The Brattleboro Selectboard held an extensive discussion of diversity, both in Town hiring practices and the community at large. It was a start and step toward something probably positive, though the goals and steps to get there remain to be more fully developed.
Emergency repairs at the pool and the Harris parking lot were the other big items on the agenda, but the long diversity discussion made for quick summaries of these and other smaller matters due to a late hour.
Chair Kate O’Connor began the evening noting the nice weather for the Strolling of the Heifers event.
Town Manager Peter Elwell wanted to let people know that a postcard with information about changes to Brattleboro recycling would be sent to all households. The big changes are the ability to mix recyclable materials in one container, all plastics will now be accepted for recycling, and bins will be removed from Fairground Road, all starting July 1.
There were no selectboard comments or committee reports.
Tara Cheney, the CEO of Vermont Roadworks came with a proposal for the board to consider. She suggested they help her small-but-growing paving business succeed by paying some expenses in their contract directly, as part of a 3rd party agreement. Other towns were moving in this direction, she said.
If Brattleboro could, for example, write a check directly to the asphalt supplier it would cut overhead expenses. It wouldn’t cost the town anything extra, she said.
Both Abby Mnookin and Daniel Quipp brought up issues of climate. They pointed out that with the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, the responsibility shifts to state and local efforts. They hoped Brattleboro could show leadership.
Quipp also queried the board as to goals for energy in the Town Plan. He wondered where we stood with the plan to reduce carbon emissions, increase locally generated electricity, increase housing with solar, increase car pooling, reduce emissions from municipal operation, and increase weatherized homes, all by 2030.
Elwell and board members assured him that with a new Energy Coordinator and active Energy Committee, answers could be found. Also, that steps toward reducing emissions from municipal buildings was pushed along with the approval of a pellet boiler for the Transportation Center.
Water & Sewer Commissioners
Acting as Water & Sewer Commissioners, the Brattleboro Selectboard approved of a purchase of a one ton Silverado truck with utility body. The $41,482 purchase comes with a trade-in allowance of $18,000. Total amount paid to Shearer Chevrolet of South Burlington will be $23,482.
$42,000 was originally set aside in the budget for this truck, which is used by water and wastewater treatment personnel.
Brandie Starr asked how consideration of Town Plan goals just mentioned play into purchase decisions. Steve Barrett explained they look at fuel efficiency with each purchase, and already have smaller cars in the DPW fleet, where possible.
The board’s second action, contracts for Water Treatment Plant engineering and wastewater line feasibility, are part of a continuing process to upgrade and improve water treatment in Brattleboro.
The Dufrense Group received two contracts from the Town of Brattleboro to do the work. Barrett explained that they are a familiar firm in Brattleboro, having helped with the Black Mountain water tank and other water projects. “They have a complete model of our system,” he said.
The first is a $120,300 project to do a preliminary engineering report, preliminary costs, and phased cost estimates for upgrading the 1989 water treatment plant at Pleasant Valley. This gets the Town useful and important information, Barrett explained, and also qualifies us for additional funding later on.
The second, $59,600 contract is to investigate adding a waste water process line to the existing wastewater collection system . This would eliminate the “lagoon” system currently in use and potentially save some maintenance costs over the long-term.
Elwell noted that the new water line would be gravity fed, which would save energy.
Welcome Center Wastewater Pump Station
The Brattleboro Selectboard, as Water & Sewer Commissioners, approved of an agreement with the State of Vermont to “expedite procurement of pumps, switching equipment, and an emergency generator” for the Welcome Center Pump station project. There will be no cost to the Town.
Town Manager Elwell told the board that this project had taken on an emergency status with a recent failure of a switching system that caused a backup into a brook.
The State is paying for an upgrade and expansion to the station. This agreement allows the Town to start to buying some equipment that may take months to arrive, and reimbursement for it.
Diversification of Town Staff Discussion
Town Manager Peter Elwell delivered his report on Brattleboro Staff Diversification to the Selectboard Tuesday evening, kicking off a very participatory community dialogue on race, justice, values, economics, hiring practices, personal experiences, and more.
