Sengle: "Who Should Moderate Clinton Town Meetings"

"A Moderator who advocates for one side or the other is a poor choice no matter what side you are on."


A town meeting was held on December 12th.  The controversial item on the agenda was the purchase of 69 Killingworth Turnpike (aka the historic “Yellow House”) to be used as part of the new high school site.  I was nominated to “Moderate” the meeting along with the First Selectman.  Mr. Fritz was elected as he almost always is at these meeting.  That’s fine, I don’t need the job.  But it’s appalling to me that few see any problem and support this selection.  Although the school was the issue at hand, I have to emphasize that the issue raised here about Moderating has nothing to do with the school.  The standards I will describe below, apply to every town meeting, no matter how trivial the issue may seem.

The first selectman is the town leader and chief politician on the most political of boards, The Board of Selectmen.  He routinely takes positions on issues and leads the charge, trying to sell his position.  That is not a criticism; it’s his job to take positions.  I’d be worried if he did not take positions.  But a Moderator he should not be.  The definition of Moderator is “one who arbitrates, “one who presides over a meeting”, “a mediator”, etc.  Implicit in this is that the Moderator is neutral, impartial and fair, or acts that way.  Mr. Fritz is an unabashed new Morgan proponent as is his right.  My concern is that the school be authorized properly along with any other issue to come before a Town Meeting.

As Moderator, Mr. Fritz routinely cheer leads his cause, pontificates, buttresses this cause by answering questions, tries to influence the discussion to support the outcome he wants and at times has shut down the opposition or belittles them, feigning humor.  He was even heard to say to one resident at the December 12th town meeting, “I don’t want to hear anything else out of you”.  This statement was over heard by several attendees including two reporters.  Remarks of this nature are intemperate, even if the two have crossed swords previously.  These are not the actions of a neutral party.  A Moderator runs the meeting, period and does not involve himself in the discussion.  Neither is it proper for a Moderator to make motions.  If the first selectman wants to advocate, make motions, answer questions or “testify” to facts as he believes them to be, he should sit in the audience like the rest of us.  This is not only common sense for obvious reasons, but is required by standard parliamentary procedure.

The Charter guides us on this issue.  Section 4-2 Procedure; Moderator states in part: “A Moderator shall be elected and all business conducted in the manner provided by the General Statutes, as amended, except as otherwise provided in this Charter.  CT General Statute, Title 7, Chapter 90, Section 7-7 quoted in part provides as follows; Sec. 7-7. Conduct of meeting of municipal corporations. ------. “All towns, when lawfully assembled for any purpose other than the election of town officers, and all societies and other municipal corporations when lawfully assembled, shall choose a moderator to preside at such meetings, unless otherwise provided by law; and, except as otherwise provided by law, all questions arising in such meetings shall be decided in accordance with standard parliamentary practice,” --------.   Certainly, Robert’s Rules of Order is the universally accepted standard parliamentary practice referred to which bars the conduct noted above.  In fact these rules require that a Moderator wishing to be involved in the discussion must relinquish the chair until the matter is “disposed of” (aka voted on).

I attended a subsequent Board of Selectmen meeting on December 19th and made a few brief remarks about the need for cleaning up town meeting procedures.  Good governance requires this be done – again it’s not about any specific issue.  Any project or expenditure must stand on its’ own merits.  It its’ worthy, it will be approved.  At this BOS meeting Mr. Fritz did seem to be getting on board with regard to the need for a Parliamentarian at meetings where controversial issues will be decided upon.  With regard to giving up being Moderator, no position was given.

I offered myself as an alternative at the Dec. 12th meeting who would have done nothing to influence outcome.  Some may not want to believe that, but it’s the truth.  All would be allowed to speak in turn, of course including the first selectman, as long as anyone had something relevant to say.  No matter what, you should have a choice.  A Moderator who advocates for one side or the other is a poor choice no matter what side you are on.  If you don’t see the problem now, you will when you are on the other side of an issue that Mr. Fritz is ramming through.  The end does not justify the means.  If that becomes the norm in Clinton, our government will no longer serve the people.

