Marshall Simonds
Carlisle Town Moderator

Interviewed November 11, 1999

Concord Oral History Program
Jane Hart, Interviewer.

Kate Simonds was also present at the interview.

With 33 years on the job can you tell us what you find the most interesting or rewarding part of it?

Marshall — I believe that town meeting is one of the really wonderful opportunities that we've been given to participat, and I believe the way town meeting is practiced in this part of the world is a unique opportunity for people who do not devote their lives to politics or local government to have a role. I believe that hinges on having the atmosphere that permits people 1) the opportunity to talk and 2) a feeling that the atmosphere is one where they can dare to talk and express their views. I think that creating an atmosphere where people can express their views even when they disagree with their neighbors is difficult. It's difficult because on the one hand you need to invite people to participate and make them feel comfortable. And at the same time it's difficult to discipline people who, if they feel strongly about an issue, want to launch a personal attack or a level of criticism and a level of irritation that transforms the give and take of views into an angry confrontation which does not produce civil, thoughtful judgment. The moderator is basically the ringkeeper???. I think it's a wonderful, challenging job.

You always do a little bit wrong because you always go a little too far one way or the another. I encourage somebody to come up and speak for 5 minutes and I end up finding they took 15 minutes and repeated three times, and I have to not be irritated with them even though I sense that the meeting has heard more than they want to hear about it. On the other hand, I jump on someone who I think is about the say something confrontational and want to nip it in the bud, and I find I judged wrong. They weren't going to say anything confrontational, they just wanted to get a viewpoint in. So it's a job that you always fail at but to the extent you can succeed, such as at the end of the meeting people come up and say that was a good meeting or when people stay and participate then you've achieved an important role in this small town.

I wish more people would participate. The fact that we get a quorum and people participate as much as they do I think validates the decision.

What do you consider the most difficult or frustating part of it?

Well, I don't think any of it is frustrating. What I've just said, trying to strike the right note between a civil intercourse in which people are comfortable exchanging views and disagreeing and discussing an issue in which there is at least a core sense of we're after the same goal which is the best interest of the community. That's difficult. Achieving that is difficult. With some issues which are NIMBY issues, not in my backyard, or a polarizing issue where there is a particular interest group that is not going to be swayed by anything except the stake they have in that particular decision, it becomes all the more difficult and it switches. Instead of becoming necessarily an organized community-wide dialogue, you see one of the problems is making sure that those people have a fair hearing. Often they are in the minority. Often they are going to leave the meeting feeling the town is against them. One of the things you need to do is to make sure they get a chance to be heard even when people are saying, "Move the question" or "let's cut off this debate." It's important in my view that the people who are probably going to lose or we could vote out by speeding up the meeting don't feel they got unfair treatment. I think that is the moderator's responsibility.

They feel heard even if they don't win. An interesting example is this most recent special town meeting. The neighbors abutting the Conant land with their petition article are anxious to protect against further development. The affordable housing rule which has been troubling the town for years was in the opinion of the town meeting not to be denied so they weren't prepared to grant the easement even assuming the article had been legally drawn so that it could have been granted. On the other hand it's pretty clear to me that once affordable housing is solved, there is a general tendency on the part of the town to protect the rest of the Conant land as the Mosquito recently noted as evidenced at the meeting, and the people that were there fighting for that special article in fact achieved quite a lot. They're not going to win it all and they didn't win last week. But they're likely to win the next time it comes up. That's a process that is encouraged by the dialogue of town meeting, so I think that's a big positive achievement.

So a process like that can be difficult but not necessarily frustrating?