He summarized his report, which covers the philosophical and practical foundations for having a diverse staff, including that diversity is beneficial, broad applicant pools help during hiring, the Town values diversity in all forms, and that laws must be followed.
The definition of “diversity,” according to the philosophy section, covers both legally-protected populations (race, religion, sex, identity, orientation, nationality, age, or disability) and other populations, he explained.
The other populations listed in the report include “people who work in public and private sectors, people who have worked locally and in other states, people who have worked for similar and dissimilar organizations, people with a variety of education backgrounds, people of all sizes and shapes, people with different economic circumstances, and/or people with a variety of long term goals.”
Elwell said the Town couldn’t succeed without participation of the community as a whole.
Some training and workshops for management have already occurred, Elwell said, and that creating and maintaining a welcoming environment for all is essential to success in diversifying town staff.
Legally, Town Attorney Bob Fisher weighed in, noting that the Town is obligated to provide equal employment opportunities for all people, and that the Town cannot discriminate (even if in favor of a protected class of people).
He said that Brattleboro could adopt an affirmative action policy to grant special preference to legally protected classes of people, but that it would need to be carefully done, and also that such a policy wasn’t required for the Town to take other actions to “demonstrate our commitment to increasing the diversity of the Town’s employee team.”
Elwell’s report lists the historical and current hiring practices – internal job postings, a listing on the Town website, newspaper ads and professional associations, plus job boards and websites, social media, state organizations, and occasional targeted efforts by departments, such as Rec & Parks getting in touch with BUHS students to announce summer positions, or the Police Department participating in semi-regular trainings of cultural diversity and bias-free policing.
The report ends with recommendations to get the new diversity efforts underway while continuing the conversation at the Town level. It is pretty basic – to tell more people about available jobs, to increase and expand training, and to collaborate at the community level.
After the report summary, a panel consisting of Chief Mike Fitzgerald, Diane Wahle, Julie Cunningham, Curtiss Reed, and Alex Beck weighed in.
Wahle, a member of a diverse workforce committee, served as host, introducing the others and providing some commentary.
Fitzgerald spoke of revamping the police department starting in 2014. Asking “Why aren’t we getting applicants?” led to collaborations, and “going deeper and deeper.” With coaching help from a diverse workforce committee, they tweaked their recruitment efforts. “It’s starting to bear fruit,” he said. “There’s a long way to go, but this has been going on for years and is encouraging.”
(Note that the Police Department’s report mentions that since 2014, seven people of color have applied to be Brattleboro police officers. One failed to attend the interview, one failed the state physical test, one failed the state written test, one took a job elsewhere for better pay, one failed a background investigation, one was invited for a second interview but didn’t attend, and one has successfully applied and is scheduled to attend police academy in July.)
Wahle asked who should be at the table. “Who can expand learning?” She said that the Windham Regional Commission is now monitoring and collecting data on people of color working here. “We can see how different races are employed.”
Beck said that equal outcomes make things succesful and meaningful. He added there was a shortage of people for jobs, more people needed to be brought in, and that “we need to challenge the idea of who succeeds here.” He said issues of race and class often intersect.
Reed told the board that the model that Vermont had used for years to attract others to the state was to target white, hetero males with incomes over $120,000. “The country is changing,” he explained. “As we look to grow our workforce, we need to go where demographics are growing.” He said we can diversify by reallocating resources. “Not everyone reads traditional media for job announcements.” He hoped the board would better understand the marketplace of ethnic minorities and better target them.
Reed said that one effort was the iamavermonter.org website, which speaks to a variety of experiences in Vermont and is used heavily by HR directors dealing with questions of livability and culture.
He told the board that “if you want to strengthen the local workforce, you can’t rely on a white demographic for that to happen.” HR Directors would need to change their behavior and the business community would need to open doors. He said that while it was embarrassing that Brattleboro had done so little to date, he felt there was “great potential for it to be a thriving community of diverse backgrounds.” He suggested looking at recent work in Burlington for ideas.
