Keeping Town Meeting on Point

Widmer draws on experience in Town Moderator role

Belmont's Town Moderator Mike Widmer, might not always have a gavel in hand, but he's certainly used to standing up and informing the public about important issues.

"It's what I do for a living," he said recently.

Widmer, entering his third year as moderator, analyzes and reports on state spending, tax policies and the economy as president of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation, a nonpartisan watchdog on all things that have to do with state taxes and finances.

In addition to his professional experience, which includes time in business, politics and journalism, Widmer, a Town Meeting member for 30 years and a 15-year veteran of the Warrant Committee, said his past civic participation has also helped him accomplish his two main goals as town moderator: Keeping members informed and on point.

"My first priority is to try to ensure that Town Meeting members have sufficient information to understand the issues being debated," said Widmer, an expert on public policy issues, "both in advance of Town Meeting and then during the presentations at Town Meeting.

"I also try to move the process forward," he added, "try to keep the questions and comments on topic and in the scope of the article."

With meetings approaching, first on April 26 and 28, then again on May 25 to address budgets, Widmer said the current economic climate could make debates more contentious.

"A [budget override] for example; a lot of people are hurting," he said, "a lot of people in Belmont are feeling the same thing as many people across the country. I feel like that general feeling of uncertainty, not connected to any particular movement, such as the Tea Party movement, is likely to have an impact in terms of the mood at Town Meeting.

"Maybe not in a dramatic way, there often can be difficult discussions, but maybe this year more so than most."

Along with the budgets, Widmer said Article 27, which addresses a comprehensive plan for future development in town, is most likely to lead to spirited debate. Widmer usually places more controversial topics first so they get their due time.

He said it's a balancing act running Town Meeting, as he refuses to let members become accusatory yet enjoys seeing civic passion. "A good debate is always better than apathy," he said.

In recent years, there has been a significant turnover of members, according to Widmer, and the new body seems to be more willing to engage in debate.

He said he prefers the representative town meeting to an open town meeting because the members are more committed to the process, a process that he respects greatly.

"Town Meeting is our legislative body," Widmer said, "so when people think of it that way, it is really equal to the state legislature or congress at the federal level, and they value the dialogue and debate that occurs."


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