Bill Keefe

Bill Keefe -- Town Moderator

Bill KeefeTown meetings are as old as the town and have been called “the purest form of democracy,” giving every citizen a right to speak.  For over two hundred years, residents have been gathering on the second Tuesday in March to elect officers and conduct town business. When those residents were farmers and village tradesmen, the meeting was day-long, with town and school meetings separated by a big dinner, usually ham and beans followed by a selection of pies. Men – the only voters way back then – had to be home in time to milk the cows.

Many of the town’s records were lost in a fire, but one warrant from 1775 includes, after a discussion of the roads, whether to raise money to send the militia to Boston to fight the British. Until that point, town meetings were called in the name of King George.

When people began working out of town, the business part of the meetings moved to evenings and Wilton’s is on Thursday. By law, everyone votes on Tuesday, but that is now an all-day affair with printed ballots

Town Meeting is presided over by the Moderator, elected for a two-year term. For the past 14 years, that has been Bill Keefe.

“Presiding over town meeting is the fun part,” Keefe said recently. “Keeping it interesting and moving along. Things can get bogged down in minutiae,” he agreed. “Pass a six-million-dollar budget with little or no comment and then argue for an hour over changing a road name. I’d like to see the minutes of that 1775 meeting, what they said about spending money on the Militia.”

Being the town moderator is a “great honor,” he said. “It is usually fun.  (The position) combines art, science and law. And I meet a lot of interesting people.”

He mentioned long-time resident Charlie McGettigan “who knew the history of almost everything.” There are few of them left.

Bill Keefe has lived in Wilton since 1989, “moved from Lyndeborough via Milford.” He attended high school in Amherst and then Dartmouth College. He and his wife Caroline have two adult children.

Bill Keefe law officeOver 40 years ago, he joined his father, John, in his law practice on Main Street. “We were full service, covering everything, but I’m starting to cut back a little now.”

Preparing for Town Meeting takes a couple of hours, he said. “I have a script to follow.” His general rule is to “start on time and keep moving along.” Thursday is a good day, since people have to go to work the next morning and tend to shorten discussion. “We can do it in three, three-and-half hours.”

There can be breaks in that time when a written ballot is called for. Coffee is usually available through the meeting. He wants all items not on the agenda, presentations and special recognitions, at the end in the “any other business” article.

It is the other part of the job –covering elections – that is getting harder with new regulations from the legislature, and most recently COVID-19. “Particularly the last go-around,” he said. “We had a lot of meetings with the Secretary of State’s office and the Attorney General. Everyone living in Wilton has a constitutional right to vote and we should let them.” That included providing a separate place for those who don’t want to wear masks.

“We couldn’t run an election without masks and at this point we don’t know where the next election will be held. And 2022 is a mid-term year with three elections – town, state primary, and the general election in November. “Hopefully we’ll be back to normal by then.”

Many towns are considering eliminating town meeting in favor of ballot voting, the so-called “SB 2 law.” So far, Wilton has not considered that. “We have a fairly good turn-out,” Keefe said, noting that the meetings are also a social time, “people getting together and gabbing.”

At a traditional meeting, people can ask questions, discuss a topic, but under SB2 they can’t. Discussion is at a “deliberative session” which can be manipulated by a determined group. The wording on the ballot is determined at that meeting and cannot be changed, occasionally presenting a problem if an emergency arises after the ballot is completed.

“Town Meetings are a wonderful tradition and I hope the system continues.” But he wished, as all officials do, that more people attended.

Work has already begun on next town meeting, and the place to get informed is at the Budget Committee meetings. “You can ask questions and make changes there,” he said. Voting is a right and a privilege.

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