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Town moderator admits to making errors in Surrenden Farm debate

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The controversial parliamentary maneuvers that prevented a full discussion of the Surrenden Farms proposal are worthy of analysis.

Bonnie Biocchi had graciously agreed to serve as a substitute moderator under Article 1 of a Groton special town meeting on April 24, 2006. Bonnie and I had met earlier in the day in an effort to anticipate the various subsidiary motions that might arise and the affect on the main motion under Article 1.

We reviewed a moderator’s response to motions to amend; postpone to a time certain; postpone indefinitely; limit debate; table; commit or refer to committee; and the motion that caused the most controversy — a motion to move the previous question. The previous question in this case was the main motion made under Article 1.

In reviewing the implications of a motion to move the previous question, I advised Bonnie of a moderator’s standard responses. A motion to move the question is a subsidiary parliamentary motion/maneuver that suppresses debate. Because it suppresses debate it requires a two-thirds vote. I pointed out to Bonnie that a special rule adopted in the year 2000 allowed the Groton moderator to call for a two-thirds vote on a voice vote. If the motion passes, the moderator and the meeting must then move directly to a vote on the previous question — again, in this case, the main motion under Article 1.

As I reflect on my meeting with Bonnie, I should have advised her on two additional points. I should have informed her of a standard statement that I make following a declaration of a two-thirds voice vote. After I call the vote I pose the following question to the voters: “Are there seven voters who wish to contest the ruling of the chair?” If seven voters rise, the moderator is then required to call for the tellers and a hand count of the yeas and nays.

The second point was failing to anticipate a premature and untimely motion by Mr. Miller to move the question. I failed to inform Bonnie that a moderator has a right to deny a motion to move the question. Traditionally in Groton, a motion to move the question is allowed by the moderator following sufficient debate. In the case of Article 1, eight speakers had presented the case for the proponents over a period of 45-50 minutes. In fairness we typically grant equal time to opposing speakers. A single speaker had spoken for the opponents for four minutes, and a second formal opponent who had requested time was walking to the microphone to address the meeting. Another six voters had prepared opposition statements but had elected to deliver their comments when the debate was opened to the floor. Neither Bonnie nor I anticipated a premature motion to move the question and I have apologized to Bonnie for failing to brief her on all eventualities.

It seemed clear to this writer that the meeting would have gone on to vote the purchase of Surrenden Farms even if the voters had listened to the arguments of the opposition. That is not the point. The point is that we not only denied to the opposition the right to speak, but we denied to the proponents on the floor the right to reaffirm their support of the proposal.

The appreciation of the townspeople should be extended to Bonnie Biocchi for having served under conditions that would have tested the most experienced of moderators.

ROBERT L. GOSSELIN

Town moderator