Just Say “No” to a Mayor in Brattleboro

On Election Day in March, Brattleboro voters will have the opportunity to tell the Selectboard to consider replacing the five-member Selectboard with one mayor.

The complete wording of the article which will appear on the ballot: “Shall the voters of the Town of Brattleboro advise the Select Board to amend the Brattleboro Town Charter to replace the Select Board form of governance with that of a mayoral form of governance?”

I encourage voters to reject this proposal for a number of reasons.

Installing a mayor will concentrate too much power in one individual. Dismantling the Selectboard will reduce equity and accessibility. Having one mayor, versus five Selectboard members, will increase divisiveness. The timing is poor. The idea’s supporters are sowing confusion about the role of the Town Manager. And, the organizers of this idea have not presented adequate information to support this proposal.

In Brattleboro, we have a combination of direct and representative democracy.

The town’s form of government divides the power to determine and execute municipal matters between three main entities: the five-member Selectboard, the Town Manager, and Representative Town Meeting (RTM). This is dictated by Vermont statute and our Town Charter.

Voters vote for Selectboard members and RTM members. The Selectboard appoints—hires, supervises, and if necessary, fires—the Town Manager. Various committees of registered voters appointed by the Selectboard also work on many aspects of the town’s governance; they make recommendations to the Selectboard and RTM.

As per our Town Charter, RTM can have up to 140 elected members; each of the three districts receives three members for every 180 voters. Some issues all voters decide directly, through Australian (paper) ballot. Others get decided by our elected officials.

Any changes—additions, amendments, repeals— to the town’s ordinances may be drafted by the Town Manager’s office, but are decided only by the five-member Selectboard.

Items like the annual budget, and whether the town invests in major capital needs—like building a new police facility—are worked on by numerous people, but are ultimately reviewed, and approved, amended, or rejected by up to 145 people.

Do you think it’s appropriate to consider changing this system to one where one person makes all of these decisions? Do you know if that’s what the proposal includes? If you don’t know if that’s what the proposal calls for, do you feel comfortable voting on this article on the ballot?

Having a five-member Selectboard means five different individuals get to announce they believe they are worthy of helping to run our town. Although more progress could be made to encourage and support people of color, LGBTQ folks, and disabled people to run for the Selectboard, sharing this responsibility takes some pressure off of being “the first” or “the only one” of your group to step up and declare your candidacy and present yourself as qualified for leadership.

One noticeable aspect of who tends to seek political office is that people who already believe they are entitled to power will try to keep it, or get more of it. In our country, that historically means a very limited demographic. If we reduce the number of elected officials for Brattleboro’s municipal government, we are reducing equity in, and accessibility to, political power in our town.

Regardless of which political party you choose, you doubtless have noticed that we, as a nation, have become more divided. One thing I appreciate about our Town Manager, Selectboard, and Town Meeting representatives is that I have no idea whether they vote Democrat, Republican, Progressive, or any other party. My support of them has to do with their actions, decisions, conduct, and character. When the Selectboard and RTM votes on decisions, there is no “reaching across the aisle.” There is no aisle. We all sit together.

I don’t know if a mayoral candidate will need to declare their political party. But this much I know: they will likely need to seek the financial and organizational backing of an established political party to fund and run their campaign. In these divided times, do you think it’s a good idea to bring party politics into our municipal government? Even when Selectboard and RTM members disagree, generally there is discussion and compromise, which is how democracy works when it works well. How would we achieve that when one person is making the decisions? Do you believe this increases democracy?

The Selectboard, Representative Town Meeting, the Town Manager, and other high-level municipal staff are working diligently on a big handful of major issues affecting the town. And in many of these areas they are making progress, even if it’s slow and deliberate (which, again, is good for democracy).

Regardless of where you stand on the issues, you likely notice our town’s roads, bridges, and buildings are aging; we have more visibly poor people than we did in the past; the middle class is precarious; opiates are harming many people; factories have closed and retail is struggling; and the weather isn’t what it used to be. It’s a really bad time to go fudging with the entire governmental structure of our town. I think the Selectboard—and the Legislature, who ultimately addresses charter changes—has more important things to do right now. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

One of the justifications of this proposal, according to its organizers, is that the way the town hires a town manager isn’t fair. The town manager is appointed by the Selectboard, which, they note, means only three of the five board members have to vote “yes.” Their argument is that it would be more fair to allow all eligible voters to select a mayor.

