Sound of the gavel

Voters at Bar Harbor’s annual town meeting last week learned an important lesson about their chosen form of local governance. During a vote on whether to approve $400,000 in bonds for the creation of a system of paid parking meters in town, moderator Bill Ferm was in doubt as to which side had prevailed after he asked for an “aye” or “nay” voice vote.

It is not unusual during a voice vote for one side or the other to adjust their volume in an enthusiastic attempt to convince the moderator that they are present in greater numbers. Ferm wisely called for a show of hands so an exact count could be taken. Ballot clerks fanned out through the school gymnasium and counted the blue index cards being held up in different sections of the room.

One observer in the back of the bleachers, with a view of the entire space, said it appeared from where they were sitting that the “yes” side was in the majority.

As the clerks returned to a table up front to add their totals together, dozens of residents got up and left, believing that the last issue in which they had a major interest had been decided.

Meanwhile, several voters approached the moderator to express concern that their section of seating had been missed. Before the calculations were completed, Ferm, who ably conducted the proceedings throughout the evening, decided that the meeting should revote, this time with slips of paper stating “yes” or “no.”

When those slips of paper were tallied, the parking measure was defeated by just four votes, leaving some to grumble that if those who had departed had remained instead, the outcome might have been different.

That, of course, is true. But who is to say that more “yes” voters left than “no” voters? The parking measure might have passed, or it might have been defeated by a larger margin. Either way, the responsibility for any change in outcome lies in the actions of those who left, not those who remained.

A familiar sight and sound at town meetings in Down East Maine is the moderator striking the gavel after a vote, announcing “that’s a vote” or stating the “ayes” or “nays have it.” Until that punctuated moment, the issue isn’t settled, nothing is final, it isn’t a legal vote.

The gavel, a symbol of the authority granted by the people to the moderator, is a device used throughout society, both in the court room, in the legislature and in the conduct of business by private organizations, companies and nonprofit groups.

When meetings stretch on for hours, it is difficult for people to remain interested, rather than surrender to the press of other responsibilities at the earliest chance. But until that gavel sounds, anything can happen. Both for those who left town meeting early, and for those who remained, the outcome of the parking vote undoubtedly will be a clear lesson in parliamentary procedure for years to come.

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