Gordon McCouch
72 Alcott Road

Interviewed May 12, 1995

Age 75

Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer.

Gordon McCouchYour participation in town government has brought you close to the issues that this town has experienced and is a part of our knowledge of the era. You also by now have enough years of experience that you have general observations about this very special form of direct democracy including our town meeting.

All of those things are true and yet I was not born in Concord, and so I had to learn a great deal by osmosis. I was born in London, England. I grew up outside of Philadelphia, and my first visit to Concord was about 1927 because my father was at Middlesex School from 1901 to 1907 and he returned for a reunion. During the second World War, I worked at the radio research laboratory of Harvard University with several General Radio people, and that was the reason that I ended up coming to Concord. Among those were Donald Sinclair who was at the time that I came here a member of the Concord School Committee. Also Norris Tuttle who lived on Lowell Road in a house which is the twin of the one that we live in, and Bob Souterman who lived almost across the street on Alcott Road. So we felt very much at home when we moved to Concord.

From the first I was impressed by the character of the town government and the town meeting process. It was very different from our experience in New Jersey where we had been living. There I had previously served on the board of the town library and also on the school board. When I came here I started asking questions at the various hearings and that later led to appointment to the Adult Education Advisory Committee and eventually to the Finance Committee. I also served on a school regional study committee sometime around 1962 and on the Sanborn Parent Teacher Group in the era about 1964 to 1966.

Part of the vitality of Concord is due to the diversity of its population. Ranging from a few old-time farm families to highly intellectual authors and college professors, from small shopkeepers to high-tech entrepreneurs, from laborers to high powered corporate executives and from a range of ethnic and religious backgrounds. A goal of town government is to maintain and even enhance the attractiveness of the town to this very diverse constituency. The very attractiveness tends to increase property values and demands on public services with concomitant pressures on the less well-to-do which tend to reduce the very diversity which we treasure.

There have been a number of changes and trends which I have noticed over the years since we came here in 1957. For one thing women obtained equal representation on town boards and committees. That was a result of a very conscious decision on the part of the Board of Selectmen. At the same time the demands on women have increased as they have moved into the workplace, and it has been harder and harder to find women who were able to serve on town boards and committees. Secondly, term limits have become prevalent in all of the boards, committees and elected offices. As I look back on even the term of moderator, which in many towns is essentially a lifelong appointment, in Concord it has been on the order of eight or nine years.

There has been an increased dissatisfaction for the establishment. When we first came here endorsement by the Finance Committee and the Board of Selectmen was an automatic key to a positive action by the Town Meeting. I don't think that's true any more. And it's not true because the quality of the recommendations has declined, but a variety of factors, many of them totally external to Concord, has reduced the level of trust in elected officials and in town government, as well as in the national government and the state establishment. We've seen a polarization of conflicting interests. We have pressures for land acquisition and at the same time for subsidized housing. And unfortunately, although those two can be reconciled, it has been a very difficult meeting of the minds. There has been conflict between the need for money for schools and money for town infrastructure and town government. These have been exacerbated greatly by the passage of Proposition 2 1/2. One of the results of that passage has been that various fees have been established for many town services which used to be taken for granted as part of the tax base. Those are enterprise funds. We do not have sewer system here. We rely on a private septic system, and therefore, we do not have a garbage disposal, and so we had garbage collection which was furnished by the town for many, many years and that was one of the first to go. Now we have fees for almost everything. That a means of circumventing the restrictions of Proposition 2 1/2.

Proposition 2 1/2 is a proposition similar to California's Proposition 13 which limited the rate at which property taxes could be increased. Massachusetts towns rely very heavily on the real estate tax to finance schools in particular and all their operations in general. Most states have a much heavier reliance on more general taxes than the real estate tax. While there has been pressure to try to change that system, it is extraordinarily difficult to achieve. Proposition 2 1/2 was voted by the Commonwealth in 1980, and the first fiscal year in which it was effective was fiscal year 1981. That resulted in dramatic changes in the way in which school budgets and other budgets were formulated and we'll talk about that in a few minutes.

One of the things that is most striking to me, as I look back on town reports over the years, is the amount of planning that has gone on in the town of Concord. Planning has been an absolutely continuous process, not just by the Planning Board, but by a series of comprehensive town plans committees and their reports. While at the time some of those reports seemed to be very general and grandiose in character, as I look back on the actions at Town Meeting, it is surprising how many of the recommendations have indeed been implemented. And I think that that planning, both in very broad-brush terms and in rather specific financial terms by the Finance Committee and by the Town Managers that we have had has had a very major effect on the way in which the town has developed.

We have had changes in school population as a result of demographic changes in the birth rate which has resulted in periods when population was rising and then population declining, and it always very difficult to keep up with that curve. One of the interesting things has been that from time to time some of the older school buildings have become surplus and have been converted to other uses. We have seen as part of the development of the social fabric nationally, increased levels of unionization of both school and town employees. I won't dwell on that but it has certainly been a factor in the way in which people have interacted. We have seen special education become a major budget factor in the school system. Special education for children who have different kinds of learning disabilities has been virtually unlimited in the kind of demands that it has placed on the public.