-- Phil Sengle

Bruce Farmer December 21, 2012 at 02:52 PM
I totally agree with Phil Sengle. I would suggest that we go a step further. Before voting at a Town Meeting , we need a procedure to make sure that all votes are made by folks eligible to vote as to age and residence .
Rodney Kirouac December 21, 2012 at 05:47 PM
I agree with Mr Sengle. This is about good governance principles. The Board of Selectmen need to confront this issue. It should be put before them at one of thier meetings. They should be asked to discuss and affirm a commitment to good governance practices by following standard parlimantary procedures and commit to elevating the public discourse by respecting everyone's opiniion. This should not be a partisan issue. Perhaps the heads of the Democratic and Republican Town Committees could demonstrate that fact by jointly bringing this issue to the Selectmen.
Phil Sengle December 21, 2012 at 11:55 PM
Mr. Kirouac: I'm game. I'll talk to the DTC Chair. I think if we both got behind this it would have an effect.
Kirk Carr December 21, 2012 at 11:58 PM
If you were not at the Town Meeting on December 12 or if you were and want to refresh your memory of exactly what happened here is a link to the video: http://youtu.be/2a_UIWKPozw The moderator should moderate, not participate. The First Selectman has an inherent conflict and should step aside as moderator when he feels obligated to take sides. Cutting off or belittling people with whom he disagrees, making motions over motions and refusing to entertain legitimate points of order are simply not acceptable. You may also find the discussion at the Board of Selectmen meeting on December 19 on this topic insightful. It is on YouTube at: http://youtu.be/8urcp5XAcCI
Bradford J. Sullivan December 22, 2012 at 03:10 PM
Phil, The problems with our Town Meeting procedures have nothing to do with by whom they are moderated. Doesn't John Boehner, or his designee, moderate debate in the House of Representatives? You would agree that Mr. Boehner is a partisan? The meeting on December 12th illustrates that Clinton's pure, democratic type of government (by Town Meeting) is a relic of olden-times when the population was 2,000 people and only 482 people were eligible to vote. Our "little town" has a year-round population in excess of 13,000 with approximately 9,000 registered voters. It is impossible to have any fair debate in Clinton because there is no facility in town to accommodate a town meeting, unless we held an outdoor annual meeting someplace -- imagine the parking nightmare?! Our charter must be revised to reform our type of government and allow it to evolve into something useful and effective, e.g., a representative town meeting/Town Manager format? The next charter revision should be started as soon as legally possible to allow for meaningful change to our governing document. Too many people in Clinton have been, and are being, disenfranchised because of the outdated town meeting style we still adhere to in these parts. Folks: thousands, if not millions, of dollars get spent in town based upon a dozen or so faithful stalwarts attending meetings and saying "Aye!" If you want to be heard, tell the Selectmen you want representation during policy debates with an RTM and town manager.
Dick Dondero December 22, 2012 at 03:52 PM
The Clinton Charter Revision Commission in 1991, of which I was chaiman, proposed and brought to referrendum a charter that included all of the changes that Brad and others are talking about. It was voted down by the Towns voters. Some of the commissions members are stll active on Town Boards and Commissions today.
Anselmo Delia December 22, 2012 at 06:35 PM
Dick, I remember serving on that 1991 Charter Revision Commission with you. Marge Scully, a former popular Democrat first selectman, was also on that commission. It was an interesting mix of individuals with varied backgrounds and we all came to conclude that a Towm Manager was the direction we should take. A little bit ahead of the times, I suppose. But it may well be time to revisit this issue.
Anselmo Delia December 22, 2012 at 06:52 PM
Brad, although I agree with most of the issues you raised, I do not agree that the moderator has nothing to do with the logistical problems we confront in our more controversial town meetings. That person voted to be the moderator DOES have a lot to do with the tenor and conduct of the town meeting, unwieldly as that can be, given the logistical limitations you discussed. Order, fairness and impartiality should be paramount considerations, especially when large numbers are present. I strongly agree with Phil Sengle that the moderator should never be a participant in the discussion, nor make motions. Although our system of governance may be outdated and no longer representative, we can certainly make it a lot better by electing an individual who will truly moderate and not advocate positions of interest to him. Fairness demands it.
Phil Sengle December 23, 2012 at 06:45 PM
