboro, which means shorter meetings on the one hand with the democratic ideal of affording each member the right to be heard.”

Crispe said he wanted to keep meetings to one day but also run them sufficiently as possible.

The committee is talking about having a consent agenda. Cooley said items deemed noncontroversial could be grouped together and passed quickly to save some time.

Robert’s Rules of Order would allow for a consent agenda, Crispe said, but he urged against creating “too many parliamentary hurdles.”

“Parliamentary procedure is foreign to most voters,” he said, seeing a consent agenda as being potentially “off putting” to newer Town Meeting members. “This is not Washington. Let’s try to keep this simple for people in Brattleboro to understand.”

Crispe blamed the last two annual meetings turning into two-day events on “exceptions necessitated by the COVID emergency.”

“I hope we can get back to the norm and what has always been the tradition of Vermont’s concept of Town Meeting Day,” he said.

Stretching the meeting out longer than one day discourages broader participation among voters, he said, noting people have limited time and resources. Asked about the potential for limiting the time for each person to speak, he said he has given the matter a lot of thought and believes the moderator should be proactive in keeping things brief without stifling debate.