My friend Tom Murphy, who has served ably as Ipswich Town Moderator for a number of years, is in deep trouble. And everybody’s talking about it. Since our recent Town Meeting, the number of letters to the editor about Tom Murphy has approached Guinness Book levels.
You’ve probably heard the lurid details by now. Like so many colossal tragedies, it began small and simple: Tom Murphy imposed a new Town Meeting rule, Selectperson Linda Alexson didn’t like it, and — kaboom.
It all came down to the question of who talks where when. And why. Or why not.
I’ll sketch it out for you: There was an official microphone for government officials to express the recommendations of boards and committees on various articles, and then there were “for” and “against” microphones for citizens to use if they wanted to offer their perspectives.
But if a government official was a minority of one on a board or committee — the only member voting in opposition to the rest of the body — they had to use the commoners’ mic to share their view. Linda Alexson’s verdict: “Disrespectful.”
Moderator Tom assures us that this is a rule that other towns use. I actually didn’t quite follow the logic of the new rule. I guess it was something about the symbolism?
Symbolism is a tricky thing. People sort of make it up as they go. This Town Meeting may have been slathered in symbolism without our even realizing it. With the meeting moved from the Dolan PAC to the gym, there was no full-size flag to say the Pledge of Allegiance to; only a miniature version mounted on a wall. Secret symbolism?
And consider this: The high school jazz band, a longtime pre-Meeting fixture in the Dolan PAC days, was absent this time — even after their recent gold medal in the Northeastern District Regionals. Was their banishment an implied call for a “no” vote on the school override question, since the override would fund arts in the schools? (Thank heaven this diabolical maneuver didn’t work. The override passed — so we can hope the jazz band will rise again from the Town Meeting secret-symbolism ash heap.)
Citizens, beware. Let this microphone brouhaha be a cautionary tale. The Moderator is, under the law, quite autonomous. Moderators rule Town Meeting as their almost-exclusive domain.
Yes, there’s a built-in weakness: The Moderator’s term is only one year, so in theory we can vote the devil out annually, and vote a new savior in. But meanwhile, there’s the risk of tyranny, fascism, socialism, anarchy, favoritism, nepotism, and even more despotic symbolism than we’ve already been subjected to. An unprincipled Town Moderator could force us to say the Pledge with no flag at all. I hate to think what happens if citizens of the historic Town of Ipswich are required to say the Pledge of Allegiance to an imaginary Old Glory. Betsy Ross will turn over in her grave.
(Which would be really ironic — maybe even symbolic — since Betsy’s body was first buried in a Quaker cemetery in Philadelphia, then moved after 20 years — for the sake of symbolism — to drive business to a fancier cemetery in town. Some eight decades later, preparing for the 1976 American Bicentennial, city leaders ordered her remains moved to a hotter tourist attraction, the Betsy Ross House, even though historians say she never lived there — but the gravediggers found no human remains under her tombstone. They had to find bones elsewhere in the family plot so they’d have something to put in the grave at the “historical” site.)
The best solution, I think, is to have only one Town Meeting microphone: the Moderator’s mic. Everyone who wants to speak — majority, minority, government official, private citizen, everybody — lines up for the opportunity and goes toe-to-toe with the Moderator, right there up front. True democracy, pure symbolism: one vote, one voice, one mic — and if we must have a rasslin’ match for control of the audio, so be it.
May the best reverse half-Nelson leglock win.
Doug Brendel lives safely on outer Linebrook Road, far from any Town Meeting fracas. Follow his mild-mannered exploits at DougBrendel.com.