The View From the Front Row

Columnist Bob Deakin explores the point of view of a reporter at a town meeting.

Want to find the reporters at a town meeting? Look in the front row. Not all of us sit there but that's the best place to look as most people avoid the front row (and reporters) like the plague, with the occasional exception of developers or attorneys, who are typically not shy from showing themselves in front of a crowd.

We're not hard to find anyway as few people show up with notebooks, laptops, cameras or tape recorders. It can be an isolated existence as someone may not like a recent story that was written, a perceived “agenda” of the publication or reporters in general. It comes with the job and members of the town organizations we cover have it even worse as they too of course develop reputations for perceived agendas.

That aside, in my experience most people I've dealt with over the years are pleasant and I admire those who serve on the boards and the residents who take the time to show up and participate in local government. As for the developers and attorneys, there are few people better to deal with as a reporter than them. They have a specific goal in mind and want to get the word out, accurately, as to their intentions and are not afraid to speak their mind. That makes for good sources and good quotes.

As the close of the budget season nears and referendums approach, the power of the residents still exists in local municipalities when residents choose to use it. It is cliché but true: When residents turn out in numbers to force changes in the decisions their local leaders make, things happen.

The perfect example is the annual budget. Using local towns with Board of Selectmen form of government as an example, the course of events tends to repeat itself year after year. Town leaders urge input from residents and town-funded organizations early the process in an effort to get a map of public opinion and gauge where to cut or increase in order to come up with the most agreeable budget for a town vote.

Those who attend lots of town meetings know the ropes of participation; wait until the public comment session to speak or ask questions. It's a very democratic process and typically very civil, especially in Woodbury and Middlebury where the towns are small, people know each other and the person or board of persons is usually the source one must go through to solve problems. In larger towns there are more people, organizations and red tape to go through but here it is likely the people you must deal with are in the same room at the meeting you attend.

On a lighter note there are certain clichés you can count on hearing at almost every meeting such as 'let's not put the cart before the horse,' 'six of one, half dozen of the other' or 'comparing apples and oranges.' Stands to reason as meetings usually involve discussing solutions to problems.

Those of us with the tape recorders can attest that there is always someone coughing at a meeting. It doesn't matter the state, town, season or climate, you can count on coughs to block out key dialog listening back to the tape of the meeting.

As for writing the story, there is usually a key issue that is the focus or highlight of a meeting, which of course ends up being the lead. Sometimes you can't always tell what the resolution of an issue is at the meeting because the decision is too long winded or confusing, that's why it's usually necessary to talk to the first selectmen or one of the key players after the meeting or the next day.

If you're lucky or you try hard enough you can usually get the person you need or someone else who can confirm the facts before you submit your story. After all that you check your facts, make sure it all makes sense, listen to the tape to double check and try to figure out what that word was that was blocked out by the loud cough.


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