Cunningham said that Brattleboro’s work on diversity began in earnest after racial events at the high school a few years ago. She said she had a dream, that the community free itself of racism.
The discussion was then opened to attending members of the public. (Many people spoke, and not all clearly stated their names, so we’ll do the best we can here…. apologies in advance and corrections encouraged.)
Brenda Siegel told the board she felt that people might not feel welcomed to apply, perhaps feeling they wouldn’t be hired. “We have people that could be applying for these jobs,” she said. “They are choosing not to apply.”
A number of members of the Root Social Justice Center spoke.
Ezlerh, of RSJC, said that he moved here from Texas and found Brattleboro to be a very welcoming place. “You have to be aware that there’s a lot of unrest [in the country] and people are feeling scared. As a town, we should invite people and tell them it is a safe place to come and raise a family. This is a safe community. I want my feeling for other people. Keep moving forward.”
A young woman (Ruth?) wanted it to be known that it was a mistake to think white people can’t talk about race. “Saying nothing is saying a whole lot.”
(Alex?) Fischer, of RSJC, thanked the board for being vulnerable on TV with a sensitive issue and open discussion. She mentioned adding cooperative business ownership to the list of ways to make Brattleboro attractive to a more diverse audience. She hoped that town committees that work on diversity issues aren’t comprised solely of town employees, as zero are currently people of color. Instead, she suggested, look to paid experts for help.
Patty Clements said she works in Brattleboro now after years in the mid-Atlantic. “My hardest transition has been working in a white bubble. I’ve never worked in an all-white sphere before,” she said. “It’s not reality.” She said the town loses out without people of color.
Emily (?) asked the board how they planned to hold themselves accountable, and how they would assess the changes that might be made. “What voices could be included to make those assessments?” she asked.
Curtiss Reed chimed in with information about Burlington, saying they had a committee focused on diversity and equity, and they are doing oversight on a plan with short-term, medium, and long-range goals. He encouraged the board to think long-term and to plant early flags at historically black colleges and universities with a strategy to invite graduates to Vermont.
Reed noted minorities have a slightly better track record for creating new jobs when they start business. “Jump start the local economy!”
Kate Casa thanked the board for having the discussion but called it “little, and late in the game.” She said that for the all-white selectboard to get a report from all-white people is limiting, and that the legal opinion offered was of limited perspective. She hoped for steps that would commit the town to moving faster. ‘The status quo is not acceptable.” She added that it was one thing to hire kids for summer jobs at the pool, but asked where their role models in higher positions? “The time is now. It was a long time ago.”
Shela Linton said she heard her name mentioned at the previous meeting and decided to heed the call to attend. “You called, so I showed up. Like the batmobile.” She spoke of her own experiences growing up in Brattleboro, and the struggles, racism, assaults, and microaggression she sees every day. Linton contrasted it with that of newer arrivals, such as Ezlerh, who spoke earlier.
“We want the same outcomes and they just aren’t happening,” she continued.
Linton said the system was broken. “I want to be safe, not feel safe.” She said she read the report and felt the legal analysis was just one interpretation. “Based on what I see, it instills fear, hatred, and division,” she said, along the lines of asking “Don’t all lives matter?” She invited the board to really try to show the community what their values are. “You have perfect examples and a community of resources. Don’t allow nuances of legalities to trip you up.” She ended by saying she was looking for a job, and that they could hire her as a diversity coordinator. That got applause.
A mother spoke of her 16 year old black male son getting ready to graduate from high school. “He needs to see role models to consider a future in Brattleboro. There’s no time to lose.” She said the legal opinion seemed “anxious.”
Jim Levinson gave a short pep talk, saying basically that if any town could do it, Brattleboro can.
