Brattleboro Selectboard Candidate Interview – Oscar Heller

oscar heller

Oscar Heller is running for a one-year seat on the Brattleboro Selectboard.

Tell everyone a bit about yourself… who are you?

My name is Oscar Heller. I’m a programmer and graphic designer with my own web design business called 10F Design. I serve on the energy committee and the finance committee, and I’m a town meeting rep for District 3. The energy committee played a big role in successfully convincing the Selectboard to create the new sustainability coordinator position, and I also served on the hiring committee for the position.

In my free time, I read, play guitar, and play softball in the rec league.

Do you have any special powers or skills to offer?

I hope to blend my generation’s perspective with some substantial experience in town government. Everyone in Brattleboro wants to attract young people and young families, and I think a key part of that is giving younger people a presence on the Selectboard.

I work very hard to be diplomatic, reasonable, and fair in everything I do. That’s really important if you want to get stuff done and not just kick up dust, especially in a small town like ours.

Also, I’m really good at befriending cats. The trick (don’t tell anyone) is to be diplomatic, reasonable and fair with them too.

Why are you running for selectboard? Anything special you’d like to accomplish?

If I had to describe my vision in a single word, it would be “modernization.” I don’t want to disturb Brattleboro’s core strengths and beauties, and I’m very aware of our limited resources, but I do want to be creative and aggressive about trying new things. This ranges from climate and environment (sustainability coordinator, carbon offsets, electric vehicles in town fleet), to tech (municipal broadband), to social equity and access issues (day jobs program, public restrooms, child care at town meeting).

We have an opportunity to stand out, to make Brattleboro a beacon of progress and modern thinking. I know dozens of people my age who are sick of city life and are jealous of mine. Those dozens reflect a much larger reality: tens of thousands of smart, creative young people who are burned out and desperate for what Brattleboro has. They have money and ideas and most of their businesses can run out of an office with an internet connection. But unless you already have a connection to Brattleboro, there’s no reason for them to come here instead of somewhere else. If we can modernize and beautify (arts fund, trail extensions, waterfront accessibility) Brattleboro in the right ways, we could turn our demographic drain into a geyser.

In general, how do you think about a problem that needs solving? What’s your process for figuring something out?

Get the facts first. I’m a bit of a perfectionist and don’t like talking about something unless I’m really sure of my ground. But most really tricky issues are subjective and have more than one side to them, so the next step is to talk to as many people as you can.

The other piece to the puzzle is making sure the decision is being made by a diverse body. The same set of facts can lead to many different conclusions. The Selectboard shouldn’t be making decisions in a vacuum. The board needs to hear from the community – the entire community, and if an appropriate representation of the community doesn’t come forward on its own, the board needs to seek it out. Hiring decisions need to be made by a hiring committee that is diverse and representative (and I think the town generally does a good job at this).

Tell us about Brattleboro in terms of it being:

– sustainable…

Because other categories are broken out below, I’m going to use this space to talk about energy & climate. In general, the town has done a very good job at improving its climate impact, and continues to look to do more. But this only applies to the impact of municipal operations (town employees and town buildings), not the much larger impact of regular Brattleboro citizens in their daily lives. Vermont state goals and the goals in our own town plan require action on this larger impact. How to do this in a way that respects peoples’ freedoms and our own limited financial resources is not obvious, but it needs to be a top priority.

– equitable…

Brattleboro suffers from poverty and all its symptoms, most notably addiction and homelessness. I think we are a compassionate town (Project CARE, public bathrooms, support for Groundworks, a substantial human services budget), but the root of these problems lies much deeper than the symptoms we try to address. I would argue that true long-term solutions start with jobs and affordable housing. The We Work day jobs pilot program scheduled for this year is an example of the kind of creative (admittedly challenging and not without risk) ideas we need in this area. I hope to explore ideas on a similar scale for housing.

– diverse…

Like Vermont as a whole, we are not a racially diverse place, and Brattleboro suffers for it. While I believe most of us do our best to be enlightened and welcoming, I don’t think that’s any substitute for actual diversity from the perspective of a person of color. Living in a place where some aspect of your identity (and diversity extends beyond race) is a small minority is alienating. As one very visible example, we need more people of color on town staff. I also strongly support initiatives in Vermont to encourage international immigrants to choose Vermont as their new home. I support doing the same for Brattleboro specifically. Brattleboro will be better for all of us if it’s more diverse.

