Harrington not running for Westborough Town Moderator
By John Swinconeck, Contributing Writer
Westborough – When Town Meeting convenes in March, it will be missing the mainstay that has gripped the gavel for more than two decades. Longtime Town Meeting Moderator Joseph Harrington has said he is not running for another term.
“I will miss it. It’s been a fun ride, and it’s going to become a part of me. But 24 years is enough,” Harrington said. “It’s better to leave when you’re on top of your game. I think I still am.”
Harrington, who moved to Westborough in 1973, said Town Meeting moderation is a family tradition.
“It’s a genetic defect,” he said, tongue-in-cheek. “My father was the moderator in Wenham, where I grew up. The talk around the dinner table was around moderators’ issues. He served for 29 years, until his death.”
With his vast knowledge of procedure and the rules of order, it would be easy to assume Harrington spent his career as a lawyer or judge.
“A lot of people think that,” he said. “Maybe it’s just how I talk.”
His background is not in law, however. Harrington worked as a nuclear engineer with Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Doctoral degrees in nuclear engineering from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). His professional career was spent in power generation and management, as well as in fundraising for MIT. He has been retired since 2004.
Harrington also served for nine years as moderator of the Congregational Church of Westborough in the 1980s, giving him a “running start” for moderating Westborough Town Meeting.
As moderator, he earned a $250 stipend.
Looking back, Harrington said that the most divisive Town Meeting issues are often the ones pertinent to the schools. Questions over the construction of new school buildings, renovations, expansion, and improvements have been contentious. Harrington described debates over whether to renovate or build a new Westborough High School as “a battle royale.”
Harrington said residents still ask him his advice on how to vote.
“I just say, ‘that’s not my function.’ My job is to provide a safe forum to air out their differences. Hopefully, everyone listens, and we leave the hall as friends.”
It’s important that a moderator cares about the issues and his or her community, but “keeps his mouth shut,” according to Harrington.
“The warrant is the province of selectmen. The record is the province of the clerk. The decisions are in the hands of the voters. The moderator’s province is procedure,” he said.
Harrington said he tried to be fair when moderating Town Meeting discussion, and when deciding whether to recognize a motion to close discussion.
The main problem with town meeting as a form of democracy, Harrington said, “is you have to be there.” Attending can be difficult for single-parent families and off-shift workers.
However, representative town meeting and city council governance means the will of the people are represented by a smaller fraction of the town’s population, he said.
“Nobody represents me better than me,” Harrington said. “I maintain that the ability to go to Town Meeting and be heard, and to vote is a very precious thing. It’s rarer and rarer, and it troubles me when I hear so many people are ready to throw that away. It’s a precious right, and one we can still make work.”
That doesn’t mean there’s not room for improvement, however. Harrington said that, while he won’t moderate the next Town Meeting, he will be there, speaking in favor of funding electronic voting. That proposed change, he said, will improve attendance by allowing greater privacy.
In addition to overseeing Town Meeting, the moderator appoints several committees in town, notably the important Finance Advisory Committee that makes recommendations on the annual town budget. Making the right appointments, he said, is frequently more challenging than running Town Meeting.
Selectman Chair Ian Johnson praised Harrington’s work as moderator, noting Harrington’s even-handed manner, his willingness to endorse electronic voting, and the appointments he has made to town committees over the years.
“I think he’s been a steady presence for the town in that job,” Johnson said.
Harrington isn’t the only high-profile member of Westborough’s government to step aside in recent days. Former Town Clerk Nancy Yendriga retired in December 2013 after 20 years.
Recreation Director Frank DeSiata also announced he is considering retirement after 36 years on the job.
“When you look at the years these folks have put in, for a lot of them, it’s time for them to move on and let others step up,” Johnson said.
Finance Committee member John Arnold, who was appointed to that board by Harrington, is now running for moderator.
No other candidate has filed papers to run for that three-year term by the Jan. 14 deadline, and there are no contested races anywhere on the ballot, according to the Town Clerk’s office. The election will be held March 4.
“The job isn’t mine; it’s not my property,” said Harrington. “I rented it every three years. It’ll be in good hands.”
Town Meeting begins at 1 p.m. Saturday, March 15, at Westborough High School, 90 W. Main St.
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