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Feb 20, 2003 to Feb 6, 2013

Town Manager Peter Elwell Interview - Part 2: About Town

We continue our series of occasional interviews with Town Manager Peter Elwell with some general questions about towns and governing.

What is a town? What turns an empty plot of land into a town?

In Vermont, the practical answer to your question is complicated by the fact that there is no unincorporated territory so even very rural areas (that lack a concentration of people and buildings) are part of Vermont towns. Legally, in all states, towns (like cities and villages and, in some states, townships and boroughs) are municipal corporations formed by states to do the public’s local business in a defined geographic area.

However, if we put aside the statutes and textbooks, I think it is reasonable in most cases to equate “town” with “community.” While there are communities that are not towns, I believe all towns do (or at least should) strive to create a sense of community among their inhabitants. For that reason, my philosophical answer to your question is as follows: A concentration of people and buildings turns an empty plot of land into a town and the behavior of those people, the arrangement and character of those buildings, and the combined impact of endless individual and group choices determine what kind of community the place becomes.

Seems like early town government was about roads, fire prevention and dealing with drunks. (In 1781, Town meeting voted to build stocks and a signpost in Brattleboro.) Are Fire, Police and DPW the essence of a town government?

The essential purpose of government is to do for the people that which they cannot do for themselves. Police, DPW, Fire and the Town Clerk are in this category. A secondary purpose is to provide services that enhance the quality of life in the community. The Library, Parks+Recreation, and Planning are in this category. All of the rest of us in Town government serve in positions that provide administrative support to those essential and secondary services. In democratic government, it is the people (or the people’s elected representatives) who decide what levels of service are desired and affordable for the essential functions and where to draw the outer boundary of the secondary functions. In some very rural communities, the only paid employees are the Town Clerk and the road crew. In larger towns like Brattleboro, the people have chosen to provide a wider variety of services because pooling our resources results either in better outcomes, lower costs, or both.

Much of the work done now by town employees was, historically, done privately or by volunteers. We had hundreds of volunteer firefighters, the library was run by private citizens, building and maintaining downtown sidewalks were the building owner’s responsibility, and so on. Are towns now doing work that should be done by the residents? Why or why not?

I don’t think towns are doing work that should be done by private citizens but we definitely are doing work that could be done by private citizens. That is the essence of those secondary functions and the level of service decisions I mentioned above. And it is why the “combined impact of endless individual and group choices determine what kind of community the place becomes.” Calibrating the balance between public services (and their shared cost) vs. private responsibility (and its inconsistent results) is one of key determinants of community character.

I noticed that Vermont League of Cities & Towns was strongly against any unfunded mandates. Is this a reaction to citizens asking for more, or is it more about state and federal demands and regulations coming down from above?

It is entirely about state and federal demands and regulations coming down from above. The outcome of “citizens asking for more” is community decision-making about whether or not to do more and at what cost. The outcome of unfunded state and federal mandates is each municipality having to spend precious local dollars on activities they did not choose which, in many cases, reduces their ability to invest in activities that are a higher priority for that particular community. It is fair and sometimes important for higher levels of government to impose requirements on local governments, but such mandates should always adhere to the following principle: Any requirement imposed by the state or federal government should be funded by the state or federal government.

What are the some of the misconceptions citizens have about what town government is or isn’t? Any highly memorable requests (feel free to use Palm Beach as the example...) from citizens?

In every community I’ve served, people tried to get the government to resolve private civil disputes. A good example is when a property’s vegetation overhangs a neighbor’s property and the neighbor asks the Town to make the owner cut it back. Those kinds of requests are common, but the Town can only properly intervene when the situation involves failure to comply with a local ordinance. Usually, our response to such a request is to remind the neighbor that they can cut the part over their property or, better still, that they can address the situation collaboratively with their neighbor. I’ve seen more egregious examples of people wanting the government to address a private want or need, but most situations where people overreached have resulted from confusion, not from bad intent.

If there was a company that could be hired to subcontract all town responsibilities, and the price came in lower than what we currently pay for similar services, would it be wise to make a change? What value do we get by local attention and oversight?

Government and private enterprise are inherently different. Each play an important role in fostering and maintaining a healthy community, but the government should not be run as (or by) a private business. Government’s accountability to all the people ensures public access both to municipal service providers and to municipal decision-making processes. Those providers are part of the community and those processes invite participation. Both place a higher value on meeting community needs than on efficiency. The two are not mutually exclusive, of course, and we are continuously trying to improve the cost effectiveness of both Town services and Town administration. But financial efficiency is just a baseline measure of our success as a local government. How well we respond to community needs and facilitate community decision-making are measures that have a greater long-term impact on the quality of life in Brattleboro.

