I had the opportunity to talk with Brattleboro’s new Town Manager, Yoshi Manale, last week via Zoom. What follows is a rough transcription of our conversation which wanders through topics such as Brattleboro’s downtown space, NJ politics, DC, Vermont, climate, housing, moving to a new place and fitting in, celebrities, and more.
I thought I’d do a little introductory story about you since you are new to to most people in Brattleboro. I thought I’d start with your name. Octavian is a really cool name. How did you get that name?
My parents. My full name is Octvaian Yoshitsune Manale. Yoshi is the shortened version of my middle name, but yeah, my father was really into roman [history] so Octavian Caesar, that’s who I was named for. And Yoshitsune is a famous Japanese warrior, so I think my parents had high ambitions for me to sort of take over the world.
Are your parents Japanese?
My mother is Japanese and my father is American.
So where did you grow up?
I was born in Berkeley CA. My dad was in grad school there and my mom was in school doing modern dancing. She was there as a Japanese exchange student. My dad was working in Sacramento for Gray Davis and then he ended up working for the EPA. My dad was doing environmental policy for a number of senators, congresspeople. So, we were in DC and I grew up in DC.
I spent time some in DC, too. I worked at the Capital Children’s Museum.
Oh, wow, man, that was one of my favorite places.
I was there in the late 80’s and early 90’s. I ran the Animation Lab and TV studio.
That was a great spot. What a great museum.
Yeah, I love DC and am sorry to see they closed down the H street location.
Oh, they did? I didn’t know that.
So sad. The whole building was torn down and they put up big condos.
It’s near Union Station so it makes sense.
Did you grow up in DC or California?
Until I was six I was in California, then we moved to Silver Spring, MD. Right outside. Our house is 10 minutes from the border, so yeah, being in public service has been my whole life, people around it, my dad’s friends…
Being in DC with your family seems like you were just living it.
I did, and I remember when I graduated from college one of my dad’s friends was a federal judge and I remember him sitting me down and talking with me about my choices and where I want to go with my career and what I wanted to do. He told me that – he was a heavy Democrat, very involved in the Democratic party – and he told me you could go to two places. You could either go to California to do policy or you go to New Jersey to do politics.
Both places I had connections. To go work in DC or in California my dad had connections, and I said “no , no.” And then through Kean University in New Jersey I had a lot of connections there, and one of them helped me out . [NJ Senate] president Dick Codey offered me a job to work for the Senate Majority office there, so I sort of chose between California and New Jersey. Very, very different places. New Jersey is really the center of politics in this country, other than obviously DC.
So he was right in his advice to go there for politics? What was it about NJ?
They are a very opinionated state, and they have elections every year. There are major elections every year. They are one of two states to have off-year Governor elections right after the year of the presidential, they have congressional races, they have local fire races, they have mayors races. They have so many elections. and they have strong county [politics]. So, then the way the senate and assembly are set up for county and and districts, so it is a highly, highly political state. And you look at every presidential race – they tend to have NJ people running. So, I learned a lot. I had some very good teachers about how policy and politics work, and that made me focus on maybe I’m more policy focused. I didn’t really like politics and how down and dirty it could be.
It can be brutal…
It can be brutal and it’s not really based on merit. It’s based on how you get there.
Who owns this, and what interest they are protecting. There isn’t a lot of that around here. There’s a little bit of it.
I was in Trenton NJ which is all politics all the time. It was more racial politics being a big part of it, too. It was even worse. It wasn’t about what was good for the city that was dying. The city had been dying for 40 years and we were trying to make all of these improvements and do all these things, and it felt like we were banging our heads against the wall. You have this mentality, which is something I really appreciate about Brattleboro, towns and cities take on. It’s almost the people themselves take on this identity of their town or city. If you’ve been in municipal government you kinda feel it.
In Trenton you have this culture of “well, we’ve been beaten down and nothing has ever gone right for us,” so the culture there believes that anything good is either a scam, or they don’t deserve it. So there is a serious mistrust of good things, and so they fought against good things
Brattleboro was a bit like that not too long ago. There was some resistance to attempts to improve things. Money hadn’t been worked out. When we started [iBrattleboro] the Town wasn’t really balancing it books. It’s better now and you are inheriting a pretty good system.
