It’s the final regular meeting of the Brattleboro Selectboard for 2021, (if any meeting this year could be called “regular.”)
The board reconsidered the mask mandate, reviewed FY’23 matters, looked at annual audit results, considered financial reports, and bought some trucks and equipment repairs. More interesting to me, though, was that this was the last “regular” meeting for outgoing Town Manager Peter Elwell. That’s kind of where my thoughts are tonight, more than on budgets and such.
And, for that reason, I don’t plan to transcribe everything word for word tonight. Instead some thoughts…and a bit of the meeting.
Elizabeth McLoughlin, Chair, had only one remark. “It’s Peter’s last meeting.” She thanked him for his service. She said that Jessica Sticklor complied a video of people wishing Peter well, and it would be on the town website.
Elwell himself said he wanted to thank everyone for an interesting and challenging year, after another one the year before. The last two have been important for leadership and collaboration, and for town staff. Day after day and week after week, our jobs changed and become different. Over and over we did pretty well at it. I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to go through COVID with you and it speaks to the broader gratitude to finish my career back in my hometown. Working with you and the community to make the world better on a local scale. I didn’t enjoy every moment, but I have no regrets. I grew up here, and got to come back here and finish my career with you, and as I continue tonight, I have a duty to perform, about COVID. The library has been wrestling with access. They are restricting the amount of time people spend in the library. There will be a news release about it tomorrow. 15 minute limits.
Daniel Quipp – I don’t have prepared remarks or a flowery speech. Peter is right that this is his last scheduled meeting, but there is more work in the next 10 days. You have done your work and led town staff in an exemplary fashion – for the public and to me. I’ve learned a lot from watching how you work.
Ian Goodnow – Elections are coming up, petitions are available. Check with Town Clerk. Congrats Peter. Thanks on behalf of Brattleboro for the time and work and passion you’ve given to this town. I’ve always felt Brattleboro was lucky to have you in a leadership position. Personally, I’ve learned a lot from you from how you lead and your skills and abilities in managing difficult tasks in the last two years. I also try to incorporate some of those things into my life. Sorry to see you leave but am happy for you.
Jessica Gelter – In my time on the board and before, and when we met when I was a concerned citizen. You were a great listener. You made the scariness of town government dissolve. Thanks for keeping your door open, and being willing to listen and change. It’s been a pleasure.
Tim Wessel – I went on for three minutes in the video… thanks on behalf of so many people in Brattleboro. Your steady guidance and wisdom has touched a lot fo people. Personally, it’s been an honor to serve by you. Happy solstice and yule to everyone… whatever you celebrate.
….and on they go to the consent agenda. So, let me echo the board’s thoughts a bit and add a few of my own.
It was during the Gartenstein selectboard that the search for a town manager began. They went through a 16 month process, and still none of the applicants was right for the job. Then they found Peter Elwell.
It raised a few eyebrows that the perfect candidate turned out to be the son of a former Brattleboro Town Manager, but his resume and experience – most recently in gold-plated Palm Beach – looked promising.
In our first interview with him in 2016, Elwell said creating the Long Term Financial Plan and doing a comprehensive review of town operations were at the top of his to-do list.
As his tenure comes to an end, that Long Term Financial Plan (LTFP) may be what he’s best remembered for in years to come.
Before this, Brattleboro would look a year, or a few years, into the future when making plans for town operations. And Brattleboro kept getting sideswiped by big ticket expenses such as when major equipment failed and needed replacement. The Town borrowed, and paid lots of interest.
Elwell’s gift to Brattleboro was to force everyone to look 5, 10, 15, 20, 30, and in some cases over 50 years into the future. There will be surprises for sure, but there are lots of things the Town owns that will need to be replaced, and we’ve been running a town long enough to know roughly how long everything lasts. Write it down, schedule it out, and save accordingly so little or no borrowing will ever be required.
My grandmother used to do something similar to this. She’d plan out what house repairs to do, then save accordingly to have one big item fixed each year.
It was a major bit of work to shift the thinking in town, but department heads, got the idea quickly. They’d have more money in their budgets and their tools would be kept up to date if they followed the plan.
Under Elwell, Brattleboro created the lists of what it owns. It knows the values. It knows the replacement schedules. If you ask anyone in town what items will be bought in 2035, you could get a list that will likely be pretty accurate.