I don't think it's frustrating. We never decide to do things the first time they're offered to you no matter how well presented. We don't build school additions when we need them, we don't build town halls when we need them, we don't build police stations when we need them, we don't tend to do a solid waste disposal when we need them, we take two or three years to get there. For a lot of people who work hard on those projects, that's very frustrating. For the moderator to watch something that has been well presented fail, when you don't have a vote, when you come to the job as an advocate and you put on a non-advocate hat, that's involves some internal stress. But, I've been managing that for years so I don't really think about that very much. I think more about trying to control my nature instinct of advocacy and not take a role on one side or the other of the argument. But, I think doing it slowly…

Take another example which may not be relevant. Saint Irene's today -- it's vacant land in the center of town. The argument that was made at town meeting that we can put it away in the bank and save it for needs that we may not identify now for 20 years, its going to be good for the town. The argument I think is right. I think getting that land by eminent domain 20 years from now when you find you don't have any other choice is poor planning. But the short-term expenditure of, whatever it was, $290,000 was not going to pass the Finance Committee and was not going to sell to the town. You have that dynamic all the time. Is that bad planning on the part of the town? In my personal opinion, yes. Is it a bad decision by the town meeting? The town meeting does what the voters want to do, so it's their power to reject that and that's an important power even if it is exercised in a way that I think was probably not as wise as what Vivian Chapman??? was recommending.

Can you share with us any stories of memorable town meetings maybe something that was particularly humorous or contentious. Is there anything that sticks out in your mind?

There are, I'm sure, a lot of things. I don't know that we have any one in this particular role in town meeting now. We talk about the Conant land a lot. For years, Mrs. Goldsmith Conant was a devoted attendee at town meetings. This was before we acquired the Conant land, and we would have discussions on a variety of issues in which there was a right and wrong concept. This is not a real example, but for instance, should we do something to provide assistance to the elderly in town. We had a small politically insignificant group of elderly who could not carry a vote at town meeting but who needed the support of others. We had a tax conscious population who didn't want to incur the increase the taxes. The meeting was polarized around these issues. And Mrs. Goldsmith Conant would stand up, and did on dozens on occasions as I recall, and give a speech which basically lectured the voters of the town to put aside their personal views and talk about the best interests of the town and the best interests of the community. She was capable of bringing the entire town meeting into line.

I know you described her as the conscience of the town. She pulled people together.

Yes. I thought that was a very dramatic illustration of how an individual could influence the legislative function of town meeting. I don't think we have recent examples that are quite as clear as that, but I think we still see in every town meeting a presentation by someone at the end of which the meeting is aware that this person has done a large amount of work, devoted a large amount of thought, tried to think of conflicting issues and sort through them fairly, and come to a good end result. Unlike the dismissive remark, you'll get your reward in heaven, those people not infrequently get their reward right on the floor of town meeting. They influence the way town voters reply. So it still happens. I find that a remarkably encouraging signal about the health of the community.

And that's a common occurrence?

No, I don't think that's a common occurrence. It's not a common occurrence because what you do with the fees from the dog officer is not an issue that rises to that level. What you do with affordable housing or what you do with conservation useages or what you do with planning for developments, and so forth, those issues frequently are issues that affect the character and nature of the town and determine the future course it takes. People that work hard at that and give good presentations in an organized way frequently have the effect of earning the respect of the body of voters and get its support. That's proof that the system works. That's proof that merit matters. That it's not all just friendship and politics. So, at this ground roots level I think the town meeting we have provide regular illustrations of that system. I'm a great admirer of town meeting. I'm not in favor of all these proposals to short cut it, I'm not in favor of the recommendation that it made and ???? elsewhere to streamline it, to make it more efficient. I think it is good for people to sit there and listen to different viewpoints and go through the process even though they get tired of it and get bored by it.

Can you describe for us some of the ways in which town meeting has changed over the last 33 years?

It's changed mostly the way the town has changed. We don't have any working farms in town any more. We have a transient population that lives in expensive homes in expensive developments and doesn't have a career commitment to the town. Either they are two-income families where both parents work and somebody takes care of the kids or they are executives who are on a training program and moving through and going to be here for three, four, five years and gone. The nature of the population and the wealth of the population has changed and had an impact on town meeting. A lot of those people don't come to town meeting. I can look out at almost any town meeting, regular or special, at 10:00 at night and I'll see 150 people that I pretty much know will be there until the voting of the town is done. They are people who are committed to Carlisle and its governance. Lacking are people who might have a great deal to offer because of their talents but don't have a big investment in the community because they are passing through. That changes the involvement in the town. It means they are ceding the governance of the town to a smaller group who comes with a different set of motivations. I'm not sure that's bad as long as they cede it to people who care. I'd rather have people who care or are invested in the history or send their children to school here, grow up here, work here than people who are going to visit for a while. The people who come to visit are oftentimes very bright, very successful, very talented, and it's too bad that we don't catch their attention and talent.