I am, and I appreciate what the board and Peter created – a culture here that is much more professional. You have a good budget and a really good staff and I think that’s what I feel really lucky about is that the staff here is very, very good and they know what they are doing and they want to make a difference. Not just here for the paycheck, right? They aren’t just here to show up for work. They want to accomplish things and that’s really exciting because I think that’s part of what the selectboard was looking for when they hired me. We’re stable right now but things can change very quickly, especially for a small town so it is important for us to look to the future and figure out how we can grow.
You have a few big issues left to you – police reform is moving along and going well. A lot of that has to do with the staff taking it seriously. But there are other issues, like housing and affordability. We lived in Brattleboro and tried to buy there but couldn’t find anything and had to move out of town. You have good citizens ready to jump in and volunteer on issues.
COVID and climate change and refugees are real. There are a lot of Californians moving here thinking of Vermont because of climate change issues with California, and COVID has changed the world where people want to be slower – including me. I’m one of those people who decided I wanted a better quality of life than going to the city, which is what my other option could have been. I could have gone to a big city and started woking there, and aside from what this job was going to pay I just really really wanted to be in a place that I felt happy about my day to day and that’s what Brattleboro provides.
Had you been to Vermont before?
Yeah, many times. I grew up up here, skiing, hiking. I tried to come here for college but my dad was very adamant about not paying a private school rate for a public, state school. I think it is the most expensive state schools. So yeah, he said absolutely not.
What did friends and family say when you told them you were moving to Brattleboro?
My friends were like, what are you doing? I think they are worried that it is too small because I’ve been in in areas where it is heavily urban and have been around a lot of people, and I’m a little concerned about that. My thing is more of a COVID issue. It’s hard to meet people. It really is. It’s hard to meet people, and I’ve made some friends, but it’s going to take time, as things open back up again. I’m also waiting for some snow. I’m a big fan and I’ve had no snow since I’ve been here.
I blame myself. I broke down and bought a snowblower this year….
I just don’t get it. Everyone says it shouldn’t be like this. I’m like, is this climate change? Is this a new normal? I don’t know.
It’s climate I think…
One of my best friends… I told her she couldn’t really talk to me about it because she moved to Mexico. “Why are you going to Vermont? It’s so far from all your friends!” One thing I love about Vermont is that more people are going to miss me here than when I lived in NJ. Also NY, but so far I have had people pretty consistently coming up during weekends
You’ll find that they all enjoy stopping by up here. “It’s not that far and the train stops right there…”
I’ve been getting a lot of that. “Oh, we’ll take a ski trip and we’ll stop in on our way to Maine.”
You don’t mind. You have nothing to do.
Exactly. They say “I’m coming up this weekend” and I tell them that’s not good for me.
Kinda busy for the next 10 years…
But it is nice. This is one of those few states where, as my dad would say, I’ve moved from the state that is probably the most disliked to probably the one that has the highest positive opinion. Number 50 to number 1.
I was in Brooklyn and NJ, splitting my time. Weekends in Brooklyn and my week in NJ. I loved living in my apartment. 5 x 5 feet.
Did you find a place here?
No. That is something. The fact that I’m having trouble finding a space says a lot. It’s been very difficult to find a permanent home and I’m waiting until the spring to see if things open up, but I imagine if I’m having this trouble then so many other people are also having this same sort of trouble. So that’s really what I’ve been concentrating on is how we find more housing across the board.
We recently did a housing study – I think it is published or online soon – that says we’re short 500 units and that’s to get even, not to grow, to meet our current demand. We have 1.5% vacancy in Brattleboro, so it’s a real issue, a real problem, so my goal is to really figure out how we get improved housing, increase opportunities and really, do some more building. We’ve got to build. What I think when I’ve talked to a cross spectrum of left right, everybody else – they all say the same thing: we need housing of all kinds, not just affordable, but we need market rate, workforce housing, we need everything. That’s what I’m really looking at doing. One of the problems is that it is very difficult and expensive to build.
You have to incentivize all the owners and builders and everything has to line up.
We are lucky that we have a couple of builders here that have made it work and working with them will be important but at the same time it is good to have other outside discussions as well.
Do you have other goals?
Yeah! Open space. I think we want to make Brattleboro a five season destination – maybe four out of the five, no one wants to be here during mud season – but the other seasons, we really want to have it where Brattleboro is a destination other than just the fall. You know, it is sort of a stop through. It’s still a tourist town, but as a real place that people come here and stay for certain reasons. I want to give them every reason possible, so really looking at open space downtown going from the island to Harmony Lot.
