Douglas to end three decades as town moderator

MIDDLEBURY — For 32 consecutive Januaries, James Douglas has visited Middlebury’s municipal offices to pick up a petition to run for the position of town moderator.
The former state representative, secretary of state, state treasurer and governor made that annual pilgrimage again on Monday, though for a different reason. Douglas informed Town Clerk Ann Webster he won’t be running for re-election.
At the same time he became the first person to sign the petition of his preferred successor: Former Middlebury Selectwoman Susan Shashok.
So for the first time since the Reagan administration, someone other than James Douglas will preside over Middlebury’s annual town meeting come March of 2020. And this year’s gathering on Monday, March 4, will be the last time the Middlebury Republican will wield the moderator’s gavel.
Douglas, now an executive in residence at Middlebury College, said he believed it was time to give someone else a chance to serve.
“I don’t think people should do things forever,” the 67-year-old said, shortly after the ink had dried on Shashok’s petition.
“In a large town like Middlebury, there are people with a lot of talent and experience who can fulfill the various roles of town government. I think others ought to have a chance.”
Douglas got his chance in 1986. Then-moderator, the late Chet Ketcham — a former Addison County state senator and probate court judge — announced he was moving to Leicester.
It provided a perfect opportunity for then-Vermont Secretary of State Douglas to seek the post.
“A responsibility of the (secretary of state) is to offer advice to municipal officials on the conduct of governmental affairs locally, and I thought, ‘Here I am dispensing all this counsel, and I haven’t been in the saddle myself.’”
He approached Ketcham, who was pleased to endorse Douglas as his heir apparent.
“I was honored to succeed him in ’86, and have been at it ever since,” he said.
It’s unusual for there to be a contested race for town moderator, and Douglas has never been challenged. He’s happy to have led meetings in relative anonymity — an atmosphere that changed when he was elected governor in 2002. The headline of “Governor Moderates his Town’s Annual Meeting” was too tempting for many news outlets, who turned out in droves to see Douglas perform his civic duty.
“That first town meeting in 2003, there were TV cameras everywhere and I thought, ‘This is going to be a spectacle,’” Douglas recalled.
He considered ending his run as moderator then in order to preserve the future decorum of the annual meeting. He later reconsidered, though, because the media attention abated during ensuing years.
“Other than the presence of a trooper at the back of the auditorium, it was pretty uneventful,” he said of the town meeting atmosphere during the balance of his time as governor.
Douglas’s desire to relinquish the moderator’s post has been building for a few years, he confessed. He shared that sentiment with several municipal officials, including Town Manager Kathleen Ramsay, Town Clerk Ann Webster and selectboard Chairman Brian Carpenter.
“Ann (Webster) said, ‘You’re not allowed to leave until you find a worthy successor,” Douglas recalled with a smile. “I might have been willing to step aside over the last couple of years, but I respected Ann’s objection.”
Finding an eager successor wasn’t easy.
Kind of like being a guitar novice trying to follow Stevie Ray Vaughan on stage.
But Douglas believes he’s found that successor in Shashok, who quickly warmed to the idea of serving her community in a new role.
“(Douglas) broached it before last year’s town meeting,” she recalled. “I thought about it, and wanted to make sure he knew I was interested.”
He knew Shashok could do a good job, and agreed to support her.
She knows she has big shoes to fill
“The town is gathering to conduct business and when that face changes, that’s a big transition,” Shashok said.
Middlebury town meeting has come off so smoothly through the years that Douglas has few anecdotes to relate about colorful or outrageous incidents.
He only had to shut off the public address system once to mute a speaker who had lapsed the 10-minute time limit and had refused to quiet down.
Douglas has rarely been criticized for his stewardship of the annual meeting. But he recalled a debate at the 2014 gathering during which a voter accused him of yielding the floor to more proponents, than opponents, of a controversial plan to build new municipal offices at 77 Main St. and a new recreation facility on Creek Road. The proposal, which passed, also called for razing the old municipal building and gym where Douglas moderated so many town meetings.
The former governor believed he had been successful in giving the floor to opponents and proponents on an alternating basis.
Few town meeting articles during Douglas’s tenure have gone to a paper ballot count. And he’s made an effort to allow speakers to say their piece without being heavy-handed in shutting them down. He often waits for someone else in the crowd to make an appeal for a new speaker or to “call” the question at hand.
He feels privileged to have been a part of the Democratic process at both the grassroots and statewide levels.
“I appreciate the tradition in our state of self-government,” said Douglas, who has often invited officials from other states to witness town meeting in action.
Douglas noted that during its nascent years, Vermont was governed at the municipal level and not by the state. It was only later that town leaders got together and created a state government, he said.
He’s concerned about the future of town meeting, noting dwindling attendance. People can view the proceedings live at home via Middlebury Community Television. And some communities now vote all of their town’s financial requests at the polls by Australian ballot, thus relegating the annual to an informational meeting.
“Town meeting has changed,” he said. “I don’t think (Australian ballot voting) is bad; it’s different. Participation isn’t as great as I’d like to see.”
Shashok, who left the selectboard last year, was clearly moved on Monday by Douglas’s support. She promised to prove herself a worthy successor to a man who earned a reputation for deftly leading town meetings with a cool demeanor, his trademark wry sense of humor, and expert knowledge of Robert’s Rules of Order.
“I’ve always admired Jim,” Shashok said. “I’ve watched him and the way he works. I really appreciate the way he runs a meeting. It’s full of humor. He knows everyone’s name, and what’s going on. He pauses when people need it and helps them when they need it.”
Shashok has already received training as a town moderator — albeit by accident. She had just been appointed to the selectboard in 2012, and mistakenly signed up for Vermont League of Cities and Towns training in the protocols of town meeting, instead of receiving instruction on what to expect on the selectboard.
“My training was all about ‘moderating,’ but I did it and thought I’d sign up for my selectboard instructions later,” she said with a chuckle.
She did, but always had an affinity for helming a public meeting, something she was occasionally called upon to do while vice chair of the selectboard.
But unlike her days on Middlebury’s chief governing board, Shashok realizes she won’t be able to weigh in on the subject matter she would be moderating at the town meeting podium.
“What will be the most difficult part — and the easiest part about it — is that I won’t be voicing an opinion,” Shashok said. “The trouble with a selectboard meeting is how to run it, how to be firm but fair, and also realize you have to vote, too. If I don’t have that as a factor, I would imagine it would make it a lot easier. You’re just concentrating on doing business and what the rules are. But to not put my own opinion in there will be a challenge for me.”
“My style has always been ‘firm, but fair,’” she said. “I really believe in the process that ‘it’s not about me, it’s about everyone else in the room and what the town wants.”
Douglas offered his successor some heartfelt advice.
“It’s the ‘people’s meeting,’” Douglas said. “The moderator is a traffic cop, and interestingly, the moderator is one job that doesn’t require an oath of office, because he or she has no power. So it’s important to remember under our system of direct democracy, people rule, and the role of the moderator is to facilitate their will.”
Webster said she’ll miss Douglas’s leadership style, attention to detail, and sense of humor.
She also credited him with being a great editor of the town meeting minutes.
“I’ve enjoyed working with him a lot,” Webster said. “He is so detailed, and picks up on so many things.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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