Expect a lot of good Will at Town Meeting

Over thirty years ago, when Will Sipsey and Lisa Gray were living in Brighton, Mass., Lisa shared with Will a book she had brought home from the used bookstore in Cambridge where she worked: A dusty and dog-eared copy of everyone’s favorite page-turning bestseller, “Robert’s Rules of Order.” If you’re young and in love – and really into meetings – there is no hotter book you can share with someone than “Robert’s Rules of Order.” I once wrote an article for a women’s magazine about aphrodisiacs to take to the bedroom, and I must have devoted half my allotted space to “Robert’s.”

Okay, that’s an exaggeration. “Robert’s” never came up. The book, first published by U.S. Army engineer Henry Martyn Robert in February 1876, is not exactly the Kama Sutra, even if you’re the sort of person who visits websites about gavels late at night.

But the book held a quirky interest for both Lisa – a book collector – and Will.  They still own that copy. Soon after they married, they moved to Lincoln, Vt. and tomorrow night, for his first time ever, Will Sipsey will be the Moderator for our village’s Town Meeting – our annual foray into legislative self-determination. He is following in the justifiably revered footsteps of David Marsters, who retired last year after moderating our meetings for a quarter-century.

Will, an information technology architect with IBM, plans to start his day tomorrow as he normally would. He will be at Bristol Fitness by five a.m. for an hour-long fitness class, and immediately follow that up with an hour-long spin class at 6:15. Then he will go to work. Will is 54, but he has a lot of energy. To wit: In his quarter-century of living in Lincoln, he served as a selectman for six years; he was on the zoning board for a dozen-plus years; and, at the moment, he is on the Burnham Foundation and is the chair of the Addison County Regional Advisory Transportation Committee.

So, why is he adding town moderator to his docket? “The first thing that came to mind was the girls,” he told me, laughing. “There are a lot of groupies who hang around backstage.”

The real reason, of course, is that he was pressed into service. He took the job because Marsters was retiring and no one else – including yours truly – was willing to man up. It was our town clerk, Sally Ober, who encouraged Will to run last year.

“I don’t like empty spaces on the ballet,” Sally said. “So I do try to recruit people to run. I wouldn’t be town clerk if someone hadn’t encouraged me.” She thought of Will because she had seen him moderate relatively contentious meetings when Lincoln was debating the construction of cell phone towers here. She felt he had done a terrific job making sure that all points were heard and the meetings remained on track.

Will admits he will be nervous on Monday night. “David is a tough act to follow,” he said. “And this isn’t a natural behavior for me. I’m basically an introvert.” He added that it’s easy to see how quickly a moderator can drown in amendments to amendments to resolutions. Consequently, he is trying to view this process a bit like he does his work: “In some ways, it’s reminiscent of computer architecture or a computer stack. Last in, first out.”

And the one word he dreads using? Germane. “I want to facilitate the process, not confront people,” he said. “And when you tell someone that something they’ve said isn’t germane, you’re telling them that something they’ve said is wrong.”

My sense is Will has nothing to fear. Yes, he will have to utter that dreaded G-word at least once or twice, because Town Meeting is, by design, a little messy. Even a gavel and a well-worn copy of “Robert’s Rules of Order” can’t keep a roomful of Jeffersonian-inspired Vermonters on track – which is how it should be.

I just hope tomorrow night I’m not the guy who chimes in with a brilliant point that isn’t. . .germane.

(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on March 4, 2012. The paperback of Chris’s most recent novel, “The Night Strangers,” arrives next month.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.