Orion Barber, a self-professed “old white guy swimming in an ocean of white privilege,” reminded everyone that Representative Town Meeting was rather white and could use some diversifying, too. He hoped the board would consider a new seating arrangement, where representatives faced one another.
A letter from Ellen Schwartz was entered into the record. In it, she wrote that action was crucial, we have a legacy in the country to undo, but we can begin to dismantle it. She hoped the board would avoid tokenism.
Alex Beck remind everyone to patronize businesses owned by minorities and help them thrive. he also noted that environmental racism can be class issues as well. He gave the example of wind farms being placed in poor people’s backyards.
Kate O’Connor began to wrap up the nearly two and a half hour discussion. “We have limits as a board, “ she explained. She suggested they expand their discussion to include women, noting there were no women firefighters and few women police officers in Brattleboro. “We have a woman problem as well,” she said, which wasn’t quite the right thing to say.
Fischer said she found the comment to be a bit of a whitewashing of the discussion, and that race was the bigger issue. “When we look at diversity and race, it will raise diversity across lines and categories,” she explained. But you need commitment to racial justice. Be in solidarity with Black Lives Matter.”
O’Connor said it was also important to have more mixture of people, including a diversity of incomes and including women. “The more diverse you can be…”
“People of color have all those characteristics,” said Fischer.
Brandie Starr tried to come up with an analogy for Black Lives Matter. She said she sees the movement as a playing field, and that Black Lives Matter was akin to making sure everyone is on the field, not aggression toward white people.
Linton said the analogy was a bit confusing and offered another to explain the BLM movement. She asked the board to “imagine your house is on fire” and fire trucks arrive. Someone comes up and says that “all houses matter” and you reply “But yours isn’t on fire. Mine matters right now.” She told them that when black lives matter, all lives will matter.
Starr said she hoped the board could come up with a stronger statement than that of the State of Vermont.
Tim Wessel said his personal desire was to see that Brattleboro not fall victim to an economic bubble and a racial bubble. “Racial and economic justice go hand in hand,” he said, and an economically diverse population is the goal. Wessel said that when he walks downtown, he sees storefronts that not everyone can afford to enter. “I’d like to see a laundromat downtown.” He said an overlap of racial and economic justice issues captured his interest.
David Schoales had some suggestions, and hoped the town could develop a strategy “with everyone.” He liked the idea of looking to Burlington.
Town Manager Elwell cautioned everyone to think about goals before getting too far into specifics. He hoped they would decide “where we want to go before we set steps to get there.”
Reed responded that “policy is what policy does” and encouraged the town not to work on policy but long-term goals. He encouraged them to do programs with kids, to show them a future. He also reiterated the suggestion to appeal to historically black colleges. “The challenge is selling Vermont.”
The board ultimately approved of the report’s recommendations – to invite anyone to sign up for job listings, to ask community organizations to help distribute postings, to conduct more training regarding bias and welcoming workplace environments, to increase cultural awareness and appreciation of diversity throughout the community, and to consider additional ideas from the community. They will also work out details for collaborating with local organizations.
(FYI, The Fire Department says that with their latest job listings, 15 people applied. No people of color. One woman.)
Police-Fire Facilities Update
Town Manager Elwell gave the Brattleboro Selectboard their regular update on the two remaining emergency facility construction projects. Both are still on schedule and proceeding as planned.
The board approved spending of $123,824 to purchase three diesel emergency generators (one for each new building) and a phone system for the Police Station and Central Fire Station. The generators cost $102,764, and the phones cost $11,070 for police and $9,990 for fire.
The generators have 137 gallon tanks, and diesel was selected for its lower prices.
Living Memorial Park Swimming Pool Renovations – Additional Funds
The cost of repair work at the Living Memorial Park swimming pool has increased by 30% since the board’s last meeting. The $20,000 emergency repairs authorized at the last meeting are now $30,000. The Brattleboro Selectboard approved.
GS Bolton, the contractor, originally suggested a new price of $42,000, but a discussion resulted and a compromise reached. Town staff will power wash, paint and fill the pool in time for opening. Maybe.
