Brattleboro’s Town Manager revealed the results of his summer explorations of issues of diversity, inclusion, and equity. He got generally good reviews for the summary of his report, but more than a few requested some additional specifics be included. Brattleboro seems to be in a good position to make progress over the long term, but benchmarks and budgets might help.
The pesky panhandling sign returned in a semi-uncertain form, with wording in question and sponsoring organizations and services asking for their logos to be removed. The private effort was to be a collaboration, but appears to have offended a few too many.
The board also signed a statement in support of other climate agreements being signed around the globe. (For Kate O’Connor’s sake, I’ll say here that Brattleboro has been working on climate issues for a long time, is committed to action, and will continue to be so.)
All this, and possibly more.
Chair Kate O’Connor mentioned the two recent local ribbon cuttings – the I-91 bridge and the police station on Black Mountain Road. John Allen added another – the McDonalds.
O’Connor said the new McDonald’s invited board members and town staff, and made contributions to both the skatepark and the Green Street school.
Town Manager Peter Elwell reminded everyone about the library building’s 50th birthday party scheduled for Saturday.
For selectboard comments and committee reports, Brandie Starr said that a recent VBSR conference on climate and the economy showed that renewable energy is an economic driver, creating jobs. She said she also heard a talk about tax incentives not being the greatest incentive for low income people, though most people want renewable energy.
There was no off-agenda public participation.
Police & Fire Facilities Update
The Town Manager’s facility updates get shorter as more of the work is completed. This week, with the Police Station ribbon cutting and expected full operation by Friday the 22nd, the list shrinks again.
Central Fire Station’s new construction is almost complete, and renovation of the older spaces is expected to be complete near the end of the year.
The old West Brattleboro fire station is being demolished, and a parking lot will replace it.
The project budget is approaching a final form, though there are a number of anticipated expenses, such as signage, a new roof, and a carport. $382,000 remains in the fund pile.
The Brattleboro Selectboard held a second reading and public hearing on the matter of parking changes at Elliot and Church Streets. Some spaces directly across from the fire station will be moved, and others added.
They also held a second reading and public hearing regarding an increase of speed limit on Vernon Street.
With no objections, both changes were adopted.
At a previous meeting, the Brattleboro Selectboard asked for a new draft of a proposed collaborative sign to be placed in public and private areas that would educate people about the rights of those asking for money and those being asked. Tuesday, the board reviewed the newly proposed sign. Sort of.
As it turned out, the proposed sign in the Selectboard packet had undergone a number of changes, including the rather substantial news that some collaborating organizations (Groundworks and the Chamber of Commerce) had asked to have their logos removed, and an emergency services phone number wanted off as well.
Michelle Simpson-Siegel, director of the downtown alliance, fought hard for the sign, arguing that it was both factual and approved by town officials, but there was much opposition.
The operations director of Groundworks said the current flyer seemed “reactive and about calling 911.”
Kate O’Connor, speaking as Chamber director, said that it didn’t seem collaborative without Groundworks support, and that whatever is put out should be put out as a community.
Brenda Siegel agreed that the flyer seemed “agressive, not informational.”
Some saw value in the sign being aggressive. Dale Joy thought being agressive was what was needed to help keep tourist here. Pal Borofsky, of Sam’s, said panhandling was a real problem.
Tim Wessel said that he had problems with the sign from the beginning, and the current version he felt still contained an error. “It is not illegal to ask someone for money near an ATM,” he said, “ but is if someone feels threatened.” He pointed out that the proposed sign implied it was always illegal and always should be reported.
“I’m not crazy about signs,” he added. “I don’t think it will reduce panhandling.”
Simpson-Siegel said that if everyone called the police, more data could be collected. She didn’t want the sign to get too deep. “If we get into nuances we’re making assumptions.” She said the sign couldn’t address all possibilities.
“That’s why it is weak,” said Wessel.
Brandie Starr said that she was originally in favor of a sign with information, but after losing the support of Groundworks and others, she did some soul-searching. “We need to be brave enough to see this ship tanked, swallow our pride, admit that something broke here, and that this isn’t fixing it.”
John Allen said it was important for the town do do something. He said the board worked for people who live here, not tourists or panhandlers. “The sign is a good start,” he said. “It won’t correct the problem…” He hoped it would be hung all over town. “Let’s show we’re trying to do something.”