But, the equation is wrong. It’s incorrect to liken a mayor to a town manager.

What powers a town manager has is dictated by statute and our charter. You can read them yourself. Go to https://legislature.vermont.gov/statutes/ and look up 24 V.S.A. § 1236 for “powers and duties” in general, and 24 App. V.S.A. ch. 107, § 5.01 for Brattleboro’s specific information. You can also read the charter on the town’s website, brattleborovt.gov.

Or, if you would rather not, let me help you. In our charter, the Selectboard’s duties take up 4.5 pages, and each page is double-columned. In comparison, the Town Manager’s duties take up half a page.

A lot of the statutory description of a town manager’s powers are about restrictions or prohibitions to that person’s power: they can do X, except when some other elected official is already doing X. Basically, a town manager can purchase supplies, supervise town public buildings and their repairs, act as road commissioner, oversee town departments’ accounting, collect taxes, and do what the school directors ask them to do. The town manager is a manager, not a legislator. They serve at the pleasure of the Selectboard, and they perform the functions statute and our charter allows them.

Maybe I’m missing something, but I don’t see a dangerous, power-mad dictator who must be stopped.

The aspect of this proposal that gravely concerns me is the lack of transparency about the proposal itself. The organizers have been quite spare in describing their plans for installing a mayor. There has been a small amount of press on this issue, but no lengthy interviews with the organizers, or opinion pieces written by them, in either of our town’s newspapers or on iBrattleboro. There have been no community forums. I think this is odd, considering one of the organizers said to the press that has been talking about this since the 1990s. Certainly they’ve had time to come up with details and present them to the Selectboard, or the public, or both.

Before you vote on this proposal, wouldn’t you like to know the following: Do they want to get rid of the Town Manager’s office? Representative Town Meeting? Instead of a Selectboard, will Brattleboro have a City Council? Will the mayor be a “strong” or a “weak” mayor, meaning, how much power will this person have to conduct the town’s affairs?

The organizers of this idea have used their resources to pay people to collect voters’ signatures to get this item on the ballot—to promote a specific agenda about what is right for Brattleboro. The organizers gave their paid canvassers money—which, technically, is not illegal—and scant information on the proposal to answer potential signers’ questions.

Why have they not used their resources to fully explain this proposal? Why have they not gotten people together from a wide swath of the town’s population to introduce this and find out what they want?

If the purported idea is to increase democracy, paying someone to ask voters to sign something that would radically change town governance, and distract an already burdened Selectboard, and radically concentrate power, without offering any details, comes across as authoritarian. “Sign and support this vague idea because I know what’s best for Brattleboro” seems to be the message, and it’s not one I can support.

I hope you’ll join me in making that statement at the polls on March 3. Just say “no” to a mayor in Brattleboro.


Comments | 14

  • Mayors and RTM

    Great summary. Thanks, Wendy!

    I, too, have been waiting for those promoting this to take advantage of the free publishing here to make their case. I’m sure a case could be made, but as is pointed out above, this is vague. I’ve heard many people say they don’t now what a successful vote on this advisory article would even be.

    The petition that I think would be much more democratic would be one to return to an open town meeting, where anyone and everyone can participate. I can make that case easily: representatives don’t (and I’d say cannot, based on decades of observation,) seem to represent anyone but themselves and maybe a few friends. Few campaign statements, little outreach to districts, the ability to become a rep without running by showing up at the last minute and so on. And unpopular people can be excluded if they can’t muster enough votes.

    But ridding ourselves of the convoluted RTM is not what this article is about.

    About the only plus side to the mayoral system would be a personal one – I wouldn’t have to spend Tuesdays writing up meetings. : )

    I can appreciate the effort that voters should be able to chime in on the Town Manager’s performance, but… they already can! You would attend a meeting and bring it up during public participation. You could contact your reps. You could have a specific petition to advise to remove a dangerous TM.

    Again looking back over the years, when a public official is doing a terrible job, Brattleboro deals with it. Everyone knows and everyone talks about it, and it bubbles up into news, and the person is removed, corrected, educated, etc. It’s rare that this happens, and I’ve heard no one talking about Elwell doing anything wrong.