We need to have a place where people can congregate, have events, be able to walk. Everybody wants walking cities, or walking towns. It’ll be interesting how we look at it. There have been a bunch of designs for Harmony Lot so we do need to make it to that. The priority is parking, but it shouldn’t be the number one use for that space. Parking should be the fourth or third use. Right now it’s the price of admission. It’s the only way and that’s the only town square area that we have, and thriving towns have good public spaces in the center of town.
Are there any special skills you bring to the job? Anything you are know for or good at?
I’m good at getting projects done. That is something that I’m good at. I’m very focused on them. I believe planning is important but also feel that people tend to, especially municipalities, over plan. They plan, plan, plan, plan… plan upon plan, and then all of a sudden it is 10 years later and all you have is a bunch of plans.
I like to implement and start moving projects forward. I’m conscious of what people have done and not jamming it though but I like to start making moves because you have to have progression to get things to happen and I’ve done a lot of development work on the other side, on the municipal side, on encouraging working with people to rethink and revitalize the areas that are in need. I did that in Bloomfield and also Trenton. I think all through it, I’m very inclusive and very transparent. I don’t think anything I do or the town does should be a secret
It won’t be. Nothing’s a secret around here. : )
I want everyone to know, and it also helps me in understanding where the pain points are. I do think there are lots of ways that – I’m someone who believes you have goals, but there can be a lot of routes to that goal and so I don’t tend to just stick to one way. If people say that isn’t the way to do it I’ll think of another way, and we’ll figure out a different way together. I do believe that those ultimate goals are what we want to do and there are a lot of different options there, and if people tell me no, and I don’t like that idea, then I’ll say “well tell me what will work.” Don’t just tell me no or that this is a bad idea. Say what would work, and if you don’t think anything is going to work, then it is hard for me to have that conversation.
Walt Disney used to do that. No one on staff could tell him no. He’d want to hear “we’ll try” or “there’s another way”….
Exactly. I don’t mind being told this will be a problem. Okay, great. Let’s figure out how to solve this problem. That shouldn’t stop us. And that tends to happen in government when you hit a little wall and people are like “do I really want to put all this effort into it?” The benefit of this form of government here is you have a lot of opportunities to get things done. It goes to the town meeting, it goes to the selectboard, and those are the sort of checks that if everyone is on board it allows us to move forward.
Ha. You’ll be amazed at how many people, when it comes to a final vote, say they’ve never heard of it… : )
One of the things we really want to do, with the next budget obviously, is I want to make sure we have more communication, and that’s bringing on a communications manager or PR person. Don’t know what we’ll call it but I think it will be really important when we have a new website, and with social media there are a lot of ways of communicating now, but we need someone to coordinate. Now, some departments do it this way, and some selectboard members do it themselves, and we really need to have someone who is really focused on getting out what Brattleboro is , what we are doing, and working with community groups, too. How do we all coordinate things together on letting the world know this is Brattleboro?
The social media policy is out of date. Everyone is violating it. You are officially in charge of moderating all their social media announcements. Having an officer help out is a good idea. Adding a person to the web site plan will make it successful.
You not only have to update the site but make sure it is relevant. Without having a person doing it full time, no one is going to use it or go there.
We’re almost out of time. Any books, music, movies you can recommend?
I just saw, the Get Up… no,… Don’t Look Up. I just watched that.
Was it any good?
It was okay. There were a lot of celebrities in it, it was just, I don’t know. It was all over the place. I felt it was in your face with the messaging about climate change, but yeah, it was entertaining. A good Netflix movie.
You’re from DC. Do you like go go?
I didn’t really like go go music because it’s only one beat over and over and over again. I had a buddy who did a documentary about the go go scene. Only in DC . Then Baltimore has their own style…
Club music, right?
Yup. And they have a has, a drug specific to the community in Baltimore that he was covering. It’s a whole world that’s different. It’s so weird – each city has its own little culture.
I kinda like it.
Yeah. I really like rap. I really like hip hop. Anderson .Paak. It’ll be interesting to see what music we get here I noticed that a lot of people come through. I think I’ll have to change my interests to be more to be more folk music…
The Jazz Center is really good, and WVEW will get you a lot of variety.
A lot of the things coming through have been kinda folky. Do you listen to Bruno Mars, Anderson .Paak album – I liked it.
I just watched the Mark Ronson series about producing and recording.
I went to a wedding years ago and Mark Ronson was at the wedding as the date of my friend’s cousin. He showed up – to me just because you are a celebrity doesn’t mean you just show up and look however you want. He showed up in a T-shirt, and it was a nice T-shirt, and this is a nice West Palm Beach, very fancy wedding and everybody’s in suits and this guy shows up like this.