Starr pointed out that panhandlers do buy things in town and pay taxes. “I don’t want a situation where people are against people.”
David Schoales pointed out that the Town was already working on four bigger panhandling related initiatives – a survey to gather data, a possible jobs program, collection boxes to raise money for social services, and an outreach task force.
O’Connor said private businesses could hang the sign regardless of what the board decides.
Elwell suggested the board work on language to go on the collection boxes.
Dick DeGray suggested the Chamber pulled out to avoid bad publicity, and suggested a bigger downtown police force.
O’Connor said he was completely wrong about the Chamber’s reasons for logo removal.
Wessel continued to try to work out the language. He suggested it read that if one feels threatened, then contact the police. “That gets to actual law,” he said. “It’s kind of obvious, and this sort of says ‘obey commonly understood rules.’”
Audience members continued to have doubts. Alan Blackwell said it could backfire and cause a flood of calls due to a feeling of being threatened rather than an actual threat.
Brenda Siegel said she though making contact, talking with panhandlers, and humanizing them worked for her. “People need to look inside and see if you are really threatened or just afraid.” She said fear was fear, inside oneself. “Take that into consideration.”
Pal Borofsky said that he was talking about something different, that some people are thieves. He said boots and shoes have been stolen from Sam’s, and that there were lots of jobs to be found. “They can get a job.” Dale Joy agreed there were enough jobs, but addiction kept some from getting them.
Elwell had doubts that the Town could pull the whole sign issue back into collaborative focus anytime soon, noting a lack of consensus and a difference of opinion. He suggested instead that they Town staff on a sign for public display for the selectboard to approve (or not), and the private sign by downtown merchants and members of the public could continue as a private effort.
O’Connor said she’d vote for it now, but perhaps not for the eventual sign itself.
Town staff will work on a Town sign for possible public placement.
Diversity, Inclusion, and Equity in Town Government & the Community
A simple question asked during candidate debates last February about why the Town has no people of color on staff has had significant reverberations. The Brattleboro Selectboard discussed the topic in May, which led to a summer of conversation, investigation, and contemplation by Town Manager Elwell that included the participation of nearly 50 concerned groups and individuals.
All of these efforts have led to a report to the selectboard, complete with conclusions and suggestions for actions to be taken. Town Manager Elwell summarized the report at the meeting, but it is well worth your time to read the full report.
He began the report with a personal note stating he’s a “poster child for privilege,” and was nervous that he might say the wrong things or cause unintentional hurt while reaching out to the community. He subsequently learned that it is a common feeling, and that by recognizing our imperfections we can get over the awkwardness and “do the work.”
Of course, he reports, “doing the work” means different things to different people, but this is good because a diversity of efforts is needed. And the definition of “the work” matter less than the conversations it inspires. Engagement with one another and learning from one another are steps toward building an inclusive and equitable community. “Not everyone agrees, and that’s okay.”
Elwell said that Town officials and other community leaders need to be visible in the conversations, and participate with humility. “We need to stay in this sincerely, and listen to those who have been marginalized, or have worked to reduce it, to become better informed.”
What started as a conversation about race, Elwell reported, expanded beyond the need to provide safety, opportunity, and engagement with and for people of color. In addition, Elwell says there is a need to do the same for “LGBTQ people, indigenous people, women, people who struggle financially, people with disabilities, older adults, people from other states or countries, youth, people experiencing homelessness, people whose first language was not English, people affected by mental illness, people affected by chronic physical illness, people affected by addiction, and anyone else who feels marginalized in our community.”
The Town’s role, he said, was not to focus energy on a particular subset of people, but on broader improvements for all marginalized people, and that this will improve Brattleboro for everyone living here.
“Diversity is only a beginning.” Elwell said it isn’t enough to do short term fixes, and that the goal should be a more welcoming and equitable community for the long term. This means recognizing and appreciating differences among us (diversity), ensuring actions demonstrate an intent for all people to feel safe and welcome (inclusion), and achieving a state where people feel welcome and safe and ARE welcome and safe (equity). If we can do that, people of all backgrounds will have an opportunity to thrive.
The Town can do some short-term fixes and support work in the community, he explained, but long term success can’t be dictated or legislated by the government. He said it must come from the community.
Elwell said Brattleboro is becoming more diverse right now – students of color now represent 20% of Brattleboro’s school enrollment.