Elwell said that everything in the schedule would have to go perfectly to meet the opening day goal, but it was possible. Weather, however, needs to cooperate.
The rushed schedule is to meet the opening day deadline of the pool which is June 17. Responsibility for the pool damage will be determined after repairs are complete.
Brattleboro Goes Fourth Parade Permit
By The People: Brattleboro Goes Fourth received a permit for the annual fourth of July parade on Main Street.
Elwell thanked the O’Connor family for organizing the parade, after other support “waned.” (The Chamber of Commerce dropped it as an event.)
Naming of Retreat Farm Road
As part of the improvements and upgrades at the Retreat Farm property, the owners have requested that the private road be named Farmhouse Square.
The selectboard approved of the name, though David Schoales pointed out two major issues with the chosen name, according to a provided diagram.
“The farmhouse is not on the road, and the road isn’t square,” he observed.
Harris Place Drainage Line Emergency Funding
A drainage system at Harris Place that leads down the railroad embankment is in need of urgent repairs, and the Brattleboro Selectboard approved of $121,513 be spent on this emergency capital improvement.
Public Works Director Steve Barrett reported that the failing drainage line between the Harris Lot and the railroad tracks has been rapidly deteriorating . The edge of the parking lot, the guardrail, and embankment are losing structural stability.
The money will go to ECI of South Burlington to do the work. They had a good price and have authorization to do work near railroads. They can work near the high tension power lines. And they have space in their schedule to do the work within the next two months.
Of course, these funds have not yet been allocated or accounted for, so the plan for funding this emergency will be to look for savings in FY18 budget as the year progresses or from savings in other capital projects. If this falls short, the Selectboard can ask Representative Town Meeting members for approval to spend unassigned funds.
Police Department Grants
Brattleboro Police received permission to apply for three grants at Tuesday’s meeting. Police Chief Mike Fitzgerald explained each.
The first is a grant application for a $60,000 Special Investigations Unit Child Advocacy grant from the State of Vermont. Money, if received, will be used to help investigate cases of child abuse and sexual assault in Windham County.
The department also received permission to apply for an $85,000 Community Drug Interdiction Program grant from the Vermont Department of Public Safety. If granted, this will pay for costs associated with participating in the Vermont Drug Task Force.
The third grant approved for application is a $5,075 Bulletproof Vest Partnership grant from the Bureau of Justice. This pays for 50% of ballistic vest costs.
Vermont League of Cities and Towns PACIF Equipment Grant
Brattleboro accepted a $4,422.23 PACIF Equipment Grant from the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. This will pay for safety equipment for the Police, Fire, Finance, and Public Works departments.
We were not, alas, approved for purchase of a hose roller, due to its limited ergonomic impact.
Pay Increase for Non-union Employees
The board approved of a 2% pay increase for 25 full-time and 15 part-time non-union Town employees. This helps keep pay even with the unionized employees, and was approved by both the previous selectboard in their FY18 budget and by Representative Town Meeting representatives.
Annual Dog Warrant
It’s the annual list of dogs and owners that have not yet paid their annual license fee to the Town of Brattleboro. Dogs without licenses may result in tickets for owners. It also comes with the annual threat that unlicensed dogs can be impounded and “destroyed in a humane way,” though town staff are always quick to point out that it never actually happens.
Kate O’Connor made her annual observation that the law penalizes the wrong end of the leash. The owner failed to get the license, not the dog, but the dog faces the extermination.
It’s all about fines, though.
So, watch out Rasputin, Kronos, Hoochie, Niblet, Ibis, Ox, Rocko, Napoleon, Django, Pugsley, Zappa, Chico, Jasper, Moose, Bitsy, and you other 150 or so. Tell your owners you want to be legal.
You can get a dog license in the Town Clerk’s office.
A letter of concern was sent to the board about the condition of Prospect Hill Cemetery. Town Manager Elwell told the board it is being addressed and more information will come later in the summer.