    He is a more professional town manager than Brattleboro has had in the past, and he has instituted some long rage planning that might appear to constrict the ability of the board to make wildly independent decisions, but Elwell is very careful to word everything in a way that makes it clear he is doing the work that he is told to do by the board. If the board wants something, he will accommodate.

    I haven’t seen anyone push any truly dreadful ideas, but he does steer the weaker ideas into “containers” – ‘we’ll do the research for you and get back on this’ is a common way to slow something that isn’t ready for prime time. But staff comes back with the info, and the board decides whether to proceed.

    I tend to think that if we had a mayor to elect, the town would elect Peter Elwell. The mayor could have a board of (elected?) advisors, and they could suggest things as we do now. The Mayor could ignore them, but would likely try to accommodate good ideas as we do know.

    The problem comes when, for whatever reason, we try to find the next mayor. Who in town has town managing skills? I can think of a very small handful. Casting a wider net to have a professional in the position isn’t a terrible way to do things. We got very lucky in the last search by casting a very wide net and finding someone local. That won’t happen again. If we elect mayors, the pool becomes those who live in town and can be popular enough to win an election.

  • Back Again, and Worse

    This was floated as an idea 15 or so years ago. But I think then, it was just replacing Town Mgr with a Mayor, not doing away with the Selectboard as well.

    I’m opposed to doing away with a Selectboard. I’m opposed to diluting RTM and putting so much power in one person’s hands. We have a working system with an experienced, responsible Town Manager now. This whole idea is unnecessary and serves nothing. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. Vote it down.

  • Agreed

    THANK YOU, WENDY! My sentiments exactly. (I’ll spare you my attempt to articulate further.) It’s important that we pay attention to this.

    • Please do articulate further!

      You’re welcome, Spot. I’d like to read your opinions if you’re comfortable sharing them. Write on, my friend!

  • Money in politics

    The fellow who collected hundreds of signatures to get this initiative on the ballot, told me that 4 local businessmen paid him.

    When he had collected enough signatures and it was his last day tabling at the Co-op, he joked that now he would be out of work. To my knowledge, past initiatives have made it onto the ballot only by the dedication of unpaid volunteers.

    In effect, 4 individuals who were willing and able to pay, bought a place on the ballot. That seems awful to me. I would have welcomed my banker and friend, Dan Yates, if he had personally tabled at the Co-op… but paying someone?

    Without doubt, paying to place this initiative on the ballot is a portent of how money would increasingly play a role in Brattleboro politics with a mayoral system.

    From the moment a mayor is elected, the campaign begins for the next election. Campaign fund-raising becomes a priority, divisive issues assume prominence, and the mayor’s attention cannot be fully focused on sound administration.

    Currently our town manager is a non-partisan administrator who does an awfully good job keeping the wheels turning efficiently. Peter Elwell is gracious. He gets things done without unnecessary complication.

    Steven K-Brooks

    • Wow, well that pisses me right off

      It’s a dangerous and disgusting precedent to pay people to petition for you in our town. Also cowardly.

      Thanks, SK-B. And amen.

  • I have a bad idea that combines all of the bad ideas!

    Stay with me…

    Brattleboro complains about being a hub town, and some want a mayor, and schools consolidated as if it were a good thing, so…

    County government consolidates like the schools did. Rather than many towns, we have one county seat. Brattleboro is the location, but the new mayor (and board members if we so choose) is elected by everyone in the county.

    Ha! How’s that for solving all current problems and creating a new slate of problems to work with?

  • Town Manager vs Mayor

    Thank you all for your ideas, comments, and assertions. Proceeding with caution is a good idea. In the past we have had some difficult selectboard members, as well as Town Managers. In the system we have the strongest personality tends to dominate on the selectboard. I have witnessed this repeatedly.

    I want to ponder this issue and hope more people will give their thoughts on why would we benefit from a Mayor? At this point it just looks like a bad idea but who knows maybe someone has a compelling argument to voice.

  • A Mayor For Brattleboro?

    If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. If it’s broke, is this THE solution? We should not rush into any decision as important as this.
    I suggest you vote no in order to give us much more needed time to clearly think this out. Somehow, this all seems rather rushed.