It’s a sense of entitlement that I’ve never liked. He seems like a nice guy and he was talking to everybody and was pretty genuine, but what kind of person has no respect for the wedding and just shows up in regular clothes? “I’m too big and important o use a belt and have a tie.”
When I was at the children’s museum, Michael Jackson came by. MTV cameramen jumped on top of kids artwork they were working on, as though they owned the place. Michael was nice though. He came in our animation studio, locked the press out, and hung out for a short while.
Reminds me of the Simpsons episode with the fake Michael Jackson.
He was like that. Quiet and like a big kid.
You had a real conversation with him? Honestly, that’s an incredible memory. No one gets to speak to him. You know your screen isn’t on?
It’s not? (turns it on) I was going to show you my Love DC Go Go sweatshirt. Didn’t mean to be in the dark. Anything no one ever asks you?
I’ve been open about this stuff but… Vermont is the first time I’ve been to a place where I’m considered a minority and that’s something I’m adjusting to. I went to Kean University in Union NJ [to work] when I was initially out of school and I’m feeling the same way I was when I was 18 where I never saw myself as a minority but all of a sudden I was and I’m treated as one, and it’s a different experience. In DC and with my friends, even in NY especially, no one cares. No one really cares. I do.
But here it does matter and that’s what’s different and I think that’s what if someone asks me how’s that feel I’ll be honest. I don’t know. I haven’t experienced this since I was 18 where I was different and that, to me, is going to an adjustment that I’m not… even though everybody is really open, they still treat me different. Oh, you’re different so I have to treat you differently, right? I think that’s something, y’know, I’m just going to have to learn and feel how that works. That’s the only thing I’m really adjusting to about Vermont especially. That is, I’ve never been in a place that is like this. That’s why I love Brattleboro. Brattleboro is so open to being multicultural, learning, and this understanding that everything – they want to have the diversity, it just hasn’t come, but they want it. Some in Brattleboro really really want diversity.
We talk of how diverse we are while we are trying to attract diversity. : ) Things have shifted a lot.
Schools have shifted a lot
And people of varying backgrounds are starting to realize they can speak up.
I’m excited to have more and more people coming here and sharing the diversity. I feel like, especially the stores downtown, as they get older and stores are going to have to shift, unfortunately it is a matter of attrition, and minority owners and entrepreneurs start opening up shops. That’s going to make a thriving downtown.
So your focus will be on taking what we already have here and boosting it and shaping it. Do you have any worries?
Yeah. A couple of people have given me the example of Bennington, and how quickly a town can change from being a thriving downtown to dead. Bennington is having to rethink itself, and they are slowly doing it but it is going to take time to get back to a thriving arts community, thriving everything. Just a couple of years and it all crashed. It can happen to a small town very quickly. A couple of stores are closing, people stop coming, restaurants start going out and then all of a sudden you have a dead downtown. That’s really, really scary and that’s why we have to work now – the whole idea that you look for a job while you are still employed – so we should be improving the future and looking at how we make sure that Brattleboro stays relevant for the next 30-40 years. Now, things are stable. We don’t want to do this when things are bad.
Brattleboro will always be a destination, but you have to have people here who can also build new businesses and have new storefronts. That’s why everyone is moving here. They like that. The downtown atmosphere and being able to still be in nature, but you lose all that if people aren’t able to live here to build those kinds of businesses. I’d like for the Town to do as much as we can to support them, you know, the future entrepreneurs, and luckily we have BDCC – they are fantastic for this area. They have really done a fantastic job of bringing it up, but I’ve heard from a lot of those businesses, too, that they can’t grow here. If you are starting a small business, your margins are so small, your money for housing will be small, too.
Ha! Move to Vermont and get three or four jobs.
So, we’re about out of time. Thanks for spending some time with iBrattleboro, and welcome to town.
It’s going to take me a couple of months to adjust to selectboard meetings.
Patrick will be a solid assistant for you.
I’m very appreciative he’s here. Surprised he didn’t want this position.
It’s the second time he passed on it. I think he likes the public service aspect more than the PR. You have a relatively new staff, too… Carol Lolatte, I believe, has seniority.
Really knowledgeable. Brattleboro is lucky. The only one we’re missing is the new finance director. Finding qualified people to apply has been hard. And we will be looking at IT services going forward, too.