Brad: I agree with much of what you have written and that's a good thing. I too think it's time for a Town Manager form of government. We can debate the RTM or Town Council legislative format, but it has to change. Agree also that millions get spent based on the few who show up. Also we need some professional staff at town hall to support us volunteers and work the crucial details that volunteers don't have the time, contacts or expertise that is needed. We disagree on the Moderator. The Moderator must be neutral and not advocate. The demeanor of the Moderator must also be non-combative. Since this person has control of the meeting, the reasons are obvious. Such behavior is prohibited by "Robert's Rules" which we are supposed to follow as explained in my letter. If a Republican was the First Selectman I would take the same position. This is a non partisan issue. It's about running out town properly.
Kirk Carr December 28, 2012 at 12:29 AM
When Willie denied that Jim McCusker rarely if ever moderated a Town Meeting while serving as First Selectman. Willie was wrong. Here is the YouTube that includes his denial. http://youtu.be/8urcp5XAcCI And here is a link to download Town records that show he is mistaken: https://www.yousendit.com/download/UW14d0VObTg3bUFYRHRVag Willie is clearly not always right, though almost never in doubt. As a matter of practice the First Selectman should generally not serve as the moderator at Town Meetings. It creates an inherent conflict that is easy to avoid.
Jay December 28, 2012 at 01:30 PM
A town manager is only another layer to stifle the participation of ordinary citizens. Another "expert", as a town "planner" or "finance director", to shut down ordinary citizen's concerns and complaints with the cover of their "expertise". These "tecnocrates" provide insulation and cover for the truly incompetent that get reelected as selectmen as a result of having a "town manager " to hide behind. A short review of East Hampton's experience three years ago with their little dictator "town manager" exposes the real danger these types represent. A look at what really happened in North Branford's recent firing of their "manager" also reveals how useful this position is insulate the truly responsible from their incompetence. He is out and they are still in "charge" behind a quick and expensive replacement. And at a expense level there is literally no gain as they all receive bloated compensation for their limited service..
Art Kuever December 28, 2012 at 02:21 PM
It would seem that no matter who moderated, someone would have had an issue with them. My issue was that the meeting was going off point, the moderator should have simply said that the question is "off point" and moved on until the question or statement was "on point". This meeting was about two things: The funding of the Stanton House and the purchase of the yellow house, not the entire school building which was already approved. There were many statements made that were outside of the reason that we were there and they should have been ignored.
Jay December 28, 2012 at 05:34 PM
Not so - the issue was the construction of a new school - the house a part of the entire issue. Again a failure to understand free speech and the legal moderation of a public meeting. The courts have repeately supported free speech in this area and yet you continue to come down on the side that benefits your dedication to spending taxpayer's money. There is a proper and easy solution - a two or three minute limit on speaking the first time, then a wait till whenever everyone else has spoken for a one minute time period - or whatever times the town agrees on. Those time periods are sacred and short of yelling "fire" not to be interrupted or harrassed - even if the speaker starts claiming it is all the fault of aliens amongst us. And, by the way Clinton has never adopted any "rules" for a meeting and Robert's is fine for a garden club but no legislature uses it and a town meeting is a legislature..
Art Kuever December 28, 2012 at 06:05 PM
The issue of the construction of the new school and the appropriations of any future properties was approved by referendum. This meeting dealt with the purchase of the yellow house in accordance with the already approved construction of the new building. There is no failure to understand free speech here, the speech should be "on point" not a re-hash of something that has been said over and over again just so it can be heard, although it had been answered many times in many venues. I do agree that going forward that there should be rules on duration of the speech and so on. Maybe a search could be done for someone to be the moderator in all times of need so he/she is in place. This person should not hold office or be on any board in any party or a town official. I am a taxpayer and so are the other people that supported and voted at the referendum to spend our tax dollars on the construction of a new building, "yet you continue to come down on the side that benefits your dedication" to defeat something that was already approved. I also loved the "free speech" excercise of putting a dummy in full hazmat gear to try to put fear into the public. This should not have been allowed in the building.
Jay December 28, 2012 at 09:46 PM
You left out that the vote was only passed by a 40 vote margin and the BoS own lawyer authorized a pettiion for a revote after a petition and now the entire mess, and it is a mess, is in court. There was no consensus on spending $70 million dollars and that is the issue you are trying to have ignored.
