Democracy’s steward: Spiess reflects on 16 years as Marblehead town moderator

As the dust settles (sort of) on the 2022 town election, Marblehead finds itself with a new town moderator, Jack Attridge.

The Marblehead native’s election embodies a rare changing of the guard in this particular elected office. Attridge’s predecessor, Gary Spiess, held the post for 16 years, and before Spiess, Steve Howe carried out moderator duties for a whopping 43 years.

Next May, Spiess can partake in something he had given up while presiding over the town’s most significant civic meeting of the year: contributing to the debate on the town warrant’s articles.

Gary Spiess, former town moderator, sits in the Muffin Shop on a recent Sunday morning.

“You have to remember that you’re a conciliator, not an advocate,” Spiess said of the moderator role between sips of a black decaf coffee inside the Muffin Shop on a recent Sunday morning. “It takes discipline because you may have strong feelings about things being taken up.” 

With Attridge’s election, Spiess joins what one might consider a local pantheon of Marblehead moderators that includes the late-18th-century merchant Jeremiah Lee. 

Part of Spiess’ legacy will be having seen the Town Meeting through a once-in-a-century pandemic.

“The last two years have been especially challenging because of the strictures of the COVID pandemic, and really bad weather,” he wrote in a 2021 candidate’s statement to the League of Women Voters of Marblehead, commending the teamwork from town leaders and public safety officials that made the meetings possible.

The ground rules

Town Meeting, “the purest form of democracy,” is a civic gathering any registered voter can attend, express his or her opinion and vote on matters that impact the town. Spiess said he has carried out his moderator role as “a steward of democracy” very seriously.

Before the early 20th century, electing a town moderator was the first order of Town Meeting business. According to the Massachusetts Secretary of State’s website, the Town Meeting, as Marblehead’s legislative body, is charged with three major duties:

  • setting the salaries of elected officials;
  • voting to appropriate money to run the town; and
  • approving the town’s local statutes, which are called bylaws.

Today, under state law, the moderator “presides over and regulates [Town Meeting] proceedings, decides all questions of order and makes public declaration of all votes.” In 2022, Marblehead marked its 373rd year using the open Town Meeting format to conduct the town’s business.

Recognizing that repetition in debate wears down Town Meeting members, Spiess said Marblehead values brevity over verbosity.

“My job as moderator is to move the agenda promptly to make sure Town Meeting runs smooth,” Spiess said.

Over the years, Spiess developed a signature phrase for when Town Meeting debate had reached the point of diminishing returns: “I think we’re getting to that point when everything has been said on the matter, but not everyone has had a chance to say it.” 

Spiess also honed a series of ground rules to not only move Town Meeting through the agenda but also to encourage free and open debate:

  1. “You got to be seated if you want your vote counted.”
  2. “Unless you’re a presenter, you’ve got to keep your remarks to two minutes.”
  3. “No swearing or personal insults. Everyone must speak through the moderator.”

“So those are the rules,” Spiess said. “By and large, a vast majority follow them.”

The citizen petition

Throughout his tenure, Spiess said he has, without taking sides, tried to ensure citizens’ petitions get a full and fair airing at Town Meeting, working with sponsors to make sure their language passes legal muster.

“I don’t want [a petitioner] to get shut out of Town Meeting because of some mistake they made in their application,” he said. “The challenge I have with citizens is simply making sure they’re acceptable as formed, so I’ve spent a lot of time sort of being the intermediary between town counsel and the petition sponsor.”

He said he starts this work as soon as he gets a draft copy of the town warrant.       

“We encourage citizens’ petitions, or at least I do, and you’ve got to deliver on that, especially if somebody takes all that time, effort and energy to petition,” he said.

Sometimes, petitions go through more than one iteration over multiple years before Town Meeting accepts them. Case in point: Article 31 on the 2022 town warrant, which asked voters to support a leaf-blower ban during summer months.

Spiess thinks this version of a leaf-blower ban passed where others had failed was because this year’s version was “simplistic,” “not wide reaching,” and “limited in scope.”

“That took a lot of steam out of the opposition,” he said.

Spiess has also advocated to move citizen petitions up higher in the town warrant, as they can often be the most controversial items taken up during Town Meeting.

Asked to define a “successful” Town Meeting, Spiess replied: “When I say, ‘This meeting is adjourned.'”

But getting to that point requires a moderator who presides with fairness and clarity, never with favoritism or a hidden agenda, Spiess said.

“My biggest challenge was to make sure that comes true by not permitting one side to dominate,” Spiess said. “You can’t fan the flames as much as you have to tame them.”

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Marblehead News staff
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