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Longtime Westhampton Town Moderator Ralph Hancewicz credited with boosting local democracy

  • Longtime Westhampton Town Moderator Ralph Hancewicz and his wife, Euthecia, in their Reservoir Road home they've lived in since 1976. The Hancewiczes are moving to Rohobeth, leaving the position of moderator, which Ralph has filled for 28 years, open.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Longtime Westhampton Town Moderator Ralph Hancewicz and his wife, Euthecia, in their Reservoir Road home they've lived in since 1976. The Hancewiczes are moving to Rohobeth, leaving the position of moderator, which Ralph has filled for 28 years, open.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Longtime Westhampton town Moderator Ralph Hancewicz and his wife Euthecia pose for a portrait last week in the home they've lived in since 1976. The Hancewicz' are moving to Rohobeth, leaving the position of moderator, which Ralph has filled for 28 years, open.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

    Longtime Westhampton town Moderator Ralph Hancewicz and his wife Euthecia pose for a portrait last week in the home they've lived in since 1976. The Hancewicz' are moving to Rohobeth, leaving the position of moderator, which Ralph has filled for 28 years, open.

    SARAH CROSBY Purchase photo reprints »

  • Longtime Westhampton Town Moderator Ralph Hancewicz and his wife, Euthecia, in their Reservoir Road home they've lived in since 1976. The Hancewiczes are moving to Rohobeth, leaving the position of moderator, which Ralph has filled for 28 years, open.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY
  • Longtime Westhampton town Moderator Ralph Hancewicz and his wife Euthecia pose for a portrait last week in the home they've lived in since 1976. The Hancewicz' are moving to Rohobeth, leaving the position of moderator, which Ralph has filled for 28 years, open.<br/><br/>SARAH CROSBY

— In his nearly three decades as town moderator, friends and colleagues say, Ralph Hancewicz used his gavel only a handful of times.

Instead of podium-banging, they say Hancewicz ran Town Meeting with efficiency, respect for the rules and regular doses of dry humor.

“He’s everything you could hope for in a moderator,” said Laurie Sanders, a leader of the Westhampton Library building project. “He’s diplomatic, fair and he’s got a great smile.”

“He made a lot of changes in how we handle our Town Meeting,” said Select Board Chairman John Shaw Jr. “But in making those changes he never changed the uniqueness of the town meeting form of government.”

This week, Hancewicz and his wife Euthecia — herself a local community leader — are moving to Rehoboth to be closer to family in Rhode Island. The couple have two grown children, Christopher and Shery.

Nominations for the post of moderator, which Ralph Hancewicz has filled for 28 years, will be taken at town caucus on April 8 at 7:30 p.m. in Town Hall. A moderator for that meeting will be elected from the floor at the start of the gathering.

Westhampton’s annual Town Meeting is set for May 11 and municipal elections for June 1.

Seated in front of a wood-stove fire last week in the Reservoir Road house he and Euthecia built when they first moved to town in 1976, Ralph shared some of the secrets of his success as an mediator of local democracy.

First and foremost, he credited the prevailing spirit of volunteerism in Westhampton.

“There’s a great sense of community here,” said Hancewicz, 69, who retired in 2000 after teaching English at Hampshire Regional High School for 27 years. His wife taught math at HRHS.

“Nobody who works for the town does it for a sense of power,” he said. “It’s about citizenship and community.”

Almost immediately after settling in town, he and Euthecia became involved in the Westhampton Congregational Church. Euthecia, 68, served on the town Board of Assessors and Ralph became a member of the town Recreation and Finance committees.

When an opening for Town Moderator occurred in 1985, Ralph was elected to the post and remained there until now.

Steady hand

While he respects the democratic essence of Town Meeting, Hancewicz decided some long-held practices were in need of an overhaul.

“I dispensed with a couple of things so we got going faster,” he said.

For example, he eliminated the traditional reading of the entire warrant at the start of the meeting and the listing of even the smallest line items in the budget.

As a result, the length of Westhampton’s annual Town Meeting was reduced from an entire day to a morning, and the traditional lunch at Town Hall was transformed from a midday break to an end-of-meeting fundraiser for local causes.

There have been contentious Town Meetings over the years, Hancewicz said, citing in particular a failed vote 14 years ago to raise tax funds for a new library.

“In those instances, I would tighten up and get very strict about the rules, with no personal comments,” he said. “For the routine meetings, I’d run those more like a classroom and try to talk as little as possible.”

Town Meeting regulars say Hancewicz’s calm demeanor and command of the issues helped keep even controversial discussions on track.

“Ralph was respectful and would listen to any opinion,” Shaw said. “The moderator has all the power but he never used it as power. He probably only had to use that gavel three times in all those years.”

Worth keeping

Euthecia Hancewicz, who helped coordinate the private fundraising campaign that resulted in Westhampton’s new $2.1 million library building, said she and her husband also managed to avoid sharing information that might compromise his objectivity as moderator.

“There are times in any marriage where you hold things back awhile before you reveal,” she said, with a smile.

What’s the hardest thing about being moderator — a role that dates to the 17th century in some New England towns?

“When an issue is confusing or someone hasn’t done their homework,” said Hancewicz, a member of the Massachusetts Moderators Association. “Then it’s almost like trying to edit in a group.”

Such confusion has never been a problem in Westhampton, he added. At association meetings, “I listen to the horror stories from other towns,” Hancewicz said. “We don’t have those kind of fights here.”

The thing he’ll miss most about being moderator is presiding over the type of direct democracy that town meeting represents, Hancewicz said.

“I definitely think it’s worth keeping” he added. “I understand government, like business, has become complex and you’ve got to have professionals. But it would be a shame to lose it.”

At a farewell event for the Hancewiczes hosted at the library last month, local residents had a chance to say what they’ll miss most about the couple. Patricia Miller, a longtime friend and library volunteer who organized the gathering, had her own list:

“They’re thoughtful, willing and they’re interested in a lot of things,” she said. “I’m hopeful the community will find a way to fill in the gap.”

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