In Pittsfield, candidates’ night is at round tables, not podiums

Last modified: 3/3/2015 12:27:30 AM
In many towns, candidates’ night looks like a line of politicians sitting in their hot seats in front of rows of audience members.

A handful of attendees will ask a question, and the candidates will stand up straight – just like they practiced in the mirror – and recite some carefully planned talking points.

In Pittsfield, the first thing the candidates do after introducing themselves is go sit down among the audience. At the forum hosted by Pittsfield Listens and the Greater Pittsfield Chamber of Commerce yesterday, candidates for elected office in the town and schools split up between different high school-style lunch tables next to residents. After the discussion began, every few minutes the residents would rotate over to the next table and sit down next to the candidates stationed there.

“We believe in round tables, not podiums,” said Pittsfield Listens Program Director Molly Messenger.

During the first segment of the program, which is in its fourth year, the candidates participated in the discussion alongside attendees while everyone sought to determine what the top priorities for the town should be. They said the various boards should work together better, the aesthetics and abandoned structures downtown need to be taken care of, the roads and sidewalks should be improved, transparency and professionalism in the government should be improved, and, of course, taxes should be lower.

With the goals articulated, the next part of the discussion followed naturally. The residents turned to the candidates for offices: Well, what are you going to do about it?

Messenger said this style of forum gets people more connected with the candidates, so they’ll have a more informed vote, but also so they’ll feel more comfortable going to a zoning board meeting and meeting with the members if they’ve got a problem or an idea.

“Every single person that came tonight participated, got to share what their priorities were and got to ask questions directly to the candidate,” she said, noting that candidates related that they enjoyed hearing a diverse perspective.

Among the participants was a group of middle and high school students, who constituted the youth table. Messenger said New Hampshire Listens affiliates across the state promote these types of meetings, but Pittsfield was the first to have a dedicated table for youth.

“To start off, you notice how much young people have internalized any message we’ve given them in society that they don’t have a voice, so it took a little bit more time for people to start speaking up,” she said. “Then as you go for the second round . . . they’re like ‘Well, I’m concerned, I really want to make sure it is safe for me to be walking around’ (or) ‘I want to make sure we get a skate park.’ ”

She said one candidate last year admitted he thought at first when he walked in and saw a group of people too young to vote that he might be wasting his time, only to later change course and remark that the conversation with the youth was the most meaningful of the night to him.

The youth interaction is the most important difference from the traditional candidates’ night approach, said Zach Powers, executive director of the Pittsfield Youth Workshop.

“They’re unfiltered,” he said. “They ask some of the best questions.”

Clayton Wood, chairman of the planning board who is running for re-election, said he felt the forum brought out a different crowd of people than traditional events.

“The part that I find frustrating is that every now and then you have a good exchange and they stop you” to move on to the next person’s question. “You just feel like you got ripped off a little bit, and I’m sure they feel that way too,” he said.

After an hour of rotating group discussions, the candidates returned to the front of the room to open up for a larger group discussion, but no one had any questions left to ask.

(Nick Reid can be reached at 369-3325 or or on Twitter @NickBReid.)

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