I’ve been watching Brattleboro budgets for quite a while, through multiple selectboards, three Town Managers and one Interim Town Manager. I’ve watched many Representative Town Meetings as well and participated in a few. That’s a lot of meetings.
While I’ve come to the conclusion that Representative Town Meeting doesn’t really work, I know that it has become cherished and it is unlikely that abolishing it will be on the ballot anytime soon. Therefore, it should be improved.
One way to improve things might be to follow the lead of other RTM towns whereby they have the reps create the budget rather than simply approve it. I don’t think Brattleboro is up for this, however.
But, the budget is important. And it also seems like a weak link in the RTM system. I see time and time again reps at RTM who clearly have not paid attention to Town news throughout the year. Time is wasted each year answering questions that shouldn’t need to be answered, or pondering items that have been previously pondered.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
I offer a few suggestions:
1. A Regular Autumn Representative Town Meeting
Town Manager Peter Elwell officially begins the budget season with the selectboard in the fall with a budget kick-off meeting. He summarizes where things stand, financial news on the horizon, purchases that need to be made, and so on.
This meeting could become a warned Representative Town Meeting. The Fall Budget Meeting. It would serve somewhat as an informational meeting, but actions could be taken by the body.
This would provide all representatives with a good overview of the next budget. If they hear something that bothers them (“What about our playground lights?”) they could then attend the coming budget meetings to argue for any changes they’d like to see before it is too late in the process to make changes.
All representatives would be more informed.
2. District Representatives Attend Budget Meetings
The idea of districts seems to be fading a bit, but representatives could choose to do a better job serving their neighbors, starting with a plan by each district to send a certain percentage of their representatives to argue and defend the interest of that district.
Attending budget meetings will make these representatives more valuable, to the community and to RTM, as they will be involved and informed throughout the entire budget process.
Some representatives would be more involved.
3. District Meeting Prior To Budget Approval
If we want to take things a bit further, we should add in a district meeting of representatives and their constituents prior to the budget being approved by the selectboard. A January District Potluck.
This would give the reps who attended budget meetings to share what they’ve learned with their neighbors, prior to the budget being put on the Representative Town Meeting warning. Neighbors could ask questions, and would still have a bit of time to rally if they saw something worth rallying about.
Representation would return by connecting reps with constituents. Maybe some district pride, too.
With these three improvements, everyone would be more involved and have a better understanding of how tax dollars are spent. Done well, the need for springtime informational sessions would be reduced. Time would be saved by not needing to repeat everything. People would be better prepared.
Changes like this can happen without Charter changes. All it takes is representatives wanting to represent a bit more than before. Do it a few times and it will become standard operating procedure.