They might really have something to contribute.

You bet.

Okay, let me ask you something. The references we were going to ask and we were sort of going to encourage you to comment on Mrs. Conant and you anticipated us a bit, so I think that's fine. We're fortunate enough to be joined by Pete's wife Kate and they are going to both speak to us for a while. I'd like to ask you as Carlisle continues to grow do you think town meeting will still be an effective form of government?

Marshall — Let me start because I wanted Kate to join in this particular subject because she was on the Finance Committee and Chairwoman of the Finance Committee and then on the Board of Selectman and Chairman of that Board during the time when the town had some controversy about building public structures and so forth. She had I think a great familiarity with the people who used to show up at Selectmen's meeting with tape recorders and microphones and take a record of everything that was said and rush to the District Attorney to complain about where the town was going.

Kate Simonds — the Attorney General.

Marshall — Well, both, Middlesex DA and the Attorney General. In any event she was involved in some of the projects in town and she's also familiar with the difficulty of getting some of those issues through town meeting. The general question is do you think town meeting was effective then when you were in town government?

Kate — I don't think there's any question about it. I would be so nervous before town meeting and so well prepared, and I would wonder how I would get one foot in front of the other, and then I would go to town meeting and the citizens would all come and they packed the auditorium on some of these issues. We'd even have the cafeteria open. They have all kinds of sound systems between them. Everybody came and they asked a lot of intelligent questions. They aired all their views about whether the police station should be in the center or not. The biggest controversy was building the police station. They had been in a trailer behind the library for upteen years. After they viewed everything and some people had gotten up and accused other people and yelled and screamed, the citizens would reaffirm common sense. I thought the system worked. I really did. I was very impressed by it each time we would go. There were times I wasn't at all sure this was going to work but it did work. They paid attention. There's a lot printed in the Mosquito ahead of time so they could all get their information, which they all got or most of them got. They all acted in a very intelligent direction. I thought the moderator did a good job. The situation could have gotten out of hand a couple of times. We had a particular group in town that were very adamant about not letting this go through for their own personal reasons, not town reasons, but their own personal reasons.

Marshall — the question was do you think town meeting is going to become less effective as the needs of the future change?

As the town grows, do you think it will continue to be effective?

Marshall — I think part of the answer to it is the comment I made before. I think the town has changed and we now have a transient population that work in town, that live here in largely new homes for brief periods of time and then go on to another career or another location and don't have the same investment in town that the people of 15 or 20 years ago had. On the other hand the town meeting population still reflects the sort of hard-core people who are long-term residents of Carlisle. Only if there is a special issue does a particular neighborhood, that may include an unrepresentative body of newcomers, suddenly show up for town meeting. For the most part, the political interest groups that you see are easy to identify. The school lobby — if it is a school financing issue, moms and dads are going to be there whether they are short-term residents or long-term residents. They want their kids educated. And that has always been true and it's still true and that pulls new people in. If it's elderly housing or support for the elderly, there aren't enough of them to have a body but they're all there. You can see them in the audience. All these folks that are staying up past their bedtime because there's something that affects them. And their appeal is different. They appeal by, if you will, the Goldsmith Conant rule of attacking the conscience of the town and say, hey, are you going to deprive these people who have spent their lives here from adequate participation and the good things of our community? I'm not sure if town meeting is less effective. Town meeting is still a group of 150 to 450 people out of a voting population that is 4 times or 5 times that number. That's a statistic that you can say shows it's irrelevant. But the people who come to town meeting to vote care about the town, are better informed about the town and have a better chance to listen to different views. Apart from the special interest groups who come to town meeting, the hard-core people who attend, in general are committed to the best interests of the town. I'm not sure if the town isn't better off by having those people in charge.

