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AYER – On Oct. 5 Ayer selectmen worked to finalize the Oct. 25 Fall Town Meeting warrant. In an Oct. 4 e-mail to selectmen Gary Luca, Jim Fay and Frank Maxant, Selectman Carolyn McCreary floated a proposal to her peers in hopes of sparking a greater sense of civility at Town Meeting.

“I was approached by an Ayer resident who is reluctant to speak or even come to Town Meeting because of the lack of respect citizens show to each other,” McCreary said. “Perhaps a member of the clergy or the chair or the moderator could read something like the following at the beginning of town meeting.”

McCreary provided this draft credo for consideration to be read aloud at Town Meetings:

To Honor the democratic process, we the participants agree

To be open, honest, attentive, and kind to all;

To honor our diverse viewpoints;

To listen with an open mind;

To speak respectfully of those present and not present;

To deal directly with others to resolve conflict;

To look for the good intentions of others;

To be patient and gracious;

To seek common ground;

To show appreciation.

McCreary didn’t raise the matter for debate due to the late hour of the Oct. 5 meeting. Even if too late for Fall Town Meeting, McCreary said “it’s definitely something to think about” for future meetings in general.

McCreary said because the concern was raised by a fellow parishioner of the First Church Unitarian in Littleton, she borrowed from the church’s “Covenant of Right Relations” stated in the Church’s “Path to Membership.”

“This is not the first person who’s mentioned to me that they don’t like Town Meeting. They won’t go because of the contentious atmosphere,” said McCreary. It’s an opinion McCreary said she shares “to a lesser extent.”

Asked what Town Meeting debate sparked the issue, McCreary said: “I can’t cite the exact incident but I just know that I have had constituents who have come to me after the Town Meeting saying that they felt put down, criticized and wouldn’t speak again. That’s not the type of Town Meeting we want. We want everyone to be heard.”

“I think that it’s important to put the goal out there. Put the agreement out there. And then we can say we all agreed not to ‘talk about people personally. And that we can disagree with their ideas but not attack their character. And then in the middle of the discussion, if that happens, the moderator can say ‘OK we agreed not to attack a person’s character.’ There’d be some opportunity to say ‘Yea there’s a line and you’ve crossed the line,” McCreary said.

McCreary hopes the selectmen will unite to present the idea to Town Moderator Dan Swanfedlt.

At least initially and without the benefit of a face- to-face talk on the matter, the three selectmen McCreary contacted are opposed to the concept.

FAY: “I just don’t think it’s necessary”

On Monday, Oct. 4, Ayer Selectman Jim Fay e-mailed his peers in response, “We have the process already – it is called Robert’s Rules of Order 1915 edition.” The most recent 10th edition of the book was published in 2000. Still, throughout its many editions, the book is considered to the preeminent procedural rule book in use in the United States.

“I simply put Roberts Rules out there because that’s what we go by. We don’t need anything more on credo or statement beyond Roberts Rules. I just don’t think it’s necessary,” said Fay. The book provides a “fair, open and even playing ground,” Fay said.

Fay tipped his hat to the late Chuck Horgan, who served as Ayer’s Town Moderator for 27 years before his passing in March. Horgan was succeeded by Dan Swanfeldt who didn’t immediately return a request for comment.

Fay said participants should keep tone and tenor in check of their own accord, “The manner in which we conduct business is a reflection of who we are. In this PC (politically correct) world we live in, it’s more and more so every day. But if you put too many rules and restrictions on things, you’re putting a gag order on a citizen and that’s not something I’d be in favor of.”

Ayer Selectman Frank Maxant responded by e-mail on Oct. 6, teasing about Fay’s reliance on the 1915 Robert’s Rules of Order. “If I said that, Jim, they’d say I’m living in the past.” Maxant favors leaving Ayer Town Meeting as is.

“Well I’ve always tried to get people interested in Town Meeting. I tell them it’s the best ticket in town — lively entertainment with blood flowing in the aisles as we debate,” said Maxant, tongue in cheek. Maxant said passionate debate is a “hallmark” of Town Meetings.

“To put some phony veneer of civility on top of that is counterproductive,” Maxant said. Maxant said he’d favor the return of an opening prayer at Town Meeting. “That would be fine as far as I’m concerned. Prayer before anything is a good thing.” Maxant recalled the prayer’s purpose used to be to ask for “guidance in understanding each other. Maybe that amounts to the same thing.”

An Ayer native, Maxant began attending Ayer Town Meeting with his parents when he was school aged. He said he’s never seen violent behavior. “Not by my standards. Have people shouted their positions? Yes, and the moderator gives reminders to speak through him. Shouting is only passion about what they’re saying. And to me that’s all to the good.”

“I would hope that people would act in a civil manner and I’m not opposed to people having passionate opinions on whatever matter may come up,” said Ayer Selectman Gary Luca. “I think following Roberts Rules is enough. It’s up to the moderator to control things. I don’t believe it’s in our purview.”

Luca says over his last decade living in town he’s not seen any fights at Town Meeting that should give people pause.

“Some people are more passionate about an issue than others and I’ve never seen anybody verbally attack anyone at a meeting so I don’t know where it’s coming from,” Luca said of the civility credo.

“My feeling is, I don’t know how I’m going to put this, liberal Democrats may feel that not agreeing with an issue becomes a conflict automatically. They’re missing the point,” said Luca. “This country was built on participation and disagreements and agreements. Everybody has a right to have their opinions, whatever it may be.”

“I think Carolyn’s intent is to have a meeting where everybody gets along. The perception is if I’m not in agreement on the issue, then I’m being an obstructionist. I’ve never seen a meeting where anyone’s really yelling in everyone’s’ faces or getting obstinate or casting aspersions in a personal way. I’ve never seen that happen,” said Luca. “There needs to be a debate. The perception sometimes is that there shouldn’t even be a debate or ‘let’s just agree to something and go along with it.”

“A lot of people don’t attend Town Meeting because they think the Board of Selectmen are doing a good job,” Luca said. “They feel that we don’t have to go. They’re doing a good job. But I’m certainly bothered by the fact that there isn’t as much participation as there should be.”

Though there are some 4,700 registered voters in Ayer, Luca said a couple hundred hard core Town Meeting veterans turn out regularly. Luca said the low turnout is bad because votes could be easily swayed.

“If you want to stack an issue, it’s so easy to stack the issue to get a ‘consensus’ that isn’t good for the whole town. You get 2-percent of the people making the decision for the rest of the town. It’s pretty stupid. I don’t know how to turn that around, Luca said.”

McCreary said she didn’t intend for the selectmen to answer her Oct. 4 e-mail. But they did, she confirmed.

As to whether or not the selectmen were deliberating outside of a public meeting, McCreary said “I was sending it out to my fellow selectmen to give them a heads up. In stating their opinion, it’s a violation of the Open Meeting Law. I wouldn’t have sent it out if this was going to happen with it.”

Chairman Rick Gilles was not included in the original e-mail from McCreary and hasn’t responded to a request for comment.

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