We have seen a progressive suburbanization of the town of Concord. When we moved here there were still many farms and it was a relatively agricultural community, and now there are hardly any farmers left and it has become a suburb of the city of Boston, and that has had major effects on the character of the town services. We have had increasing expectations of local government at the same time that we have had a declining amount of funding available. Local government is now expected to deal with housing, with recreation, with special education, with bus transportation to private schools, and with handicap access as a few examples. The building that has been created and added to are a reflection of these town needs. And at the same time, we have been using up the open space of the town. The pressures on land use from this surburbanization have been intense.

I was appointed to the Finance Committee in 1968, and at that time Hope Chase was the Chairman of that board. She was an inspiring person -- incredibly dedicated, she was suffering from cancer which took her life very shortly after I became a member of that board. I vividly remember going to a meeting at her home where she was bedridden and conducting a meeting of the Finance Committee. I served on that board with a variety of wonderful people and I'll just mention a few -- George Kidder, Tom Piper, Jim Wright, Bob Shaw and Byron Woodman were among those on the board at that time. One of the fun things that happened was that we had article 30 in the Town Meeting in 1969 for a widening of Sudbury Road, and the town had presented a marvelous program which was to be largely funded by the state and it was going to create all sorts of improvements. Dorothea Harrison got up at the Town Meeting and spoke of all the awful things that would be lost as a result of that widening and the town resoundingly defeated the plan as proposed by the town fathers. To me that was an inspiring illustration of the power of democracy. It was also the time when the Heywood Meadow after having defeated the county's proposal for a county court house on it was officially transferred to the Natural Resources Commission to be held as open space forever.

In the fiscal year 1970, Jim Wright was chairman and he was a wonderful leader. He managed to bring diverse points of view to a harmonious outcome. One of people who became a member of the committee that year whose friendship I've cherished over the years was Steve Verrill and an arch-conservative Sumner Hopkins joined the committee that year. One of the important things that they did, speaking of planning, was form a capital outlay committee consisting of Terry Brown, Russ Clark, Gen Counihan who was chairman, Gordon Ogilvie and Joe Wisenbaum. We have had capital outlay planning over the years from time to time since, and it has waxed and waned in importance but it was recognized as a need back in that era.

More importantly to my way of thinking, the Finance Committee formally in its Finance Committee report urged land acquisition as a long term strategy to control growth, and it did that repeatedly over the years in the ‘70s. It pointed out that while costs of land were seemingly high that over the years development of land did not cover the costs of additional pupils in the school system and from a long term perspective control of school population by land acquisition would indeed control and keep the tax rate from exploding. I think that in recent years with Proposition 2 1/2 in strength, it has been very difficult for the town to adopt or maintain that long-term perspective.

Control of school costs was a major issue with the Finance Committee. I think that some people have thought that the Finance Committee was automatically against schools because of its continuing battle to control rising school costs. But as with the present escalation of medical costs, one saw as one looked objectively at the rate of increase of school costs even on a per pupil basis that they were very, very rapid. One of the interesting things that happened in 1969 was the acquisition from Harvard College of 125 acres of land off Strawberry Hill Road and College Road.

In fiscal year 1972 when I was chairman of the Finance Committee, Mary-Jac Hatch joined the committee and she has been a very, very close friend ever since. She is a very strong person who has contributed to the community in innumerable ways. At that point in time we were beginning to see several private organizations of a social service nature involved in mental health, drug rehabilitation and youth service seeking funding from the town. At the same time as with many excellent volunteer groups, their financial management and accountability left something to be desired, and the Finance Committee was very much concerned about the use of public funds when the accountability was less than optimal. One of the examples was Service to Youth and that was one where the accountability was particularly weak.

At the same time I should mention a few things about land acquisition. In 1971 the town voted $300,000 for the acquisition of Punkatasset Hill, and in addition it voted $75,000 to the Conservation Fund. Remember those are 1971 dollars. In fiscal year 1972 it voted $200,000 to the Conservation Fund. Those are years when it was a very, very strong commitment. In fiscal year 1973 we had an example of the difficulty of dealing with the state. The state passes all sorts of laws and mandates and generally, it is rather weak on funding of them. We have a good deal of state property in Concord, mostly in the correctional system, and as of fiscal year 1973, there was a $600,000 shortfall in state reimbursements according to the laws that the state should have provided these funds. Also that year we went through a transition from a calendar fiscal year for the town to the same fiscal year as the state and federal government, namely, June 30 ending the fiscal year. That created interesting financial planning implications but we survived. Then in fiscal year 1974 we faced the crisis of the fuel cost escalation and that too we survived.