Kate — I think in general that is probably right. I worry sometimes when I get to town meeting that issues go through like this and they pass everything and vote to spend upteen amounts of money. I don't know whether that is just a reflection of the fact that times are good now and that people have more money or that our population of all new people that move in and live in these new houses are a reflection of the socioeco group we have is homogeneous. I don't know if that's it or that is the best way for Carlisle to go. I'm never quite sure about it. We certainly don't seem to be going in a bad direction. They turn things down at town meeting and they do talk. That's what important, I think. The fact that people get up and give their views and talk about the way they feel the town should go and what it should do. That's what makes it effective. That's what makes town meeting a town meeting and a good system of government.

Marshall — I don't think the example you gave that people spend money on this, this and this happens very often, and when it does happen there is always a circumstance that the town meeting has said no to some major expenditure. They have looked and agonized about something that some group wanted very badly and they said no. Once they've said no, then the capital items that come along after that tend to get passed. It's like a conscious response. Oh, that was a hard vote we turned down that big article, we'd better not do it again. We'd better not really be mean. I think that has happened from time to time.

Kate — Yes, that does.

Well, permission to say no, we won't spend this but we'll give ourselves permission to do this.

Marshall — Well, I think in general the Finance Committee and the tax conscious citizens in good times or bad keep a pretty tight hold on the budget.

Kate — I think the Finance Committee is generally very effective. I think they work very hard. It's a big job, and it gets bigger every year. When I was on it and we worked hard to try to get things to come out right. I was on it when 2 ½ came in. I was a Selectman from '84 to '87 so it was six years before that, so it was in the late ‘70s to the middle ‘80s that I was on the Finance Committee. I know we spent hours on the Finance Committee and I suspect they spend even more now trying to get finances even and the budget balanced and keep Carlisle on track and still not have to raise taxes any more than they have to. They do a good job and I think they're very responsible. I think the town listens to them. At least it's been my experience that people want to know what the Finance Committee has to say and why they have to say it. They read about that.

Marshall — I think the experience with the budget appropriation at the last annual meeting last spring was very unfortunate because the data that comes to the Finance Committee came late, and they didn't have a chance to assimilate and there were therefore estimates and calculations and judgements made that were in error, and the town meeting itself was unnecessarily confusing. The formal votes that were required for the various levels of overrides were very complicated. I think the Finance Committee was embarrassed and angry at the way the system worked. There was stress between the Finance Committee and the Selectmen about that. But I think that was an aberration.

Kate — That's not really the way it works. They're what makes the system of government work. I think people like to hear from them. The format that is used at town meeting of having the boards make their presentations first on a big subject is very useful and people like that. I think they like to know who thinks about what. It works, and I think it will continue to work at least for the foreseeable future. I don't think we need a representative town meeting like Concord has.

Marshall - Concord doesn't have a representative town meeting.

Kate - I thought they had.

Have they been discussing it though?

[can't make out]

Kate - I think it will work for quite a long time.

Marshall - Well, we're a small town. We're not legally large enough to have a representative town meeting. I'm not sure but I think the population has to be 10,000. [can't make out] Our population is 7500 or something like that.

Let's turn from the town meeting to the town itself. The two of you have lived here for more than 40 years. Would you like to comment on how the town has changed?

Kate - Well, there's been a lot of changes. When we first moved to Carlisle, the first year I lived here, I did a campaign for Emerson Hospital. That was in 1958. There were 900 houses in Carlisle. That was it. I had myself and four captains and we did the whole town. We went to every house. That also included the houses that nobody lived in. We used to go hunting in the backyard, pheasant hunting. It was pretty rural and very nice. It's not that it's not nice now but it's different. There's been a tremendous amount of change since we've lived here as far as physical changes of housing.

Marshall - We're looking out the window of my living room and there is a pond out there which was put in before there was regulation on construction. So we did not go through the conservation process, we didn't need to. Anyway Kate and I used to hunt out here. Actually I shot a grouse here one day. Probably the last grouse I shot in Carlisle. Shot some pheasant. We used to hunt on Henry Hosmer's land over on ??? [voice too low] No problem. We trained retrievers. And we periodically used shotguns to simulate hunting for training the retrievers. Several years ago, maybe eight or nine years ago, we were down training retrievers. I had a shotgun out. Kate was running the dogs. I was shooting the shotgun. I shot the shotgun perhaps three times. I became aware that someone was coming through the woods. I looked over and sure enough it was a Carlisle police officer with a hand gun walking through the woods. I looked up the hill and there was a patrol car in my driveway with the blue light flashing. We had been out there less than 15 minutes and someone had called in and reported discharging fire arms. The place we were was in full compliance with the law. We were more than 500 feet from any residence and the correct distance from a public way and we were on our land violating no law. But the atmosphere of the town had changed where a discharge from a shotgun had the police there in 10 minutes. Fifteen or twenty years ago I could have gone hunting down there and somebody would have called up and said, "Did you get anything?" That's a measure of how much the town has changed.

