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Long-time Amherst Town Meeting moderator gives up the gavel

  • Harrison Gregg at his home in Amherst Tuesday.
  • Nancy and Harrison Gregg with their dog, Daisy, Tuesday at their home in Amherst.

For a generation of Town Meeting members, the sound of Harrison Gregg’s voice echoing through the middle school auditorium is a hallmark of the legislative body.

As elected and appointed officials come and go, Gregg has remained a steady presence at the podium since 1994. “He’s the face of Town Meeting,” said Select Board Chairwoman Stephanie O’Keeffe.

Gregg announced at the final session of fall Town Meeting last week that he would not be seeking reelection next spring.

“I wasn’t carrying quite the enthusiasm I had been,” Gregg said. “It’s a good time to leave as the town is in very good hands, with an excellent town manager and Select Board and among the best administrations we’ve ever had.”

Because he believes the moderator is supposed to be nonpolitical, though entitled to cast a vote, “I never have and never would.”

“The moderator has to be trusted by people to be fair and unbiased. Any way you can assure people you are not taking sides is a good thing,” Gregg said.

Still, some members have complained that he doesn’t alternate in calling on people in support of or opposed to an article. Gregg said he wants to shape the flow of the debate, allowing those in town administration to talk to the issues.

“You can’t apply formulas to this,” Gregg said. “I think I give more time to the minority in the long run.”

An opinion he doesn’t mind sharing is his appreciation for town’s form of government.

“One of the most valuable aspects of Town Meeting is it requires a certain number of people to get involved, widening the number of people who are well informed about town government,” Gregg said. “It does put the business of the town and the complexity of it into people’s minds.”

For Gregg, the most memorable moments in his tenure were those that challenged him. A few years ago it was the complications caused when the Select Board and Finance Committee presented alternative budgets. In the late 1990s, it was the Boltwood parking garage, with competing proposals on the warrant, only one of which was endorsed by the Select Board. When a compromise was reached, Gregg had to decide if it fit within the scope of the article.

“Everyone thought I was favoring the other side.” Gregg said.

Before the start of Town Meeting in the spring and fall, Gregg would attend two meetings to go over the warrant, the order of articles and expected motions with town officials. He also meets with any residents proposing petition articles so they will be framed correctly.

An important duty is appointing the Finance Committee, a process he has kept out of the political arena by ensuring members don’t have axes to grind.

“I’m pleased with the people I’ve appointed to the Finance Committee. I think it’s one of the best committees we’ve ever had,” Gregg said.

A decade ago, Gregg was elected president of the Massachusetts Moderators Association, just months before a proposed charter that would have eliminated Town Meeting was voted down the next spring.

In 12 years prior to his election as moderator, Gregg served as a Town Meeting member, observing and learning from then-moderator William Field.

Gregg said he is likely to endorse James Pistrang as his successor. Pistrang, who has been a regular substitute for Gregg, is the only one so far to take out nomination papers, which must be filed by Feb. 19.

“I’m a longtime Town Meeting member and I love Town Meeting as a form of government,” Pistrang said. “Harrison has been an inspiration for the great things a moderator can do to keep Town Meeting running smoothly, hope to fill his shoes.”

Retired for two years as associate registrar at Amherst College, Gregg said he will continue to work as a guide at the Emily Dickinson Museum and, with wife Nancy, will baby-sit for grandson Jacob, in Northampton, twice a week and continue to perform in the South Congregational Church choir. But one thing he will not do is run for Town Meeting.

“I will stay away from Town Meeting, at least a couple of years, maybe permanently, who knows,” Gregg said. “It’s a favor to the moderator to not hang around while he’s getting his sea legs.”

Gregg’s retirement announcement last week was followed by a three-minute speech in which he expressed his thanks to the town manager and Select Board, as well as his love for Town Meeting, referencing a speech he made when elected president of the Massachusetts Moderators Association.

“I love the way every issue has at least two sides, and sometimes five or six,” Gregg said. “I love remembering people’s names, and guessing what they will say.”

After long applause, with some hoots and whistles, O’Keeffe thanked Gregg for his “extraordinary service all these years.”

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