Brattleboro EMS – An Open Public Process Made Murky

At the May 2 Selectboard meeting, the board endorsed a proposed schedule of information-gathering prior to voting on Town EMS services in September.

The board thought they had a good plan, but what they presented turned out to be confusing to anyone trying to follow along.  Sadly, in an effort to be extra open and transparent, the board ended up making things murkier.

The Official Path – Meetings and Correspondence

Town Manager John Potter presented the official EMS decision-making schedule, which gives time for public discussion on the topic at the second Selectboard meeting of each month. This is the official time for the public to come and weigh in on warned EMS agenda items.  There will also be a public forum scheduled just prior to the board’s vote in September.

Are there are other ways for the public to weigh in officially?

Peter Case asked if the public could send letters or emails, and Potter said yes.  Sending correspondence to the board or Town Manager on a topic is another way to go on the record officially.

That’s the way most issues go. Public meetings are scheduled and people can send letters or answer a poll. Pretty simple.  Everything is taped, minutes are taken, news is reported widely and so on. It is a tried and true process when it is allowed to work.

If they had stopped there, the board would have presented a clear, familiar public process.

Many other options, though, were thrown into the mix.

Make Comments Online

Potter said staff will keep track of any feedback submitted through “social media or other means.” This is both vague and clearly an impossible task.  No one can keep track of everyone’s comments on all social media sites.  Who on staff is monitoring, for example, Truth Social for thoughts on Brattleboro EMS services? Who is watching every local Tik Tok video? No one.  Other means?

I note again, ahem, that the town social media policy is as out-of-date as the Weigher of Coal! But that’s for a different day.

Go to the “Selectboard Office Hours”

Franz Reichsman is offering open office hours at the Library and at a downtown business. He said that this was the time and place for the public to share thoughts and discuss EMS services.  Will this off-the-record discussion be documented and entered into the public record? 

Franz Reichsman’s office hours been billed as “Selectboard Office Hours” which makes it sound very official, when it should probably be named “Franz’s Open Office” to lessen the confusion.  The real “Selectboard Office Hours” are the regular, warned meetings, and that is the time and place to discuss EMS issues on the record.  If those hours are deemed to be inconvenient by the public or the board, they should be changed.

That said, by all means, go talk to Franz. It is a great and innovative idea for a Selectboard member to make regular hours open to the public. More should do it.  But don’t confuse this with attending officially warned Selectboard meetings, or sending official letters or emails.  If it is important, put it in writing to the Town or attend an official meeting.

There is a difference between casual conversations and making official comments on the record. Board members often refer back to the minutes of the meeting during discussions. No minutes? No video? No record.

Limited Participation at Selectboard Meetings

Board members also invited the public to the officially warned meetings. This is the right time and place, but board members admitted that the public won’t be given much time for input at the meetings. It is also now questionable what is allowed to be said.

The Selectboard has recently reduced the recommended amount of time a member of the public may speak from three to two minutes. Board chair Ian Goodnow suggested getting a countdown time clock and aiming it at the audience so they’d see the seconds counting down as they were speaking. That hasn’t happened (yet) but there is new energy being spent on limiting public input in both time and topic.

Dick Degray and others have seen it happen recently. Dick’s been rushed to make comments, and forced to ask his follow up questions ahead of receiving an answer to his initial questions. Others have been told at times their input wasn’t germane, when it really didn’t seem like anyone was that far off track at all.

At another recent meeting, Goodnow told member-of-the-public Dale Joy she couldn’t speak on a topic not on the agenda during public participation. He told her he knew what she was going to speak about before she started, then shut her down by repeatedly speaking over her. (It reminded me of battles with my little sister: “la la la la…I can’t hear you!”)

Watching a clock and obsessively listening for keywords that can end a comment is not a healthy public process.

Drifting Backward

One can see why, with an increasingly difficult public commenting process at Selectboard meetings, that there would be zeal and creativity around creating alternatives to that official public forum. It has great appeal to say “skip the meeting and just…”   But that’s not our public process.

The official record will be crafted from the officially warned meetings and agendas. That’s it, for better or worse. Members of the public will need to fight for their two minutes of public speaking given at each meeting.