I should have mentioned that over the years I served on the Finance Committee, Bert Newbury was town moderator. I admired his performance, his patience and his friendliness immensely. I think I owe a great deal to Bert, both for his personal friendship and for the way in which he conducted the town's business over those years.

In 1974 after I had finished my term on the Finance Committee, I was asked by the Selectmen to serve on the Library Committee and that was a fascinating experience. The library is a very vital part of the town's activities, perhaps even more so today than it was at that time. It has also had its problems with funding and that was the reason I was asked to serve on the committee. The library funding is a very complex matter. It's jointly by the town and by the library corporation, and the town librarian Rosemarie Mitten was an absolute expert in playing one against the other and getting the most out of the town for her constituency. I have to admire her for that but at the same time, I think it was very important for the town's administration to understand how that funding worked and to keep things under some kind of control. The Conservation Restriction Advisory Committee was formed about that time and I was asked to serve on that. This was before the days of serving on only one committee at a time, although that was imminent. Somewhat under the table I served on both of those committees simultaneously. I must say that I think conservation restrictions have served the town extremely well. We were at a very formative stage in trying to find ways of persuading landowners to enter into these restrictive agreements with the town or with the land trust at that time. There are significant tax advantages to people in certain brackets from granting these restrictions as well as extensive patriotic dedication to the town. I'm delighted to have had the opportunity to work in that area for a brief time.

Then in 1976 there was an opportunity to run for selectman. In fact as probably many people who hear these histories know, there is a long tradition on the part of the Board of Selectmen to be sure that at least one person runs for each person that is not running for reelection so that there will be at least a qualified candidate. Some people think that it is just a totally self-perpetuating system and very undemocratic. While I agree that as a practical matter, it produces a self-perpetuating board, I don't think it's undemocratic. Anyone is free to run. The problem is that it is often hard to get people to undertake these activities because they are very demanding from the point of time. Probably the School Committee is the most demanding in point of time, and then Selectmen and then Planning Board and then Finance Committee in about that order, all running neck-and-neck. People wonder what it takes. Well, I will say that I think just serving on the Board of Selectmen without the term that you are serving as chairman, you probably put in about 20 hours a week. In the year when you are chairman, somehow you have to almost double that, and I don't know how any of us did it, but we all had the feeling that the town was worth it and important and we put in the effort to make it work. At any rate, it was a fascinating campaign because that was the year when there was competition. One of the inmates of the Concord Reformatory, Carl Velleca decided to run on a platform that he would always be available and at the same time a young man, James Lee Meadows who was principally known as a popular musician decided to run. So we had quite a campaign. The running of the inmate from the Reformatory attracted absolutely national attention and all sorts of television coverage which was quite a novelty for someone who never had to face that kind of situation before. It was very interesting in that it did bring out a level of voter turnout which has not been seen before or since. It also brought out a challenge as to where inmates can vote in terms of their residence. That was a matter of great concern because it was not clear that the inmates had the right to vote at all, and so it was decided that their vote should be held segregated until those legal issues could be settled. As it turned out, there was no question about the outcome. The votes were held segregated, and eventually a year or two later, the courts decided that the inmates had the right to vote in the town of their legal residence and that the town of their legal residence was the town in which they had previously established residence unless they could make a bona fide case for the notion that they were going to become Concord residents permanently.

When I joined the Board of Selectmen, there were three people that became very, very important. I had worked with Paul Flynn our Town Manager over the years that I had served on the Finance Committee but the contact became much closer once I joined the Board of Selectmen. Paul was an extremely dedicated public servant. He has a gift of coming forward when there was a weak Board of Selectmen and taking the reins to make sure the town kept on track, and of retreating and letting the Board handle things when the Board had the strength, guts and determination to get on with things. At the time I joined the Board, it was a strong Board. Two other people were very, very important to me and to the town -- Anna Manion and Arthur Stevenson, both of whom influenced me greatly over the years. I vividly remember one of the first board meetings which I attended, some issue came up and we really didn't have all the facts at hand to settle the matter. There were those who thought we should defer it until we had more facts on which to base our decision. Anna Manion got up and said "There are always more facts that we need to make a good decision, but we have new issues coming up every week and we cannot afford to put things off or we will never get anything done, let's get on with it." I've remembered that advice ever since.

Arthur Stevenson's close legal reasoning has been one of the best teachers of town government over many years, and I am just delighted that he is now serving as town moderator. He is an even-handed and highly ethical person, and in fact I should say something about ethics in town government. I think in general our town government has been run on a very high ethical plain. I can only recall two instances over my years of service to the town when the ethics of an individual were in serious question. For the most part we have had people of impeccable standards certainly Paul Flynn was beyond possible reproach and I felt that way about Steve Sheiffer. Incidentally I see every reason to have equal confidence in our current Town Manager Chris Whelan. I cannot quite say the same, unfortunately, for the interim town manager who served for a few years, Alan Edmond.