  • Let's not let it slip by

    Every so often this issue comes up, is defeated, and then comes up again and again.

    The garage first came up about every two years and was voted down. Then an organized group lead by merchants whose personal interests would benefit; there was a determined campaign, fueled by falsehoods that the main garage advocates new were untrue.

    (For example, that the garage… um, er, “transportation center” would draw interstate buses into down town even though the bus companies had already made it clear that for efficient travel they need to make only a quick stop to discharge and pick up passenger at locations near an Interstate exit. Or that the garage would add parking review, when in act the garage would operate at a net loss and would be sustained by drawing funds from existing on-the-street-parking revenue.)

    In the final round, the garage was voted down a couple of times, but back up for vote, until — at last — it “won” by 14 votes, as we may all recall. It seems these pet projects of our local overlords can lose over and over yet never be dead, and only need to win once in order to become irreversible.

    Whatever is currently counter to our small town, human-scale values in Brattleboro would become permanently worse were we to wake up one day and find that we have become a city. A town government is inherently more responsive. Stay alert!

  • I'll Try Arguing For A Mayor

    I don’t necessarily believe in it, but…

    Maybe the answer is to ADD a mayoral position to the slate of elected officials, but keep the Town Manager as well.

    There are types of mayors – strong and weak. Brattleboro could choose to have a weak mayor. In effect, the big change for voters is that they would be electing a Chair, rather than allowing board members to choose one.

    A weak mayor could help represent Brattleboro – maybe they have a bit of a PR role built-in – and would be one more elected official to help carry out business. The Town Manager could continue to manage the town on a day to day basis.

    It wouldn’t cost anything – make it a volunteer position. The position could have extended terms of service – maybe 6 years – to help ride the transitions between boards and help with continuity. Mayoral elections wouldn’t have to happen ever year unless designed that way.

  • Loosing something good

    I do not want to loose a town manager, and particularly the one we have right now, who I strongly surmise would not run for mayor. Running for mayor takes a lot of time, focus and effort away from the actual work.
    Early voting has started, so lets get voting. Together we can keep our town manager and the focus where it belongs:
    Working hours rather than campaigning time spent.

  • A town is not a business

    I’m new to the area, and new to the town politics, but after reading the article in the Commons, I was deeply wary of this proposed change to town governance. And now reading this article and the comments I remain more so.

    There were a couple of things the advocates for the Mayoral system said that raised red flags with me. The first was about accountability, and that if people didn’t like the job the mayor was doing they could vote them out “at the end of the day”. But it’s a 3 year term they were suggesting, and if a mayor is empowered with all the power of a what was a governing body, the end of the day can be a *very* long time away. Someone starts doing the bidding of the business and land developers or any special for profit interest that financed the campaign they can do a lot of damage before the next election rolls around.

    The major red flag for me and my partner was one of the advocates said something to the effect of being able “to run the town like a business”. I’m so sick of this kind of thinking. A government is not a business, and trying to run it like one always ends up being the worst of both worlds. I’ve worked in private enterprise for more than 30 years and the idea that business is more efficient and better run than governmental bodies is laughable on its face. Businesses are mismanaged, rife with inefficiency, staffed by ineffectual middle managers, heavy with debt, and indifferent to the actual needs of the customers the minute it looks like they might lose a bit of profit. The point of business is to make a profit; but some things may never earn a “profit” — but that doesn’t make them valueless.

    I know that governments have problems, and democratic accountability is messy and often frustrating. But, as someone who has been an employee for most of his life, private enterprise is worse in many of the same ways and much worse in a whole lot of others. If there are problems with the participation and accountability of the democratic body, then the effort should be made to improve those democratic processes.

    I voted early and I voted no.

  • Voting the mayor out.

    Good point, Puffer, about having to put up with a bad mayor for a 3 year terms.

    Actually, the advocates of the mayoral system have made a good argument AGAINST their cause, because not long ago the Selectboard removed a town manager as well as the police chief, and they did not have to wait 3 years.

    It seems obvious to me that the group pushing a mayoral system, claiming it would be more efficient, actually hope to create a town government which would concentrate power into the hands of a small group of influential people. It is only natural that a mayor who alway has to think about campaigning for the next election would depend on pleasing the biggest contributors.

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