– affordable…

I want to explore some creative approaches to affordable housing. We have organizations in the area doing excellent work but the problem still persists, so how can we help as a town? I’m told by someone in the industry that we’re in kind of a development catch-22: our vacancy rate is low, so rents are relatively high, but development is so expensive that it’s still usually not worth it financially to build new property, which sells for less per square foot than it cost to build.

We also have work to do on child care. And of course the flip side of affordability is the property tax rate, which continually rises to pay for new programs. How do we balance the programs we need with the fact that there is a limit on what property owners can bear – more importantly, on what they will consent to bear before they start choosing Guilford or Putney or Dummerston instead of Brattleboro?

Despite a lot of good work on the issue, opioids are still a major issue for the community. Thoughts? What else can we do?

We can continue to develop and support the programs (like Project CARE) and organizations (like Groundworks) that are helping. We can do our part to keep the Retreat healthy and here. I like to look at root causes, not symptoms, so the opioid issue makes me feel more helpless than any other. The root causes are national and were set in motion decades ago. We have to ride out the storm, help each other out the best we can, and learn the painful lessons (of over-prescription, of commodification of medicine) so we don’t repeat them.

How do you think Brattleboro should handle the sale of legal marijuana in the coming year(s)?

The legal marijuana business is here to stay and, as someone who has no interest in the product, I think we should embrace it. It’s a potential new source of tax revenue and a new sector of business. Plus, making marijuana more mainstream and legal and safe will have numerous other benefits, bringing its sale and use out of the shadows of pseudo-criminality and into the light of day. It’s less dangerous than alcohol and we sell that in supermarkets.

What should Brattleboro do regarding the implementation of 5G networks?

The weight of the evidence makes me continue to think that 5G is relatively safe. Almost everything has health drawbacks of some kind, and we have to weigh those drawbacks against the benefits. It’s a sad truth these days that you can find a study or an article to back up any side of an argument, so let me say loud and clear: I could be wrong. I am a layman in this field. But all I can do is try to understand things as best I can, and the conclusion I’ve reached is that 5G is relatively safe with some peripheral concerns (cell oxidization, skin temperature) that could lead to second-degree health effects, and that the benefits outweigh the risks in this case.

What are your thoughts on municipal broadband now that some options have been presented?

I think it’s an exciting idea that ties into the concept of modernization. I support moving forward with the investigative phase and encourage everyone interested to fill out the broadband survey by 3/17, available at or as a paper copy in the town clerk’s office or at the library. The Communication Union District structure would insulate the town from direct financial risk, but it’s still an ambitious project.

My only real concern is about another pet concept of mine: density. Dense development is the closest thing to a silver bullet. It lowers costs, permits more affordable housing, takes less energy to heat, and leaves more land undeveloped for habitats and carbon sequestration. Economically, running utilities (including paved roads) to sprawling development (for Brattleboro, think isolated houses and developments far from town) is exponentially more expensive for the taxpayer than servicing dense downtowns. The idea of running another utility to the least dense parts of town makes me a little uncomfortable from that perspective, although serving those areas is one of the equity goals of the project. I would like to explore structures that incentivize density over sprawl.

There are a lot of expensive repairs and purchases planned for Brattleboro’s future, and taxes continue to rise. Do you see a breaking point for the taxpayers? Is there any program or service that should be cut or privatized?

There’s always a breaking point, and I think we’re close to our limit, but any cuts to the current budget would be painful. The more “controversial” recent items (arts fund, community marketing, human services) are small fractions of the overall expenditures. Cutting a $15,000 arts fund or $10,000 for public Porta Potties is not going to move the needle on the property tax rate. I think all the current expenditures in that category are all well worth the money, or at least are important experiments. And the larger items are even more central: police, fire, public works, town staff, and staff benefits.

I wrote the expenditures section of the finance committee’s budget report this year, and I didn’t identify a single soft line item. Cuts can always be made, and economies increased, but I wouldn’t recommend any currently. We should be looking at new revenue and economic development, and increasing our commitment to long-term capital planning.

Should Brattleboro return to an Open Town Meeting where anyone can attend? Why or why not?