At any rate the major thing that happened in 1976 was that there was a Route 2 environmental impact hearing at which the town recommended a no-build alternative. There were many reasons for that. Largely that the state took a very long-range view indeed about what should be done and proposed building on a scale which was just absolutely overwhelming. Well, we've survived for 20 years without building so perhaps that wasn't such a bad decision, but facing it now is certainly no easier than it would have been to have faced it them, and who knows what the right course of action would have been. Also we held a town meeting at Sentry Auditorium for the first time in 1976.

In 1977 the major thing that happened with personal impact was the Memorial Day ceremonies at which Mr. Anderson was seriously injured in the firing of the cannon. It created a series of legal consequences which illustrate the vulnerability of public servants to suit, and certainly that is a very serious problem even though the town has stood behind its elected officials in every way, but it has an emotional toll that is very, very serious.

In 1978 catastrophe - Paul Flynn decided to resign and that meant that we had to search for a new town manager. By this time I was chairman of the Board of Selectmen so it fell to me to organize the search. I must say that that search brought the Board of Selectmen closer together by having a common enterprise than any other board that I have ever served on. Every single member in his or her way worked diligently and hard to make that search work. I think it did work. Steve Sheiffer proved to be a superb Town Manager. We had a basic decision to make. We narrowed the field down to three finalists. One was an individual who would have been sort of a caretaker. He had served as town manager in other towns for many years, was very well calibrated. A second individual was obviously very capable and mature but probably not startlingly innovative. Then there was Steve Sheiffer, a young man full of vitality and promise but relatively untested. One could surmise that if he were named that in due course he would move on to greener pastures. But the Board decided that as a matter of policy it preferred to have the best possible man even though it might mean another search in a few years time. Perhaps term limits have some advantages because the Board realized that he probably would serve until after all of us who were choosing him were no longer faced with the problem of finding a successor. At any rate, it worked and it worked very well.

Also about this time an affirmative action policy was adopted by Town Meeting and accepted by the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination. That created interesting problems in filling town vacancies. While very well intentioned, it probably created more administration overhead than it did change. We were required to advertise very widely in the Boston area because we were part of the Boston metropolitan statistical area. Yet, as a practical matter, people who it might have attracted had we been closer to the inner city were totally uninterested in coming by public transportation to work in Concord. So in the practical matter it was very, very difficult to attract people who would not otherwise have served. We may have brought in a few and we certainly compiled all sorts of statistics on the breakdown of our employees.

In 1978 we had the great snowstorm. That created essentially a week long holiday for many people but immense amounts of work for the town employees who coped wonderfully with it. In that year the prisoners' voting rights issue which I mentioned before was actually settled in court. Also one of Concord's very wonderful citizens Bill Towler died. It was also a year of confrontation at the high school between black Metco students and white students - one of the more regrettable instances in our history of efforts to harmonize people of different ethnic backgrounds.

In 1979 we formally accepted an affirmative action plan, and also we had great floods in January of that year. Part of the town was cut off. I remember going up to Heath's Bridge and you could not cross because the roadway was flooded, and there were cars that had mistakenly tried to cross and were just waterlogged there.

In 1980 there were renovations to the Town House and now here we are doing it again in 1995. Proposition 2 1/2 was voted by the state. We had settlement of litigation with Boston Edison over electric rates. Boston Edison over the years has tried very hard to freeze out municipally owned competition and there have been a series of endless litigation and each time eventually the towns have won and Boston Edison has had to settle with millions of dollars of payments to the towns, but they are not encouraging competition. The school administration moved to the Emerson School and voted to close the Ripley School due to declining enrollment. In 1981 the school moved again from Emerson to Ripley. It seems to have had great difficulty in making up its mind as to how to deal with the need for administrative space. The Emerson School was returned to the town after having spent large amounts of money to supposedly renovate it. There were continuing traffic issues having to do with Route 2 and Route 62 and the Hanscom Area Traffic Study was formed. A county advisory board controlling the county budget was established for the first time. County budgets have been a dumping ground for patronage appointments and there was a serious effort to reform county government with some success. Again capital planning was initiated. This was under the aegis of Steve Sheiffer.

That was my last full year on the Board of Selectmen. They were very good years. I enjoyed that work tremendously. I enjoyed the challenges, and I enjoyed the friendships that I made. In addition to those people I already mentioned, I would like to mention Peg Purcell with whom I worked very closely and John Marabello who joined the board from a very different background of most of the other members but who contributed immensely through his knowledge of people in the town. John, through his landscaping business, worked for more people and talked with more people in the town than any other member of the Board of Selectmen with the possible exception of Anna Manion. So he contributed greatly and I think that contribution has not always been adequately recognized.