A gun shot wouldn't have been alarming.

Kate - When we first moved to town we had two or three dairies delivering and Mr. Bates used to come along in the morning and he would come in and check the ice box and see if I had the right amount of milk and butter, cream and eggs. Herb was the chief of police and he delivered the papers. He'd bring the paper. I asked him once, "Herb, why do you deliver the paper with all you've got to do?" He said, "Well, you know, this way I keep up on everybody and make sure everything is okay by checking in with them every morning." That was wonderful. It was really fun to live that way. You knew everyone of course because there weren't that many people.

Marshall - If you wanted to find out what was going on in town, you stopped by the gas station and spoke to??? Foss who was either chairperson or a member of the Board of Selectmen. The Board of Selectmen met in a little circle of chairs in the front corner of what used to be Daisy's Garage.

Is this Foss of Foss farm?

Marshall - Well, it's a brother. Two-acre zoning came about because a man named Henry Hosmer ???[can't make out] and had a law practice over on Derby Road decided that two-acre zoning would protect the town against development. When zoning controls came in, he drew a plan and got it voted, and we ended up with two-acre zoning. It may not be the most creative zoning today but it is probably the single most important decision the town made in terms of regulating development. They made it in the ‘40s. I'm not sure but I want to say something like 1948. 250-foot frontage and two-acre zone had a major impact on defining the character of the town.

Kate - when we moved here there were kind of two groups of people. There were farmers, real farmers -- the Guy Clark farm, the Bates farm, Farnham Smith farm, Swanson farm. There were still some second homes out here. People that lived in Boston and came out for the summer. I don't know who they were. And then there were some young people of which we were one family, maybe there were 15 or 20 families of us who were just starting out, we couldn't afford to live in Concord because that was much too expensive. Nobody lived in Carlisle so we moved out here as an alternative. It was really an exurb. I can remember the first time I drove to Carlisle the real estate agent showed us the house that the Reinbachs live in which hadn't been added on to, just this little cape and I looked at this place, and I thought this is the end of the world, I don't want to live out here, I won't see another sole. Where will my children go to school? This is unbelievable. So I ended up buying a little house on West Street. It was way out in those days.

Marshall - You can still politic at the dump but you can't shoot rats at the dump. You can't take a 22 down and shoot rats at an open dump.

Did you shoot rats for practice?

Marshall - I don't think I ever did shoot a rat down there but there were people who did that. You'd go to the dump and visit on a Saturday morning.

We'd like to know what qualities you would look for in a successor?

Marshall - Assuming as I do that my successor will be selected before it's legal to be engaged in human cloning, I think the answer is that the important quality in my view for a successful moderator is a familiarity of the town based on having lived here and having participated in at least some level of town activity, a willingness to exercise discipline conducting the meeting so that people are getting a fair hearing but not control. You have to be fair but forceful and a perception that whether you like the issue or don't like the issue or you like the speaker or don't like the speaker, you have absolute respect for the process that is involved in creating a fair process. I don't think there is any identifiable package that you can pick out ahead of time as to select who a good moderator is going to be. Just like somebody said about good trial lawyers, they come in all kinds of packages. They have all kinds of different personalities and despite my joke about cloning, I don't think I'm looking for someone who had my particular qualities. The goal of the job is still patience and attention and respect at town meetings is important. I can't think of anyone who is more different than me in terms of value at town meeting than Guy Clark was. Yet I think Guy Clark [-voice too low] but the qualities he brought to the town meeting were exactly what was needed. When I've had substitute or alternative moderators, they've all done a good job. So I don't think there will be any problem finding a successor.

Thank you for your time today and your memories and insight and humor.