Art Kuever December 29, 2012 at 01:08 AM
The margin is not relevant, it fact that it passed is all that is relevant. When the court upholds the referendum, I hope that this will all stop and we can move forward together and make sure the new building is built correctly and on budget. The referendum approved a little over $64 million, not $70 million and I am not trying to ignore it, I am trying not to re-hash the entire battle that has already been settled.
Kirk Carr December 29, 2012 at 02:44 PM
This transcends the school. It is now about good governance. Citizens should not have to spend thousands of dollars to have a petition that was validated by both the Town Counsel and the Town Clerk placed on the Board of Selectman's agenda. The moderator of a Town Meeting must remain neutral or step aside to participate as an equal in the Town Meeting. The majority may not violate the Town Charter and must be held to account. That is what the opinion piece is about. Not a new Morgan. Debating the school is a distraction from these critical process issues. The question is not who moderates, but their performance as a moderator and NOT a participant. A bright light is being cast squarely on the bully who asks: "So, what are you going to do about it." This must not stand!
Jay December 29, 2012 at 04:19 PM
When dealing with construction numbers it is always best to round them off - a majority of bids come in higher that the construction estimates and the fact that it barely passed means that 49.xxxx% whatever of clinton voters do not agree with you - these are the kind of numbers that lead to revolutions. Add in all the rest of the taxes that are being increased and "cliffs" and a revote - as properly petitioned for and illegally denied, would probably see the entire project denied by the voters. Of course, that would mean you and the others supporters of waste would petition for another vote - which you would have done if the orignial vote had been denied - sorry, I am wrong. The building committee would have simply chopped off a few dollars and resubmitted it ad infinitum until the no voters got fed up and stopped voting.
Phil Sengle January 03, 2013 at 06:05 PM
I like the back and forth, but I agree with Mr. Carr that this is distracting from the point of my article and the documentation I provided. From my analysis, any reasonable person would conclude that Mr. Fritz has no business being Moderator. He could be if he behaved as a neutral, but I think he is incapble of being neutral, therefore he should not moderate. Further I don't expect a First Selectman to be neutral. That's why before Mr. Fritz First Selctman seldom moderated a meeting.
Jay Primack January 04, 2013 at 11:44 PM
Fascinating discussion. Perhaps others have served in some capacity for other cities or towns. I was involved in the Town of Longmeadow, MA as chair of the appropriations (finance) committee for several years. Spending money on big-ticket projects brings out the best in the voters and Longmeadow was not immune from such controversies. A town meeting could result in 500 people or more showing up in the gymansium of the town high school. In Longmeadow (about the same population as Clinton), a moderator was appointed by the Selectman, and he did a fabulous job. He never, ever took a position on an issue (although I am sure he was chomping at the bit to do so). He viewed his job as allowing the townspeople to fully vet and issue, and he did so with courtesy and decorum. He attempted to run an efficient meeting by requesting those who spoke to try to restrict their comments to the matter at hand, and to try not to be duplicative. If he himself felt clarification of a factual item was necessary, he never opined on the facts; instead he called on town counsel, a town employee or committee member to provide such factual information. He made every voter proud regardless of their disposition relative to an issue, because he conveyed only fairness. In my opinion, even the "appearance" of partisanship on the part of the moderator would taint the fairness of the discussion, and I am very surprised to hear how Clinton treats this position.
DisgruntledInClinton January 04, 2013 at 11:55 PM
Phil, my husband and I would support you as moderator.
Jay January 05, 2013 at 12:50 AM
To do the job right a moderator would not even live in town so as to begin the process of distance. Exactly like a judge in court - any taint is grounds for reversal or at least a law suit. Next there needs to be a formal process of establishing the rules for a town meeting which is literally the "legislature " of the town. Do not tell us Roberts rules apply - apparently no legislature in the world use it and neither can you for good reason. (robert's is a very profitable family owned sinecure and great for garden clubs and really up tight people. . The Legislative bible is actually Mason - look it up - it is altered to fit local state laws and conditions. Next you have to vote in whatever rules and proceddures you want = till then you literally have no rules - unless the town meeting that did adopt some sort of legitimate proceddure tha did has been long forgotten or carefully ignored. And please stop the attitude that just before someone volunteers to be moderator they know what they are doing - for the most part they have no clue. For instance quess what the golden rule is?