Two other people deserve mention in a very different context. Dan Monahan our Superintendent of Natural Resources has become a friend as well as a colleague in working for the conservation of open land and natural resources in the town. He is an incredibly dedicated public servant who has maintained a very low profile but has developed an incredible knowledge about all the nooks and crannies of the town and about people. When I was moderator, I found that when I wanted to make appointments, and I had to make appointments to the Finance Committee and in seeking out people who had the perspective of interest in land, Dan Monahan was greatly helpful to me. From quite a different perspective, one of the town characters who has been known to anyone who ever attended Town Meeting or any of the other hearings is Anna Thompson, a strong contributor in ways not always appreciated, sometimes antagonizing people in the process. I certainly had my share of sparring with her over the years, but I think that it is very useful in an open democratic system to have people who raise the issues and force people to confront them. Anna and I early on developed a slight bond as a result of my having been born in London. Once she discovered that she was much more friendly to me even when we were adversaries.

Over the years that I served as selectmen, the town moderator was Pat Moulton who had succeeded Bert Newbury in 1975. One of the things that happens when one serves on the Board of Selectmen is that one is intensely involved in the preparations for Town Meeting. One of the important things that happen in those days and I think may be happening again although there was a period when it was abandoned, was a meeting which the moderator held shortly before the opening of Town Meeting to which all people who were presenting motions were expected to be present. This was essentially a dress rehearsal to make sure that everybody knew what was going to happen in order to avoid surprises. One of the major lessons that I learned from those meetings and from past organization of them and preparation was that a key to the success of a moderator is to be well prepared and avoid surprises as far as possible. Having one's ear to the ground as to what is going on and who the names and the numbers of the players are is just absolutely essential to conducting a meeting successfully. Pat did that in fine style, as well as running a meeting in a very orderly and fair, above-board manner. We have been blessed with a series of moderators who did a wonderful job for the town, and that has engendered a lot of respect that people still have for town government, in spite of my comments that it has been eroding somewhat. I think it has been eroding not because of the local performance but because of national trends and attitudes. Pat certainly upheld that tradition.

One of the things that is a challenge to being a town moderator is that you have to keep your mouth shut. You cannot express an opinion even though you may hold very strong opinions on a matter that is up for discussion, and that was one of the prices that I had to pay. I had to keep my mouth shut which I have always found very difficult to do. I became moderator in 1984. After Pat had served for nine years, he felt it was time to move on, and he approached me as to whether I would be interested. In fact we had discussions about that some time before he decided to give up the position. Again at the end of my tenure as moderator, I had discussions with Arthur Stevenson some time before because I felt it was very important to have the best possible person at least as a candidate for that position. Arthur had experience as town counsel, the Planning Board, Board of Selectmen and that made him superbly qualified. There are really several training grounds. The Finance Committee and the Planning Board are both superb training ground for serving on the Board of Selectmen, and service on the Board of Selectmen while perhaps not mandatory for becoming moderator, is extremely valuable in understanding where everything is coming from.

In 1984 there were a number of things that came up that were of some interest and concern. For one thing Anna Thompson was suspended from the Housing Authority without prejudice but in the following year in 1985, she was in fact removed from the Housing Authority for having done some things which involved a conflict of interest. I think she was the only town official that was ever removed. We had a case of a member of the Planning Board who was requested to resign but not through a formal removal process, and indeed the problems of a formal removal process are very serious because it happens so rarely that it's not clear how you go about doing it. Arthur Stevenson presided over that formal process. I went to all those meetings and was very much impressed by the fairness with which he conducted them. A very difficult situation I must say. I think it is more than being recalled. I think it is a case of removal and I think that's a more serious situation.

Perhaps I also should mention in 1984, somebody whom I should have mentioned who I worked with very closely and developed a close friendship with over the years while working on the Board of Selectmen, Anita Tekle, who had been assistant town manager and who had been very helpful in the whole process of developing the affirmative action program. A wonderful, wonderful person.

In 1985 the town meeting faced a vote on the matter of prohibition of ever firing the cannon again and engendered a very, very heated discussion or deliberation. Members of the Concord Independent Battery were obviously in favor of preserving the possibility of firing the cannon again even though it was not an imminent possibility at that point. And some other people including Nancy Beecher on the Board of Selectmen and John Soleau a minister of the Episcopal Church were strongly opposed on pacifistic grounds to having any military symbolism that could be possibly be avoided. The immediate cause of an outburst at the Town Meeting was that after some other presentations, Judge John Eaton got up and started an ad hominem attack on Mrs. Beecher. As moderator I ruled that out of order and had to silence Judge Eaton, and I recall silencing him by referring to him as Mr. Eaton which he regarded as a great insult. I think over the years our respect for each other has continued and he mollified his resentment considerably, but we still josh at each other about our differences of attitude on that matter.

One of the interesting perks that comes to Selectmen and Moderator is to be invited to the Patriot's Day luncheon sponsored by the battery, and in those days, at the Musketaquid Club and I hope maybe again, although they've had some recent problems that have made it impossible to hold the meeting there this past year. In 1985 after this very trying session at the Town Meeting at the battery luncheon, Jim Powers who was a town poet, historian and real estate person who knew the town well, presented a poem, and I would like to read that poem into the record. He introduced the poem by saying "Although Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a poem after the Battle of the Bridge in 1775, there is absolutely no truth to the rumor he wrote this one following the Battle of the Sentry on April 8, 1985. This one was written in fun and I hope it's taken that way. It's a sort of re-cap of Article 29."