It’s been a long time since the public was treated this way and had to fight to be heard. Some may recall when the public wasn’t given a chance to weigh in at meetings at all if the Chair didn’t feel like calling on them.  It was David Gartenstein who began the practice of calling for public comment on every agenda item, and it was a breath of fresh air even if meetings took a bit longer.  

Allowing the public to speak was a step in building trust. It took a long time for the board to build that trust up to the level where something such as the Community Safety Review process could occur. 

Now, we seem to be drifting backward.  The board appears to forget that their unusual EMS decision process of a year ago has damaged their trust with the public, and the crackdown on time and topics does not inspire further confidence. 

The unfortunate aspect to all of this is that EMS was not an issue most people in the community were begging to have “fixed” – most citizen requests over the last few years had to do with safety, crime, and alternatives to policing. There are the problems relating to climate, affordability, employment, housing, gentrification, and ongoing issues with our aging infrastructure.  

The extended EMS decision process is a self-inflicted distraction.

The Best Process?

What can be done? This well-intentioned but murky process continues to frustrate and confuse.  The public is encouraged to participate, but participation is limited. Official and unofficial comment methods were presented as if they had equal weight. The process is being rushed, during summer vacation time, to meet a self-created September deadline.  This is a tight and ambitious schedule that appears set up to check things off a list, go through motions, and hurry along.

How much confidence will this inspire? How much public buy-in will come of this?  The board is starting out with a trust deficit when it comes to EMS decisions. The new town manager has yet to earn his public trust.  The department with the most skills when it comes to public process and gathering input, the Planning Department, doesn’t seem to be leading this planning process. 

A smart political move – to appoint an independent review commission to decide and let the board accept their recommendation – wasn’t discussed.  Neither was a Special Representative Town Meeting to discuss this important topic.

The board seems unaware of the risks it is taking, and has been mostly defensive about decisions they’ve made thus far. Unless something changes, we should expect them to continue down this path. 

That’s the public process.

Comments | 2

  • Excellent summary ...

    …. especially the headline says it all.

    I’ll only add a quote from recent reading:

    ” . . . how one understands the causes of a problem affects what seems logical and correct in efforts to fix it.”

    ~ W. Lance Bennett and Steven Livingston
    The Coordinated Attack on Authoritative Institutions
    Defending Democracy in the Disinformation Age

  • I Don't See The Murk.

    Okay, I get it that you’re skeptical, but I’d say the question really is whether interested parties can find a way to make their thoughts known and gain access to the public discussion of EMS in Brattleboro. What you’ve labelled murky, I would call open and pluralistic, a selection of options for input as the town moves forward on the best way to provide emergency medical transportation and treatment.

    You’re right that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach here. Comments at selectboard meetings are officially recorded, but they’re also necessarily time limited. Comments at my Office Hours can be lengthy and part of a give and take, but there are no official notes or records. Postings on social media may or may not be seen by those we’d wish to see them. And what about the website? What’s a concerned citizen to do?

    Here’s the deal: I’d recommend all of the above, or more realistically, at least two of the above. In addition to however you choose to address us, it makes a great deal of sense to also put your thoughts in writing. Even those officially recorded comments at a selectboard meeting may not have a lasting impact without some written backup. And posting something on the new town web page dedicated to a discussion of EMS ( is a convenient way to make sure we know what you think. So please, talk to people. Ask questions. Listen and comment.

    It is generally agreed that things over the past year and a half with regard to EMS could have gone better, so some skepticism is justified. But finding fault simply for its own sake is not. Please, people of Brattleboro, don’t stay on the sidelines hoping for the best and fearing the worst. Get in the game. Be a player. You’ve noted that there are several ways for people to do it, which I think is a strength, not a weakness. There may be no single perfect way, but if you tell us what you think, and especially if you then put it in writing, I guarantee we’ll take it seriously.

    We, the selectboard and the town administration, want to make the best decision we can. The town’s emergency services — EMS, police, fire — are among the foundational reasons we have municipal government. We want to and we need to get this right. So please ask questions, cite statistics, tell us what you want us to know, in whatever format you wish to use. We’re paying attention, and now is the time.

    Thanks, everyone, for reading and thinking and writing about this,
    Franz Reichsman
    Selectboard Member

    P.S. And please remember, folks, you can come to Office Hours to talk about anything. It does not have to be about EMS. Wednesday at the library, 4:30 to 6:30. Friday morning at The Works, 8:00 to 10:00.

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