Art Kuever January 05, 2013 at 12:54 AM
I am sorry but no one that posts here should be considered for the position of moderator.
Jim Braun January 05, 2013 at 04:22 AM
Maybe we should ask an impartial resident of an adjacent town...i.e. Westbrook...I think we can find someone such as you that has no horse in the race.
Phil Sengle January 05, 2013 at 03:51 PM
Jay Primack: Well thought out and useful comment, not that some of the others aren't. Thank you for an "outside" and reasoned perspective. Art: I'm good with that, but I would expand the list of non-eligibles as you know. My list of potential moderators would include Ray Rigat (former probate Judge), Anselmo Delia, attorney and Ed Miller, former Selectman and procedure expert. There are several others who would be fair and non-controversial. Willie stated at recent BOS meeting when asked to "clean up" town meeting procedures that former First Selectman Jim McCusker always Moderated meetings, as if to suggest, there is no problem. Of the six town meeting minutes I have seen during McCusker's tenure, it turns out this is not true. Among the moderators were Daniel Vece, Joe Schettino and Ray Rigat.
Jay January 05, 2013 at 03:52 PM
I agree with Mr. Kuever. None of us should be a moderator because we all have stong views that would affect our performance and, by my own rules, I would therefore not be able to participate in the debate or vote - and that is the reason I want to be there - not to play traffic cop. Ideally we should establish a regional volunteer force of moderators - even include a small payment . They would demonstrate no financial or political involment, have training and practice and be selected, prior to each town meeting, by pulling a name out of a hat. The strictures applying to "Ceasear's wife would apply. Please do not look to lawyers for any quidance in this area. Law schools do not teach honesty and evenhandeness for the courtroom or survival in the legal system and too many involve themselves in politics to gain notoriety for their professional services. A lawyer was overheard on this issue stating he " knew how to structure a town meeting to get what we want. "
Kirk Carr January 05, 2013 at 04:10 PM
To see Willie's denial that McCusker had others moderate Town Meetings go to: http://youtu.be/dhlDrcUbmWs To see the Town Meeting minutes go to: https://www.yousendit.com/dl?phi_action=app/orchestrateDownload&rurl=https%253A%252F%252Fwww.yousendit.com%252Ftransfer.php%253Faction%253Dbatch_download%2526send_id%253D1874548884%2526email%253D5bf73431af3ccdf2dafb2f3d7cf84515 The Board of Selectmen should adopt the following policy and procedures for the conduct of Town Meetings: 1) All electors and taxpayers shall be validated at the door by the registrars of voters or their deputies. 2) Numbered paper ballots shall be prepared in advance for each announced resolution and distributed with an identifying badge or color-coded card for hand votes to validated participants. 3) Selectmen and the First Selectman shall be ineligible to serve as the moderator. 4) The current version of Roberts Rules shall be enforced by a qualified parliamentarian.
Art Kuever January 05, 2013 at 05:17 PM
I believe we are now begining a meaningful conversation with good ideas, many of which should be be looked into so the meetings can be run smoothly. Maybe a max number should be made that would determine when a hand vote or paper ballot should be done, i.e., if the number in attendance is greater than 50, then mandatory paper ballot needs to be done. I also agree that everyone should be validated at the door, I expected that and brought my license for verification. These are basic, do I dare say, common sense ideas that would have removed the doubt of many. It will be hard to find someone to moderate that does not have a vested interest in the times that a moderator is needed within the town. I am sure that there are people that post here that could put aside their opinions and interests and do the job correctly(maybe with a roll of an eye here or there) but I believe it could be done. The detail would be in the rules: keep on topic, time limits, if someone keeps bringing up same issue over and over again they can be stopped, absolute time when the vote would take place so delay would not happen etc. It just so happens that this issue is big and the divide is big, most issues will not have this complexity or interest so moderation will not happen much.
Phil Sengle January 05, 2013 at 07:02 PM
Art: Agree with you pretty completely. And as you say most meetings will deal with less contentious issues which makes it easier. Yes, small crowds can be done with hand vote. On the Moderator, it's better if they are neutral, but it is not completely necessary. As long as the person is not outspoken on one side or the other so that their views are not widely known. The main point is they act neutral, do not betray their point of view by providing opinion or advocate for a position. Your plan is good to go.


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