The Battle at the Sentry
April 8, 1985

John Soleau fired the "opening" shot,

He carefully aimed and, WHAMO

But nothing fell, John should have known,

We had stolen all his "ammo."

So up jumped little Stevie

And charged into the fray,

His beard all combed & neatly trimmed

But he didn't have much to say.

But the President had had enough

T'was time he took the stand,

But the P.A. system done him in,

We don't think that was planned.

Then Powers took a shot at it

And really waved the flag,

The opposition shook their heads

And tongues began to wag.

So the Judge brought out our biggest gun

Bruce Barker is his name.

And the way he ran the battle showed

He really knew the game.

Well the vote was finally taken

And McCouch had had his say,

He said, "Some had voted for it,

And the rest had voted, "NAY."

We probably never would have known who won,

Except for Dr. Tucker

Whose "point-of-order" saved the day,

A persistent little sucker.

Embarrassed Gordon wished he were home

And safely in his bunk,

But at least the worst was over

Then up rose Mr. Monk.

His plan would bar Selectmen

From having any say,

The boys could shoot their cannons off

At night, or any day.

Poor Terry frowned - a heavy frown

And Frankie looked aghast,

And John & Annabelle just sat

Their face a wooden mask.

But up jumped Nancy Beecher

With her philosophic plea,

Then up jumped Johnny Eaton

Just as mad as he could be.

And Johnny started shouting

And Gordon shouted back

And his gavel set the rhythm

For the two to stay on track.

But now that's all behind us

And all have had their say,

Look forward now with confidence

To every 30th of May.

But don't forget the debt you owe

To so many in the Town,

You called for help. They listened,

And they didn't let you down!

Go now and prove you're worthy

Of their vote, and of their trust

Be proficient, but remember

Discipline is a must.

Be patient with Selectmen

They're vulnerably out front,

And don't you let your Captain down,

He really bore the brunt.

The Battle's over, the Town said "Yes"

But the Selectmen wait to see

So all I'll say is "Keep the Faith"

And have pride in your C.I.B.

Several other important things happened in 1985, the town had a wonderful 350th anniversary celebration. It really brought everybody together, and it was a gala, happy event on a glorious day and everybody had great fun. One of the most moving parts of that was the Concord Players presentation of the cemetery scene in "Our Town" on the burying ground back of St. Bernard's Church. I will never forget that experience. The whole town was invited. There were other things that happened that were important. A long range planning committee was appointed. A long range capital and fiscal plan was adopted and an open space plan was developed. These illustrate the intensity of the planning efforts that have gone on perpetually in the town of Concord, and it has really had a major bearing on giving people guidance as to what the town's priorities are.

In 1986 one of the most important things was the development of a land acquisition policy and a fund by the Board of Selectmen, formally documented. There have been problems in trying to implement that, but the goals were certainly very, very sound and very much in accord with the kinds of things the Finance Committee had been agitating for back in the ‘60s and ‘70s. There were other social developments -- the human sexuality program was introduced in the 8th grade in the school system. And in 1987 after nine years of good service to the town, Steve Sheiffer resigned, and after a selection process the board hired Alan Edmond. There were land acquisitions -- the Perry land was acquired. But perhaps as important as anything in 1987 the long range planning committee submitted its report and it made eight principal recommendations. It said you should buy land for four purposes which it enumerated, you should upgrade Route 2, you should hire a land use professional, you should promote the real estate transfer tax to provide funding for land acquisition, you should protect Estabrook Woods, you should lengthen the life of the landfill, you should reclaim the DPW site which was being somewhat polluted by various kinds of activities involved in the operation of the public works and the light plant and you should study the West Concord commercial area. That blueprint, in fact, as I look back on it, has served the town well and most of its recommendations have been acted on.

In 1988 the cannon firings were resumed after the battery had developed very detailed training procedures which were subject to a lot of scrutiny and eventually accepted by the Board of Selectmen as a basis for allowing the cannon to be fired. And in fact there is no question in my mind that the battery tightened up its mode of operation dramatically. One of the criticisms had been that the battery enjoyed alcoholic beverages in a way that may not have been consistent with safety, and they adopted procedures that prohibited people involved in the firing of consuming any alcohol for a 24-hour period prior to the firing of the cannon.

The development rights to the Hutchins Farm were acquired as a result of very great generosity on the part of the Bemis family. One of the most important land protection actions in the town. Tom Scott was appointed Superintendent of Schools. We've had a series of very capable people in general, but Tom is one of the most likable, and it was very interesting because he is one of the few cases of somebody who was promoted from within.