In employment terms, Elwell said that recruitment could add diversity, but real inclusion and equity sustains that diversity.
(In gardening terms, he said we need to nurture the seeds that have already been planted in the community, we’re well positioned to do this, and progress can continue to be made.)
Over the summer, the Town added links to a range of local resources, revised language of job listing advertisements, and signed up 17 people to receive job listings. Elwell said he’d like to send announcements to even more organizations that can spread the word.
The report recommended Town employees and selectboard do training to recognize bias and inequity, commit to broader outreach during recruitment, and consider hiring a human resource manager.
Town government should also support social equity in all of its work, being mindful in addition to being compassionate. Closer collaborations with schools should also be explored. Community gatherings should be organized, Diversity Day can be reinvigorated, and the Town can support work of organizations working on inclusive and equitable issues.
Finally, Elwell says that the Town will keep listening and learning.
Elwell got high marks from almost everyone, with a few suggestions to make the document vene better.
For example, Phoebe Gooding suggested new hires also be given ongoing support.
Many asked how success and failure would be measured, and whether specific goals could be included. Other pointed out the need for funding and other resources. Curtiss Reed asked for a timetable identifying who was responsible for what, and dollar figures. Ezlerh from Root Social Justice Center agreed that funding and resources were needed. Alex Fischer reminded the board they have power, can move resources, and make way for people with answers.
Shela Linton agreed with the others that the report was a good start, but she hoped it could include a timetable, with resources and action steps to be taken. “We have to help hold you accountable, but how will that play out? We’re part of the checks and balances to give you feedback throughout the process.” She added that the Root Social Justice 4th anniversary was coming up Saturday, and would include a parade, potluck, fundraiser, hanging out and talking. She also suggested the Town work with Equity Solutions when they do training.
David Schoales liked the suggested to collaborate with schools.
“Selectboards come and go,” said O’Connor, “ and Town government will stay. This has to become institutionalized. It has to become a given.
Wessel reminded all that they can volunteer to be on boards an committees, as will be discussed later in the meeting.
Linton offered another suggestion: when hiring an HR person, consider hiring a person of color. “It could have a significant impact.”
Alex Fisher suggested the Town add language to job descriptions about “the ability to work with marginalized populations.”
The Town Manager’s report and recommendations were approved, and there was applause.
Energy Committee Matters
The Brattleboro Energy Committee was to give its annual report to the selectboard Tuesday evening, but decided to postpone it until October.
Instead, they jumped into a discussion of a proposed climate resolution. The proposed text:
“Brattleboro should do its part to achieve the goals of the Paris Climate Accord and the Vermont Comprehensive Energy Plan. The Brattleboro Selectboard commits the municipality to meeting these goals for greenhouse gas reduction and renewable energy adoption, and asks every household, organization and business in town to do the same. We commit to joining those state, national and international initiatives that best represent the intent of the Paris Climate Accord, and request that the Energy Committee track and inform us concerning appropriate options for us to sign onto.”
The Brattleboro Selectboard was generally in favor, but had some questions.
Tim Wessel asked what the resolution required and wondered about the impact on taxpayers. He also was curious how it fit with Vermont initiatives. He was assured that approving it would not commit the Town to much of anything, other than showing that we care and support others doing similar efforts.
State goals, he was told, are more stringent than the Paris Accord, but are also different. The Paris Accord calls for a reduction by 26-28% of greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels by 2025, State goals include increasing renewable energy.
Kate O’Connor was especially excited about the possibility of making a much stringer statement, feeling that Brattleboro had one chance to send out a press release that made people say “wow” when they read it. She suggested many times that the resolution have language added that would note Brattleboro’s work to date and longstanding commitment to climate matters.
Others weren’t so sure it was necessary. George Harvey of the Energy Committee said that the work they do and progress they make will generate stories more than a resolution. “Performance will attract people.”
Harvey added that doing nothing was far worse, noting that Vermont already sees the effects of warming, with our coldest night of winter shifting 10 degrees, new pests, destruction of ridge top habitats, elimination of maple, birch and beech trees, other trees on the move, and so on. “If we do nothing, that’s the worst we could do.”
Wessel wondered if mentioning the Paris Accord might make the resolution slightly weaker, as it was “assailable” from both left and right. He said he believed that 71% of greenhouse emissions come from corporations and countries and the majority of responsibility was with them, not Vermonters trying to drive to work.
