TEWKSBURY — Todd Johnson has worn several different hats in the nearly three decades he’s lived in Tewksbury. He’s a longtime attorney, a leader at the Tewksbury Community Pantry, served on the town Finance Committee, and most recently served several terms as a selectman, chairing it for multiple terms.
This spring, he’s taken on an important new role as Town Moderator. Elected in June, and serving for the next three years, Johnson will run both annual Town Meeting in the spring and special Town Meeting in the fall.
His involvement in Tewksbury town government has seen him participate in every Town Meeting for the last 15 years. He was driven to run for the job by this experience.
“I have observed and witnessed that Town Meeting is critical to our form of government, and I didn’t want to sit on the sidelines,” he said.
Johnson ran unopposed in the town election on June 16, and won just five days before annual Town Meeting on June 22. But Johnson didn’t cram for the big day. Instead, he took a few months to learn about the process of Town Meeting and the role of the moderator in advance.
Johnson became “intimately familiar” with the meeting warrant, the individual articles, the town budget, and the town’s general bylaws. He also read up on the parliamentary text “Town Meeting Time,” which was written by town moderators from across the state and outlines parliamentary procedure for running the meeting.
Johnson explained that Town Meeting as a concept was brought over from the United Kingdom, but over time evolved to be “uniquely New England.” Johnson drew on his own experiences, and watched tapes of old town meetings “to remind myself of some of the traditions we have that are unique, and some of the procedural requirements we have in Tewksbury,” he said.
Johnson had followed along with the budget process in his time serving on the finance committee, and watched the selectboard and Planning Board meetings reviewing the warrant.
“At an article-by-article level, I was involved in learning the detail behind each article,” he said, “which is important to understand what the residents will say and what concerns they may have.”
While Town Meeting this year was mostly a placid affair, there was one incident in which a speaker directly attacked another speaker (all comments are supposed to be directed through the moderator). The speaker became verbally aggressive and Johnson ruled him to be out of order.
Johnson explained that one of the most important functions of the moderator is to smoothly facilitate the meeting. In his opening comments Monday night, Johnson reminded attendees that “we have the right to disagree, but we have to do that respectfully.”
He sees it as an important responsibility to maintain respectful procedure of the Town Meeting process.
“People should feel comfortable about expressing their views, but you need to do that in a way that is respectful of your fellow residents. Nobody has a monopoly on what is right, or what the right view is... the vote controls the outcome. If a resident crosses the line with how they speak about or to a fellow resident or elected official, then my job is to make sure the meeting is brought back to that respectful tone. One of the residents went a little too far, and may have misinterpreted something a prior speaker said, but used some language that didn’t seem to be very respectful. It’s within the prerogative of the moderator to call the individuals out and get people to focus on the issue, which is the subject of the article rather than the personal.”
Johnson didn’t feel thrown at all by the outburst: “I was prepared. In my other town roles, the minute you get caught in a trap, something will go wrong and you can’t recover. If you let people take a shortcut, then the next person will take a shortcut.”
In his research, Johnson considered which of the articles may be contentious to voters, and anticipated which articles had the possibility for disruption to the meeting so he could prepare himself to handle anything.
Though Johnson took the helm in “unusual and unprecedented times,” he thinks the town did a good job of executing the meeting despite difficult circumstances. The governor and state legislature had to change the laws to allow Town Meeting to be postponed so far out.
“We had to ask residents to change the way they participate in Town Meeting with social distancing and the layout at the high school, as well as some of the communication. We had almost the same number of people as a typical Town Meeting, and I think the vast majority of them would say the meeting went as close to normal as possible. The debate may not have been as vociferous as it sometimes is, but I don’t think that’s a reflection of the coronavirus situation. People assess the warrant and those people who had something to say showed up. Maybe some people have concerns and stayed home, but I respect that the vast majority of people who attended followed the [safety] recommendations from the town. We as a community accomplished what we needed to.”
Johnson explained that while some communities have the capacity to hold Town Meeting outdoors, Tewksbury currently lacks an adequate sound system; additionally, with unpredictable weather, “we’d be taking a chance if we did things like that,” he said.
As far as October is concerned, Johnson doesn’t know what the circumstances will be like for special Town Meeting.
“Hopefully we’ll be in a better place, but if we still have to be socially distanced, I think the process that we followed, the building layout, and the communication to the public about safety protocols proved that we can do it in a way that is safe, efficient, and effective. I would repeat the process again... we at the local level have to respond to many unknowns.”
Johnson made notes and observations directly after the meeting, and wants to do more research to think about making small adjustments to how he runs the meeting.
“I think most of that is stuff that is subtle that people who attend won’t necessarily see, but as a person who has to be intimate with the details, those things make a difference,” he said. “I’m still in the post Town Meeting evaluation process!”
Johnson plans to go back and watch the tapes of his first meetings as moderator: “I want to learn.”
Johnson sometimes questions the relevance of Town Meeting, but ultimately believes that it is an important tradition in the community.
“This form of government has worked for 286 years, and I think it will continue to work... the residents of our community can show up if there’s a compelling reason. They take the time to come and be heard.”
Johnson is a firm believer in the idea that all politics is local.
“As a participant in the local government process, I’ve seen and can give so many different examples about what we do in local government that affects our lives every single day. Things happen at the federal or state level, but if the town doesn’t have a good budget, services we rely on are impacted — that could be schools, fire, public safety, the library, or recreation facilities. There’s no mandate in our country or town that you must participate — it’s all voluntary — but we’re given a gift to be able to participate and say what you believe about what our resources should be used for. To me, that’s very powerful. I would encourage those who are eligible to participate, to be seen and heard, because it affects your life every day.”