CHELMSFORD -- Change is almost certainly coming to Town Meeting, whether Town Moderator Richard DeFreitas is re-elected or challenger Jon Kurland is successful in the election April 1.
Kurland has called for changes in the way the meeting is run, such as having only one microphone instead of two -- one for supporters, one for opponents -- for meeting representatives to speak, an arrangement that has its share of critics. It's a unique feature among town meetings in Massachusetts, along with a question-and-answer session that may be changed.
Those changes also happen to be the same recommendations expected to come from a committee formed by DeFreitas last fall.
A contested race for town moderator -- especially while an incumbent is seeking re-election -- is rare. It is Chelmsford's first contested race for moderator in 33 years, when Dennis McHugh ran for his first of 10 terms.
DeFreitas ran unopposed for his three-year term after McHugh retired three years ago.
Kurland, a former selectman and a Chelmsford-based attorney, said he was urged by several Town Meeting representatives to run. DeFreitas had received some criticism for a more proactive style of running Town Meeting, and that created an opportunity for Kurland.
"I was recruited by a number of people in town who felt that Town Meeting had lost some direction," Kurland said at a debate last week.
In debates this month, Kurland has said he would run Town Meeting with a different attitude than DeFreitas has.
When asked at one debate what makes him more qualified, Kurland said, "It's really a matter of style."
DeFreitas admitted to being "less than gracious on a few occasions."
In another debate, Kurland asked DeFreitas why people should expect a "kinder and gentler" DeFreitas if he's re-elected, choosing words DeFreitas used at a previous debate.
"I understand the push-back better than I did before," DeFreitas said, referring to the response he has received from some representatives. "I don't see how I could be any worse than what they think I am now."
DeFreitas opened the final night of Town Meeting last October by saying he would more strictly enforce meeting rules. Each speaker would have only three minutes at the microphone, question-and-answer sessions for each article would be limited to 15 minutes, and an hour maximum would be allowed for each article unless there was a vote to extend the discussion.
He recently met with other town moderators and learned Chelmsford is unique in the way it runs Town Meeting, including being the only one to have a separate question-and-answer session.
DeFreitas stuck to the stricter guidelines as the meeting went on, seeming to catch some meeting representatives off-guard.
"No posturing," he said later. "I don't want to know why you're asking a question. I just want to know what the question is."
It was that same night that DeFreitas announced he was forming a committee made up of Town Meeting representatives to review the procedures and to recommend changes. Those recommendations are expected to include using only one microphone instead of two, and speeding up the question-and-answer session for each article.
The question-and-answer session is used too often for rhetorical questions to make an argument, not for information-gathering, he said.
DeFreitas said he supports the committee's findings and would institute them if re-elected. Kurland said he would generally support the recommendations, too, because he had been calling for essentially the same changes.
Both candidates have received the support from others who have been in the position.
DeFreitas, the chief financial officer of ABC Payroll, a Chelmsford company, has support from Billerica Town Moderator Gilbert Moreira. In a letter to the editor of The Sun last week, Moreira described how DeFreitas took hours of his time to help Moreira learn about electronic voting and attended a Billerica Town Meeting to answer questions.
McHugh, the former Chelmsford moderator, backs Kurland. McHugh said he has known Kurland for a long time and is familiar with his knowledge of the law and procedures.
"I know he'd make a great moderator," McHugh said.
McHugh used a slightly different meeting system, including only one microphone for representatives. He empathized with the difficulty of keeping the question-and-answer session to simply getting information.
"It's a challenging period of time in which to manage a meeting," he said.
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