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Town Meeting Through a Lens

On Monday, I took on a new role as President of Amherst Media: Cameraman. When the students leave, Amherst Media is bereft of most of their interns and it's a struggle to find people to record town events — like Town Meeting. At the board meeting, I volunteered to help out and on Monday was called on to run one of the cameras at Town Meeting.

I've never served in Town Meeting, although I've run a couple of times. But I've certainly heard a lot about Town Meeting over the years. And I've seen snippets on TV from Amherst Media coverage, but never watched a whole meeting from "gavel to gavel". It was sobering.

To cover Town Meeting they set up three cameras — plus collect a video feed from the data projector. One camera is fixed on the moderator and one is placed on the stage and records Town Meeting members when they speak. I was manning Camera One, that is at the back of the room and records the Town Officials and Board Members who sit at the front of the room.

The first thing you really notice when you see Town Meeting for the first time is how old everyone is. As someone who spends most of their time at the University, its kind of a shock — like you've wandered accidentally into a geriatric or assisted-care facility.

The cameras they use for Town Meeting are pretty old too: they're professional, high-quality cameras, but old school: big, with a manual focus ring. They have to be positioned high, to record over the audience, and trying to reach my arms around both sides to pan, tilt, and focus, I rather felt like I was trying to dance with a coat rack. But I felt like I got the hang of it pretty quickly.

It's impressive the amount of work that goes into preparing the warrant — the list of motions that Town Meeting will be asked to approve. The professional staff in Public Works, the Police, the Fire Department, the Planning Department, put together a list of needs for the Town: new snow removal equipment, police cars, etc. For major purchases, the Joint Capital Planning Committee builds a schedule so that major capital purchases don't accidentally line up all on the same year. The Finance Committee figures out how to balance revenues with expenditures. The Select Board oversees the process to make sure the Town Committees are staffed and that everyone has had a chance for input. And then it goes to Town Meeting.

The cameras all feed into a device where the Director can watch the incoming video feeds and choose one for the live broadcast. He communicates with the camera operators using a headset and provides terse directions regarding how to frame the shots and to let you know when the focus is soft. At the camera, you have only a tiny, low-res black-and-white viewfinder that is a couple of feet away (for a short person like me), so it's hard to tell that stuff. As a photographer, my inclination is to use a "rule of thirds" when composing shots, but I found that the viewfinder has a larger extent than what the feed actually provides, so I had to compensate to put stuff closer to the middle.

I've heard people complain about Town Meeting, but it wasn't until I actually sat through a whole meeting that I really understood why. It would be interesting to actually collect data, but I would propose that only about half of the statements from Town Meeting Members are actually on target for the item under discussion. Routinely, people would stand and ask questions that just showed they didn't understand basic aspects of Town Government or hadn't read the packet. One woman didn't know what the Joint Capital Planning Committee was and seemed surprised at the idea that she should know. I was bemused that she thought it was appropriate to waste the time of 200 people brandishing her ignorance like a buckler. Or the guy who wanted to ask about painting lines on roads when the part of the budget that funds the bus service was under discussion. But ignorance and failing to bother to prepare was just one way people would waste time.

A vast number of Town Meeting members have a favorite hobby horse they want to get out and trot around in front of everyone. It doesn't matter what the topic is under discussion: they'll stand up to tell you about their hobby horse even though it's irrelevant to the motion. Or only very tangentially related. Nothing is too tangential for them to start railing about their favorite cause.

And then there are the ineducable people: people who don't seem to have any actual agenda, but are really just excited by the possibility of making 200 people pay attention to them. Who knew that three minutes could seem so long.

As I say, it would be interesting to collect data: to get people to do rankings of how relevant Town Meeting Member statements are to the topic under discussion: I'm almost tempted to make up a rating sheet and distribute them at Town Meeting. But I suspect people would take offense.

In the end, I was pleased to volunteer to help record a meeting for Amherst Media. With the incredible number of recent events: Library planning, Town Manager search, and Charter Commission, we're really stretched thin. And it was very interesting to actually see Town Meeting for myself.

Speaking of the Charter Commission, they're having a public hearing on Thursday May 12 at 7pm in the Middle School Auditorium to consider proposing revisions to our form of government. Hmm. I guess I know where I'm going to be.