In 1989 we had to have a special town meeting to revise our budgets because there were cuts in state aid to the town. In fact throughout this period when Proposition 2 1/2 was in effect, the whole method of budgeting, instead of being one in which everybody submitted their wish list and then there were some efforts made to cut out the most egregious items was transformed to a system which the Finance Committee set budget targets for both the town and the schools. There were intense efforts to get the town side and the school side to get together and agree to meet those targets. In fact while there has been a lot of groaning on the part of both sides, I think the results have been very successful. One always wants more money to do things, but if you tax people more heavily then there are certain segments of the town which suffer greatly. While the median income may be quite high, there are substantial numbers of people below the median income level, and one of the things that the selectmen have to recognize is that although perhaps the most vocal people who are agitating for more services are above the median level, they have to be fair to the people who are below the median level. That's not just a skinflint attitude, that's just a matter of fairness.

We also began the process for the Wild and Scenic River Study, the Thoreau Conservation Alliance became active, and there were continuing concerns about Route 2 and rebuilding the railroad bridges and all of those things.

In 1990 the most exciting thing that happened from a personal point of view is that my wife Betty and I were named as honored citizens. That is an experience that really cannot be explained in words, but it is a very moving one. We feel very proud to have been allowed to join the company of others who came both before and since who were certainly fully as deserving or more so. Two other things that happened in 1990 that I think are deserving of mention. One of the recommendations of the long range plans committee had been the hiring of a coordinator for planning and land management, and Al Lima was hired as director of that in 1990. While I was not enthusiastic at the time about the reorganization and consolidation, I think in retrospect it was a good move. Another important thing that happened was that the town was facing serious problems as a result of Proposition 2 1/2. What sort of a path should it take? Should it be looking to have override votes in order to maintain the levels of service that some people thought we should have or should it head towards great austerity? A fiscal options committee was appointed and developed a five-year plan. That committee had representation from a wide range of people with a wide range of perspectives on where the town should go. In the best democratic tradition they arrived at a compromise recommendation which has been the basis for much of the town's budgetary planning since. A very important illustration is the ability of the town to bring together divergent points of view.

In 1991 some of the issues facing the town in its relationship with the National Park came to a head. There had been a period of a good many years when park administration had been less than conciliatory in its dealings with the town, but we now had a new park superintendent Larry Gall who was a real breath of fresh air. A marvelous person who had a very, very gifted view of working with the town and with people to do the things that were right for the environment in which he was placed. One of the most important things that happened in 1991 was the acquisition of the Unisys property near White Pond and on the boundary with Sudbury following a special town meeting. Also, the school department proposed an override vote to allow an increase in the budgets for the operating functions of the school. That override vote failed. There was also a special town meeting that year to make adjustments in the budget as a result of the problems with Proposition 2 1/2 and the state reimbursement. Then we had hurricane Bob. So 1991 was an eventful year.

In 1992 Alan Edmond resigned as town manager under some pressure, and at the end of the year the Board hired Chris Whelan to start his service as of January 1993. I must say that my relationships with Alan Edmond and with the Board of Selectmen had been strained for some time because early in his tenure Alan had recognized that there was pressure in the town for improvement of the road system, and he chose to try to simply move a very large sum under a warrant article which had normal $100,000 kind of budgetary allotment in it. That posed serious questions as to whether the motion was within the scope of the article. One of the things that moderators have to deal with is deciding is whether motions are within the scope of the article, and in fact the moderator has the sole prerogative of making that judgment. Although there are times when people like the selectmen, town counsel, town managers, and other people seem to think they should have something to say about it. On the other hand the moderator has to be cautious and not be viewed as exercising dictatorial powers, and I found myself with a very, very serious problem right after Edmond had been hired. He chose to do something that I thought was not right and yet if I simply said no, unless I had the support of the Board of Selectmen, it was obviously going to be a very sticky wicket. I did extensive research on the matter of precedence, and in Concord there has always been a tradition of great liberality interpreting the scope of motions. Some towns do not allow a motion to be made for even one cent more than an amount that has been named in the warrant. But I found that there had been a number of instances in which the amounts that were in motions that had been allowed were several times larger than the amount named in the warrant. In this case, the amount was something like seven times as large. That gave me great difficulty. But the Town Manager had the support of the Board of Selectmen who after all had hired him, he was their executive, and it was obvious that despite pointing out some of the difficulties, I was not going to get any support from the Board of Selectmen, and so I backed down and allowed that motion to be made. But I felt that the Town Manager had other options. He knew that this problem was coming up before the warrant closed. He could have inserted another article and he chose not to, and it was, as far as I was concerned, a brutal effort to assert his authority over that of the moderator. In many times since then I have regretted that I backed down. Be that as it may, I survived. But it created a feeling of animosity between me and the Town Manager which was exacerbated over the years when we had meetings prior to Town Meeting to try to thrash issues. He was in my view extremely discourteous, choosing not to show up for meetings or excusing himself halfway through an hour-long commitment. I thought that was very poor show. I do not know what finally brought the selectmen to realize that there had been a whole series of actions by the Town Manager that were reprehensible, but something finally did, and they encouraged his resignation. No matter what else will be said I am convinced that the resignation was far from voluntary.