Daniel Quipp suggested the conversation continue at another meeting, and earlier on the agenda so more could be involved. He said he was skeptical of resolutions, and that the real problem was action. He liked O’Connor’s desire to make it stronger and endorsed the idea of taking more time to give it more teeth. He also felt it was time to do big things, not just the proverbial low-hanging fruit.
The resolution was approved as written above with no changes.
Downtown Building Energy Program
The request to endorse the downtown building energy program, supporting energy improvements in privately owned commercial and residential buildings, and a goal of reducing energy costs and emissions, was either approved or rejected by the Selectboard. I’ll explain.
Tad Montgomery read the introduction to the plan for the proposed program. It would be a limited time program to provide support to businesses and residents to do energy audits, take energy saving measures, and install energy saving systems. It would reduce greenhouse gas emissions, generate local economic activity, and create some jobs.
He said the Energy Committee was looking for a statement of endorsement, and perhaps some help fundraising for it.
Brandie Starr said she was confused. “Is this a private entity?”
Micheal Bosworth said details hadn’t been worked out.
Montgomery apologized for listing the Chamber of Commerce as an organization asked to provide input. O’Connor said the Chamber hadn’t talked about it.
John Allen was also confused. “What are we endorsing? The thought of it?” He said the board wished every business good luck.
Montgomery suggested Town administrators write letters of support when grants are applied for, or help with grants. Elwell said the Town was busy with other issues and couldn’t help with grants, but could write letters of support.
At this point, 9:45 p.m. or so, BCTV’s streaming coverage cut off and was replaced by a planning commission rebroadcast, just getting underway.
It was the last I saw of the Selectboard.
So, I’ll take my best guesses for you, dear reader, as to what may have happened. Remember, everything after this point is pure speculation.
That Downtown Building Project
I’m guessing the board did not endorse the full plan, but offered more general support in the form of letters when grants are written.
Ordinance To Ban Single Use Plastic Bags
The agenda materials introduced some doubt as to whether Brattleboro should ban them outright (thin film single use ban; reusable, compostable, and paper allowed) as requested, or go back tot he drawing board.
Pal Borofsky, of Sam’s, wrote to the board with an indication that his store considered avoiding the ban by switching to thicker, more expensive bags. He said doing business in town and Vermont is a challenge, and it is “getting harder to justify staying in business” due to effects of minimum wage, health insurance and “laws that the state keeps mandating on our business.” He was expected to speak against the ban, so I assume he did.
I’ll guess that this caused some hesitation by some board members, and that the outright ban was put off and a hybrid ban-fee model might be explored.
Remember, I’m just guessing here.
FY17 Year End Financial Report
The final numbers were in but Finance Director John O’Connor was absent and Elwell was to give the board an overview of the unaudited financial report for FY2017. 100% of the fiscal year was completed.
This is what was included in the Selectboard packets:
General Fund expenditures were at 96.4% of the annual budget; revenues were at 101%.
The Utilities Fund revenues were 105.1% and expenditures at 97.3%
The Parking Fund revenues were 102.8% and expenditures at 104.5%.
Solid Waste Disposal Fund revenues were at 94.3% and expenditures at 94.2%
$4,046711 had been loaned out and $467,445 remained available for grants and loans.
There were 53 active grants and 12 in the application process in June.
August Financial Report
Likewise, this info comes from Selectboard packets for the meeting. It should be spot on:
This report is a bit more current, showing two months of FY18, or 16.7% of the fiscal year complete.
The General Fund expenditures are at 18.2%, which includes some big semi-annual insurance payments.
Utilities Fund is at 19% and Parking is at 18.4%.
Solid Waste Disposal revenues are at 12.8% and expenses at 15.9%, with the regular reminder that some revenue gets booked a month later.
The Town has just over $4 million loaned out and just under $500,000 available for additional grants and loans.
In August, there were 36 active grants and 11 in the application process.
New England Library Association Conference Grant
I’m guessing the board accepted $495 in scholarship funds to send two library employees to attend the New England Library Association conference in Burlington in late October. The money comes from the Vermont Department of Libraries.
Pretty certain the board announced quite a few openings on various town boards and committees. The full list will be available in a press release, soon, I predict.