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Memories of Maine where everybody knows Robert and his rules

By Kathleen Moore
Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Last night, for the first time in 12 years, I thought I was back in Maine.

The Schenectady City Council meeting came closer to Maine town meetings than any other meeting I’ve ever covered in New York.

Usually City Council meetings are practically a scripted play in comparison to the chaotic meetings I covered as a college reporter working freelance in the wilds of Maine.

In New England town meetings, people have debates from the floor and come armed with Robert’s Rules of Order.

When I first covered New York meetings, I must admit I was a bit disappointed — it seemed as though the constituents had no heart. They listened patiently, applauded on cue and rarely suggested alternate solutions. Sometimes they were insulting, sometimes they were passionate, but mainly they sat down when they were told and walked out calmly when things didn’t go their way.

This is not how things go in Maine.

At the annual town meetings there, anything can happen. I once watched a group rip apart the proposed budget (literally, throwing pages out into the crowd) and rewrite it on a chalkboard. Yes, a chalkboard. It was passed by acclaim and the poor bookkeeper was left to frantically copy down the notes. The prior budget has been at least 20 pages long, so the writing on the chalkboard was very, very small.

At another town meeting, residents proposed a new law: dogs must be leashed. It was debated for six hours. A blizzard blew in (I wish I was making this up) and all our cars were covered with five feet of snow. After deciding that dogs do not have to be leashed, the residents went on to tackle the budget. By this time it was midnight. On a Tuesday. I eventually gave up and dug out my car. Judging by the snow, not one other person had left.

At every meeting, the issues were different, but there was a central theme: Roberts Rules of Order. Standing on chairs to make themselves heard, they shouted relevant passages to block each other’s ideas or force theirs through to a vote. They interrupted each other by yelling, “Point of order!” and then arguing over whether the Rules were being followed correctly.

Anyone trying to make an unpopular speech could be interrupted by “Point of question!” and then questioned mercilessly.

So last night, I had to smile when a man stood up during the City Council meeting and told the council it had not held a proper vote.

Elmer Bertsch demanded the council vote on whether to go into executive session, rather than just leaving. He was quite right, and the city attorney agreed, and the council began to vote.

And then another man stood up, and shouted that they couldn’t vote on going into executive session yet.

A motion had been made and seconded on a different issue, and Robert’s Rules of Orders say that once that has happened, a decision must be made on that motion before any other topic is brought up.

Council members looked at each other. But I had to smile, because this was a popular topic in Maine. A child there knows that once you get a second, nobody can change the subject.

The city attorney knew too, so the motion was amended to involve an executive session, a vote was held, and the council trooped off.

That’s the one thing Maine didn’t do — secret meetings. I can’t imagine what an angry mob of Mainers would’ve done if their leaders had caucused in secret to strategize on how to respond to their demands.

But, sadly, the response from most of the people at the council meeting was to simply pack up and leave.

Reach Gazette reporter Kathleen Moore at moore@dailygazette.com

 
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