It surprised many that Town Manager Yoshi Manale resigned after just a few months. But it isn’t that surprising.
Brattleboro is unusual. For a small town, there is a tremendous amount of media. Two newspapers, three radio stations, citizen journalists, and others pay close attention to what goes on in town government. Add in social media, discussions in offices, and conversations on the street and you end up with a rather active core population that follow the details of town government.
There are big cities with less coverage of their municipal governments and fewer news outlets. And big city news is often dominated by crimes, fires, and other distractions, making municipal news a smaller piece of the overall newscast or front page headlines.
Brattleboro’s crimes and fires are thankfully few. The result is excess attention focused on the selectboard and Town Manager.
As I’ve said before, it’s the Selectboard Show, a never-ending soap opera that plays out for the people who live here.
The stars of the show are board members and town staff, with a leading role given to the Town Manager. Citizens and consultants are brought in for occasional guest spots, and like Saturday Night Live, the cast is expected to roll over every once in a while and new faces appear to keep things fresh.
Everything is done in a fishbowl, as it should be with open government, but Brattleboro has the addition of citizens who are quite active. They go to meetings, talk back, send letters to the editor, make calls, send emails, and stop you on the street to let you know what they are thinking.
If you like being in the spotlight, enjoy attention, and can make town government your life, you might really enjoy this arrangement. This is a job for someone who enjoys policy and politics.
If, however, you are more of a policy-only person who steers clear of the spotlight and just wants to get things done, this job might not be for you.
I don’t know for certain, but I think this is where we find ourselves right now. I’m guessing that Yoshi was more interested in policy than politics, and that the intense spotlight that gets aimed at you in Brattleboro was a bit too much. Decisions that might have been easier to make in a larger location were more visible here.
Brattleboro, meaning all of us, micromanages town government. We smile and exchange pleasantries, but also watch closely and swoop when there is a perceived slight. We are all armchair town managers to a degree.
A small town doesn’t offer the insulation from criticism that a larger location might offer. A few layers of bureaucracy can provide some civil servants with a buffer that allows them to both hear from the public but also work without them hovering over a shoulder.
In Brattleboro, town government officials are exposed to rather direct involvement from the citizenry. And citizens of Brattleboro rightfully feel that they are a part of town government. Citizens feel like they are on the municipal team, and that their input is valued. Many in town have had family working for the town. When people don’t feel respected or included, Brattleboro has problems.
In Brattleboro, the Town Manager is directed by the selectboard. They tell him and town staff what to do. But the Town Manager can end up taking the heat on behalf of the board. Citizens that have been less than thrilled with this board’s ability to respond to emails or take comments might decide to go direct to the top with complaints and concerns.
I give Yoshi credit for recognizing that he wasn’t the right fit and quickly letting the board know. He could have continued along with a bubbling resentment or annoyance. Instead, he did the hard thing and spoke up quickly, saving everyone a drawn-out process. It’s not what anyone wanted, but ripping the proverbial bandaid off is probably the right way to move on.
What should happen before jumping into a new search would be some information and explanation. The board needs to explain their errors in hiring and giving direction. The brief statement issued by the Chair isn’t quite enough, given the circumstances.
It is too bad that the spotlight Brattleboro shines on town government wasn’t fully conveyed during the hiring process, though. It would have saved everyone time and money.
The Selectboard Show will be casting for a new lead – someone who enjoys the spotlight of politics as well as the policy. And the show has been renewed for another season. ; )