Brattleboro is alone in Vermont with its Representative Town Meeting? Thoughts? Are we better off with this oddity?

It is unfortunate that interest in Representative Town Meeting (RTM) has waned and some seats have gone unfilled in recent years. However, I think the intention of RTM is proper. It represents a middle ground between resorting to the Mayor/Council form with no Town Meeting (imposing an actual barrier to public participation) vs. holding an open Town Meeting that theoretically could be impossible for a Town of 12,000 people. There have been times in RTM’s almost 60-year history when there was competition for the seats and the system served Brattleboro well. Also, I am less concerned than some other people about this current period of reduced participation because that just means that for now RTM is functioning as an open Town Meeting in which any interested registered voter can participate. I also think that holding the meeting on a Saturday (instead of on the Tuesday that is the actual Town Meeting Day or on the Monday evening prior, as some towns do) makes it possible for more people to participate and, we can hope, will promote diversity in representation as the pendulum swings back to a greater level of public interest in serving. So, I don’t think RTM is broken as some other people do, but if we ever switched away from it I would strongly recommend a return to open Town Meeting rather than a change in our form of government.

What percentage of residents do you estimate to be actively interested in town affairs on a regular basis? How many are occasionally interested? Do you think some aren’t paying attention at all?

There certainly are some residents who are not paying attention, either because they are too busy or because they are simply not interested. I have no guess on the percentages of the other two categories, but I can say unequivocally that (despite some RTM seats going unfilled in recent years) there is a greater level of citizen participation in Brattleboro municipal government than in any of the other municipalities I have served.

Why do you think towns are shifting oversight of schools to larger districts, but keeping the municipality under the same local control? Should towns consolidate into districts?

Oversight is shifting to larger school districts because the state is mandating consolidation. I don’t believe that towns should similarly consolidate into districts. If a government’s service area gets much larger than Brattleboro, it becomes hard for individuals to participate in community governance. For the reasons expressed in many of the other questions in this interview, I believe that citizen participation is an important indicator of community health and that the high level of participation in Brattleboro is one of the things that makes our town so vibrant. Also, small local government that is close to the people allows communities to maintain their unique character. Consolidating into larger regional governments would, over time, tend to homogenize the consolidated communities.

Are we right to be a town, or should we consider being a city at some point?

Brattleboro should remain a town. See the answers above regarding private municipal service contractors, town meeting, and consolidation for the reasons why.

What are common threats to towns?

Unfunded mandates from above. Citizen apathy or, even worse, a negative and divisive public that is not engaged, informed, or seeking collaborative community solutions. Underfunding the levels of service that are demanded by the public. There are others, of course, but these three are common and can be very destructive.

What do you think makes our town thrive?

Our high level of citizen engagement (for all the reasons I’ve described in answering the other questions). Our scale (both population and built environment), which represents the Goldilocks ideal of being not too small and not too big, but rather “just right.” The cultural norm of shared responsibility that prevails not just in Brattleboro or in Vermont, but throughout New England. Good schools (both public and private). Tolerance (almost always) and celebration (often) of cultural diversity. Our healthy downtown and a long history of economic resiliency. An artistic/cultural community that is better, larger, and more diverse than most communities our size (or even than many larger communities). Our location, as a crossroads community that is adjacent to gorgeous nature and abundant outdoor recreation but also is only a few hours from major metropolitan areas.

Anything else you’d like to add that we did not ask about?

Just to reiterate my invitation for people to contact me if they have any questions or concerns about Brattleboro town government. My cell phone number is 802-451-8942 and my email address is pelwell@brattleboro.org.

One last item: there was an attachment to the SB mtg materials from VLCT in the last few months discussing home rule, and an effort to add it to the Vermont Constitution. Can you elaborate on this a bit?

Vermont is one of only 9 remaining “Dillon’s rule” states. All the others are “home rule” states. Under Dillon’s rule (named for the Chief Justice of the Iowa Supreme Court who established this principle of law in an 1868 decision), municipalities can only do what the state allows them to do. Under home rule, municipalities can do anything the state does not prohibit them from doing. It is ironic that Vermont perpetuates the democratic ideal of Town Meeting while limiting the authority of local governments by remaining a Dillon’s rule state. Since I believe the best government is that which is closest and most accessible to the people, I support VLCT’s effort to have Vermont become a home rule state.


You can read Part 1 of the interview at this link.


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