Not only did Elwell smooth the finances, he was able to take that savings and reinvest it in town operations. Budgets for capital projects each year has substantially increased. We’re not quite to Palm Springs levels, but Brattleboro is no longer investing so little that it falls behind.
Those are major accomplishments. But Elwell impressed beyond the numbers. He listened.
Elwell is very good at listening and taking note of things that can be done. He was so good, and his mediation skills assisted, that the selectboard thinks it is making its own plans and leading the way with decisions. It was good sleight of hand. ( I tease a bit… the board does make decisions and lead… but…)
Elwell was always wise to present a few options. Previous town managers would often present a plan, and arguments about details would occur, which could grind things to a halt. More recent boards have been presented with options. There are three to five choices, with pros and cons listed. The debate is almost always about which one to choose.
When board members now have their brilliant ideas, they don’t get acted on immediately as was sometimes the case before. Elwell would take note and say staff will do research and get back to you, with options. This paused things strategically, gave staff time to consider the request, and allowed Elwell to come back with options that he/staff endorsed.
He kept his word to the board. If he promised them some options, they’d get them. That soothed the savage board beasts.
Elwell listened to the public. In a truly rare and unprecedented series of meetings, Elwell encouraged a Community Safety Review, was given a list of actionable items, made a list and started working on them, and even created a new Town fund to help pay for some of the work.
I think it is very important to note that he didn’t have to do this, and in many other towns and cities across the country, the concerns of the community and activists working to improve things in this direction would be shut down by boards and mayors afraid of change.
Elwell could have delayed, distracted, or ignored. But he become engaged instead. Watching each meeting as the months went on, you could see how this work was changing him. You could see that he was “getting it” and trying do what he could to address real issues that had gone unaddressed for a long time.
It’s a bit unfortunate that his career is ending with COVID and shut downs and such, and not with the blossoming community that we could be without a pandemic hanging over us.
Peter Elwell helped the selectboard, town staff, and community to look inside and rise up to meet some big challenges. He’d probably insist it wasn’t him and it could have happened anyway, but I’m not so sure.
I have some suggestions for so-called retirement:
– write a book on how to manage a town.
– give some seminars on “creating your personal long term financial plan”… (I can see the late night informercials already!)
– run for Welch’s seat
Some other meeting notes:
Face mask exemptions… can exemptions be had for performing arts? Performing artists if fully vaccinated, food and beverages patrons masked except while consuming food? Elwell says exemptions to the rule are special privileges for certain individuals from the general rule to protect everyone. Performing arts folks control who is on stage. That’s different than who walks into a restaurant, who might be unknown. Elwell says he added the restaurant piece, and what feels right to him is that you should be masked until food or drink is in front of you. Staff is always masked, exposed to people coming all day long. If getting take out, be masked the whole time.
Liz cautioned against misinformation. Jessica said unmasked performers who have been vaccinated and tested should be allowed. Tim said he didn’t like the rule to begin with, but likes the restaurant rules presented. He questioned requiring vaccinations, since the science changes almost daily. Elwell says Omicron isn’t the only thing out there. Tim said the fully vaccinated requirement would place another burden on businesses. Liz reminded him the owners of venues asked for this, and it isn’t being imposed on them. Tim said maybe she hadn’t talked to everyone. Jess agreed, adding the venues are on top of the science changes, and having this would help them with their clients/funders. Ian said he was in favor of both and liked the wording. Daniel said arts places are requiring proof of vaccination and masks for audiences all over the country. He’d like to also encourage proof of vaccination for paying customers, since tickets have to be purchased. Ian asked if they could even discuss vaccination requirements since it wasn’t warned. Elwell said THEIR next meeting would be January 4th. Liz said she liked the ordinance as written, but that they revisit in a month to see what happens during Christmas. Tim says Daniel is sneaking in encouragement into a rule, which he finds ironic, since it is unenforced. Daniel says we’ll see how things are going in a month. “Maybe we’ll enforce it.” He cares about the well-being of the people of Brattleboro. Elwell says enforcement and penalties are different things. This doesn’t have a penalty for not complying. We are doing enforcement. We get complaints about people not following it. And we follow up. And the calls stop. People are responding to our gentle enforcement/education.
Mask mandate re-adopted, with exemptions for performers on stage (no mask, fully vaccinated, or negative test within 48 hrs of performance,) and people with food or drink in front of them.
Have fun fishin’, Peter!