There were several other important things that happened in 1992. The issues of the landfill really came into focus. The landfill task force was appointed and that was the start of moves that eventually led to the closing of the landfill at the end of 1994. The curbside collection was inaugurated in 1992. The whole problem of the landfill, the economic problem, turned out to be insuperable and finally led to the closing of the landfill and the swallowing by the town of a large cost involving closing the landfill. The notion that that whole operation could be self-sufficient and self-supporting as an enterprise had failed as a result of outside economic forces that had not been adequately foreseen by anybody, not just in the town of Concord but throughout the Commonwealth. There was a review of the charter initiated under the chairmanship of Pat Moulton, and high school renovations to the tune of $7 million were approved in 1992. The original proposal called for more like $11 million and that was scaled down in order to keep it within financial reality.

1993 saw a number of things of significance to the town. There was another Boston Edison settlement - a quite large one. There was passage by the legislature of the Education Reform Act. I do not pretend to understand the implications of that and I think even the School Committee is just beginning to really grasp the significance of the requirements of that Act. Not all of the things that constituted reform at the state level were beneficial to the town of Concord. In particular the Act resulted in a perhaps more equitable distribution of funding so that poorer communities received a larger share of the pie, but that meant that there were cuts for wealthier towns such as Concord. One of the very important things that happened in 1993 was that we appointed a new police chief, Leonard Wetherbee, who had risen through the ranks and replaced an Edmond appointee who had been very disappointing in his performance to the town. Also we appointed a new town counsel, Norman Cohen.

From a personal view of point I agreed to serve on the Bylaw Recodification Committee because I was no longer moderator having relinquished that post in 1992 to Arthur Stevenson. This turned out to be a very interesting activity. I had always thought of it as being a totally routine kind of thing, but it was very revealing of a variety of problems to do with town documentation. I hope that our most important recommendation, which was that the town set up a documentation task force to look at town documentation as a whole and not just the question of publication of a bylaws book, will be addressed. I think that has had a sympathetic hearing, but it clearly has long term implications and what's likely to be dealt with in any one year.

In 1994 the landfill finally closed. End of an era. Very difficult for us as we move out of our house in Concord to move to a retirement community in Hanover, NH, we sure wish we had the landfill open to deliver stuff to.

So we come to a close of a very exciting time of working in the town, meeting with many wonderful people, all of whom had a common dedication to our town and hoping that the next century continues the tradition of Town Meeting with democratic government. There are those who think that Town Meeting is unwieldy. One of the byproducts of being moderator is that I've been quite active in the Massachusetts Moderators Association in recent years and have learned something about how things happen in other towns as well as ours. One of the things I learned early on from working very intensively with Town Moderators from Lexington and Wellesley, both of whom have representative town meetings, is that representative town meeting, while it is sold as being an efficient thing to do because how can you deal with hundreds of people at a town meeting, it is not a satisfactory answer. They frequently run 10 to 15 nights of town meeting so the notion that it's going to be efficient is really not borne out by experience. They have great trouble attracting people enough to serve under the system that they have established, so the notion that it is a panacea is not supportable by the evidence. At the same time the concept that town meeting is unable to make decisions, that it is undemocratic for some reason because people are disenfranchised, they can't come because they can't get baby-sitters or they are away on business or what have you, does not ring true to me. I believe that if you care about town government as the several hundred people who work for town boards and committees care and dedicate their services and their time to the welfare of the town as a whole, that you can make the time and you will be there. Town Meeting is formally a legislative assembly and legislators are not expected to vote without having been to the hearings and to have participated and heard the arguments pro and con before they cast their vote. I do not believe that any substitution of a referendum system is going to produce a superior result as far as the town is concerned. I believe that people who have been disappointed by the outcome of certain democratically arrived at solutions are those who are seeking to change the process because they were unhappy with the outcome of the existing process, not because the process is at fault but because they felt that their particular interests were not well served by it. But the essence of a democracy is the willingness to yield to the will of those who prevail on one side of the argument even if you happen to be on the losing side. In general in my experience even when I have been critical of the way in which the town voted on an issue, I have found in retrospect several years later, I have felt that the town did in fact vote correctly, and I support the notion of continuing open Town Meeting as a form of government, which has served the town well and which, despite its age, is still able to serve the town well.

As moderator, I always made these comments at the start of a Town Meeting -- We open our meeting by standing and remaining silent for a moment, each of us considering that this annual Town Meeting is the means by which we and our neighbors endeavor to provide for our collective good. As we vote tonight let us remember that the passions of the moment are not necessarily the best guide to our conduct in the future, and if sacrifice by a few is required, it should be only where the common goal is worthy of the sacrifice. May we approach each issue no matter how divisive with humor and with an open heart and open mind.

Mounted 19 Jan. 2008; image mouted 4 May 2013 -- rcwh.