OUTER CAPE PORTRAIT / I Gavel
DAN SILVERMAN / WOODWORKER & MODERATOR / WELLFLEET
In 1972, just out of college, Dan Silverman drove to Wellfleet for a job interview with a local builder. He’s never left. Dan’s a skilled woodworker and furniture maker. He is the village’s retired fire chief and its town meeting moderator. Here’s Dan in his words.
I always spent time with tools when I was growing up. Being a woodworker was something I knew from an early was what I wanted to do. I came here, not knowing anything about the place. I was a long haired, left wing, Jewish hippie from New York, you know, all of the things that people around here, certainly the old timers here, weren't used to. But Wellfleet was a pretty accepting town. You know, the first time somebody called me a washashore, I just laughed. I didn’t take it personally, and I made sure I integrated myself into the community.
So, I went to work as a carpenter and, little by little, I worked my way into a shop. Along with two other friends, we rented a space. We started buying machinery and tools, taking small woodworking jobs, and started to make my living, such as it was, and happily there's been enough work to keep me going.
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When I first moved to town, and I realized that small towns in New England were governed by open town meetings, I found that fascinating. So I started going to town meeting right away. I don't think I've missed more than one or two town meetings in almost 50 years.
I'm always impressed with how patient Wellfleetians are in terms of listening to one another. People are really respectful. Even in some pretty hot heated issues, they do a good job of not personalizing things, not engaging in ad hominem attacks. I don't tolerate it as moderator. One of the roles is to keep people talking to the issues and not about one another.
I certainly have an opinion on the issues that are before the town, but as a moderator, you have to step back from that. And you need to make sure that the process of how town meeting comes to that outcome is a good process. That suits my nature. And I like to think I'm good at it.
Over the long period of time, I think town meeting does a pretty good job of reflecting the wishes of the town writ large. Does the arc of town meeting bend toward wisdom? I would say probably more Yes than No.
As a moderator, you're standing up there in front of all your fellow townspeople, and to some extent it's a little theatrical. There are moderators who are probably a little better at banter than I am. That's not my strong suit. Every now and then I can come up with something that's a little bit humorous, but it's probably in spite of my nature, rather than because of it.
As you're standing there waiting for town meeting to begin, you're kind of looking out and thinking in the back of the head what I've got to keep track of, but there's also the feeling that you're about to embark on this process that New England towns have been doing for 300 years maybe. There's a mantle of seriousness that you put on. You've been given the responsibility for carrying on this very longstanding, very venerated tradition of self-government.
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This year COVID interrupted town meeting, scheduled in April. Dan headed a task force, charged with making a different plan.
Annual time meeting normally takes place the fourth Monday in April, but no one wanted to be inside. We basically spent the summer planning town meeting. The task force put together a whole series of recommendations, and said our plan is to have it on the ball field at the elementary school on September 12th.
I was a little worried about the social distancing in the line checking in. The reality is we never had a backup. The other thing we did actually have a little concern about was what happens if somebody shows up without a mask and absolutely refuses to wear one. So we had a separate seating area of about 20 chairs with a microphone for anyone who showed up. Nobody showed up without a mask. It never became an issue.
We had a quorum all the way through. The fact that it was a beautiful day didn't hurt. I think people really did want to be out and be among their friends and their neighbors and feel like they were doing something real. This is the first time in my memory that we've done a day time town meeting, and a lot of people said afterwards that they liked it.
It was fun. I mean, I actually enjoyed it. It was a very different experience! I ended up being on the pitcher's mound. So I had whatever it is, eight inches or a foot of elevation, but it just did feel like a pitcher sort of in control of the game, which is kind of ironic, because I hated baseball. I was terrible at it. When I was a kid, anytime I ended up in a baseball game, I'd throw to the wrong base, or I'd make the wrong play. I just hated it! It's funny it turned out this way.