John D. Leone, 2022John D. Leone

Greg ChristianaGreg Christiana

The April 2 town election has one race, for town moderator, and it offers a bit of history.

In a letter to YourArlington, former longtime moderator John Worden wrote: “For the first time in the memory of living people -- perhaps the first time ever -- a candidate has materialized to challenge the incumbent moderator.”

Vying for the three-year town moderator position are John Leone, who has served since 2007, and Greg Christiana. They offered their views and plans March 23 at “Candidates Night,” sponsored by the League of Women Voters of Arlington and Envision Arlington.

Here is a summary what each said in their own words. Asking the questions was Margaret Coppe of the Lexington League of Women Voters: 

Opening statements

Christiana: I first got involved in town politics by banding with others parents about the crowding in our kids’ classrooms. That’s where I first heard about Town Meeting, a place where people speak and decisions are made, and wanted to see it for myself. Arlington has one of the purest forms of representative democracy. A body of 252 elected volunteers that spend hours together deliberating and deciding policy as representatives of Arlington’s 45,000 residents. A year later, I entered that hall as an elected member of Town Meeting. This year, we’re seeing an unusually high rate of attrition from Town Meeting; 45 members have decided not to run for reelection. Some feel that the atmosphere at Town Meeting creates an unequal playing field. We need to create a welcoming environment outreach that encourages participation by all members, and leadership that prioritizes outreach into our community to invite and inspire more people to participate in our town’s institutions. If elected moderator, I will bring my innovative spirit and passion for democracy to this critical Arlington institution. 

Leone, Christiana debate March 15: ACMi's James Milan moderates:

Leone: I am uniquely qualified to hold this office. I will continue to run a fair, efficient, transparent and well-balanced Town Meeting. I’ve been a Town Meeting member for 27 years, assistant moderator for three years, and moderator for 14 years. I’ve presided over 112 Town Meetings. A good moderator must have knowledge of state laws and town bylaws, and maintain impartiality. Our members are now more informed about the warrant articles and motions before the first night than ever before. As moderator, I’ve introduced many innovated reforms and technology that have helped to make the job for the members easier and the meeting more efficient and transparent: electronic voting, speaking-time clock, consent agenda, the civility pledge that makes it clear there’s civil decorum and respect for all. I also run the new-member orientation workshop. I believe in a participatory democracy and respect all of our members’ service. I’ve worked to focus our time on thoughtful debate. My reforms have reduced prepandemic meeting average to six sessions, making their service more manageable, which has encouraged more voters, of all diversities, to run for town office.

What are a good moderator’s key characteristics, and why do you think you’re a better candidate for this position?

Christiana: The qualities most important for the moderator are a dedication to transparency, and that everyone in the meeting has access to the same information. The makes it a more inclusive and welcoming environment. I don’t see not being a lawyer an issue; we have a town counsel for legal issues. Knowing the town’s procedures and bylaws is more important.

Leone: The key characteristics are to know the state laws and town bylaws, and can apply them to Town Meetings, as well as run fair and efficient meetings, which I’ve done during my 14 years as town moderator. The reforms I’ve introduced have brought the number of meeting sessions down from an average of 10 to 11 meetings to of six sessions, such as the consent agenda, more efficient voting, which gives us more time to focus on and debate the warrant articles. The town moderator must be able to recognize both sides of a debate and make sure we get good speakers on all sides of an issue from our diverse Town Meeting members.

During debates, how would you hold participants to time limits and trying to keep them from straying off topic from the questions being raised?

Christiana: We use a timer at town meetings because we must respect everyone’s time and schedules. We probably could be a little more aggressive than in recent years to maintain the scope of the discussion because comments can often stray outside of that. 

Leone: The time clock is an innovation that I brought. Town Meeting loves the time clock, and members have learned to respect it because they’ll get a reminder from me before their speaking time is up. Town Meeting members have learned to respect the time clock. We have to keep the scope within the bounds of the articles, but sometimes must let members vary a bit so they can make their points, and that’s a good thing to let them do.

How would you make the process of selecting Town Meeting members to speak as equitable and transparent as possible?

Christiana: The town moderator must be able to exercise discretion in order to be equitable to all speakers. However, I feel it’s important that although the moderator is exercising discretion, this discretion must be coupled with transparency and openness. As a software engineer, I’m familiar with the technology needed to do this. Our software should be able to these things, such as selecting speakers. Short of that, there are other low-tech, inexpensive ways of identifying speakers.

Leone: The clerk and I write down the names of people who want to speak on a handwritten list, which we’re currently not able to post on the screen, but perhaps now the software has been rewritten to enable this. It’s not in the order that they raised their hands or pushed a button because some people are faster than others, and couldn’t lead to an unfair debate.

How will you ensure that new and other returning members will be familiar with how Town Meetings are run?

Christiana: Bylaws change over time, so I’d encourage members to create — and I’d work with — study groups to help new members get on board. Plenty of experienced folks are interested in sharing their knowledge of such things as town bylaws and procedures, and what to expect at meetings in terms of ambiance and decorum. I’d build on the orientation that we already have, and encourage experienced members to do this, and to socialize with one another.

Leone: I instituted the new-member orientation workshop in conjunction with Arlington’s League of Women Voters, which we’ve done for many years. We review all the different materials: warrants, motions, reports, and how they interact with each other. I even give new members my phone number and email, and get lots of calls and messages on how best to present their articles. Because I already do this, the only think I can come up with now is to work out a buddy system so new members can join up with experienced members.

When and how should Town Meeting return to an in-person format?

Christiana: This year. I’d check with the Board of Health to make sure it’s a safe, healthy, responsible thing to do. This pandemic can be dynamic, and change any week. Town Meetings are complex, more so than other committee meetings. I’d work with Arlington’s Remote Participation Study Committee to see what our options are, to see what we can adapt to future Town Meetings, and perhaps even advocate for hybrid meetings.

Leone: With the blessing of the Board of Health, I’d like to do it this year. Last year’s Zoom Town Meetings used 808 hours of town staff time, and only one person said they enjoyed this format. More than 77 percent of Arlington residents are vaccinated, and I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t be back in this year, barring a surge of a new Omicron variant.

Closing statements

Christiana: Town Meeting is built on timeless principles: representative democracy and open dialog. These principles need to be coupled with periodic examination of what’s working, and what can be improved. I’ll bring energy and new ideas —not just my ideas, but a diversity of voices and perspectives from both newer and longer-term members of Town Meeting. I’ll dedicate myself to make sure that everyone’s voice is heard. Town Meeting is central to how we govern Arlington about how we make decisions important to our future. I’ll continue to work to increase civic engagement in the town, to make sure all voices are heard with inclusiveness and ensure the smooth operation of Town Meeting, conducted with fairness and respect for all its members.

Leone: When I was elected moderator 14 years ago, I had a primary goal: conduct our business efficiently, and in less time, without sacrificing the balance and quality of debate. We have achieved that goal through series of innovated advances. My goal now, as always, is to have a better Town Meeting, with better engagement and better results. The learning is never done, and I’m always open to hearing concerns to incorporate these improvements into our meeting. As an attorney with 37 years of legal experience, and after 112 town meetings, I have a deep understanding of state law, the town’s bylaws and the way our town functions.

The other candidates in the town election -- for the Board of Assessors, Select Board and School Committee, all unopposed -- provided statements.

2022 town election information

This news summary, by YourArlington freelance writer Susan Gilbert, was published Saturday, March 26, 2022.