I have no objection, but in an era where we routinely have districts with fewer people running for town meeting than spots to fill, I don’t see a positive reason to change. If we were turning dozens of people away who wanted to serve, then I could see it.

Last year the board declined to declare a climate emergency. Do you agree that Brattleboro is doing enough already regarding climate change? If not, what else could be done?

As I said above, Brattleboro is doing a great deal about the effects of its municipal government, but very little about the effects of its citizenry. It’s a lot harder to affect how people heat and weatherize their own homes and businesses, and what kind of car they drive and how they use it, but at the end of the day, private heating and private transportation are the two single biggest carbon outputs in our town. We need creativity and tenacity. Our town plan proclaims town-wide climate goals, but we’re not currently equipped to attack or even measure them. Hiring Stephen Dotson as the sustainability coordinator was a positive first step, and engaging with those climate goals in a real way will hopefully be one of his first priorities.

I should say I’m also not much of an emergency declaration kind of guy. I didn’t object to most of the language this time around, but I think an emergency declaration at the town level is a fairly lightweight action to take. I’d rather work on policy and programs.

What’s the best meal you ever had?

There was a Mexican taqueria in Culver City, CA that I loved called Mrs. Richard’s. I wish we had a dozen Mexican places here. It’s the only thing I really miss about California versus Vermont. Tito’s has a good veggie burrito and I’d love to see him in a downtown storefront. Is there an economic development fund specifically for Mexican restaurants? We should establish one.

Yalla has great falafel, I love the hummus sandwich at Tulip, and I’m really excited that Dosa Kitchen is downtown. We’re really lucky in our food choices.

Thanks for spending time with iBrattleboro.

Comments | 7

  • Thank you, iBratt and Oscar!

    I’m so glad iBrattleboro is conducting these Brattleboro Selectboard candidate interviews. I find them really helpful and generally fun to read.

    Since Oscar is not an incumbent and I don’t know much about him, this one was particularly helpful to me in considering my vote on March 3. Thanks for your thoughtful answers, Oscar.

    If you are elected and can get economic development for Mexican restaurants underway, I’ll support it! In fact, all joking aside, wouldn’t that be an interesting idea to help solve a bunch of our challenges: economic development to assist people from other countries who want to move here and open restaurants. If the funding included supports for a living wage for them and their workers, it would be a good economic driver, and bring new businesses, younger people, and international people to our town. Hmm… Something to think about!

    • Encouraging international immigration

      Wendy, I strongly support Brattleboro encouraging international immigration. I think it would be great for our town in so many ways. We just need to figure out a mechanism to do it!

      • A mechanism

        Hi Oscar. Thanks for your reply. I wonder if the Town Manager staff could help us figure out a way to start the conversation within the bounds of what statute allows. After elections, let’s talk about this. It could be a wonderful thing.

  • 5G

    What should Brattleboro do regarding the implementation of 5G networks?

    The weight of the evidence makes me continue to think that 5G is relatively safe. Almost everything has health drawbacks of some kind, and we have to weigh those drawbacks against the benefits. It’s a sad truth these days that you can find a study or an article to back up any side of an argument, so let me say loud and clear: I could be wrong. I am a layman in this field. But all I can do is try to understand things as best I can, and the conclusion I’ve reached is that 5G is relatively safe with some peripheral concerns (cell oxidization, skin temperature) that could lead to second-degree health effects, and that the benefits outweigh the risks in this case.

    I cannot vote for Oscar because of his stand on 5G wifi. If implemented in our town it will be ON and pulsing 24/7. When, it appears it will be a “when” now, 5G wifi is activated town-wide it’s power will have an impact on ALL living things. This issue needs to be addressed as a Climate Change. Would you want to live in a world without pollinators? What would happen to our food, our flowers, our life…what would happen to the pollinators lives? all for what? Why would we be willing to sacrifice their lives and ultimately our lives. Why?

    Oscar says: “…the benefits outweigh the risks in this case.”

    Is that true? do they? We have never lived with these frequency’s pulsing 24/7 in our neighborhoods, in our houses, in our bodies, in the bodies of our pets, of our winged things….

    this is what CLIMATE CHANGE looks like. Please take note we need a moratorium on 5G small cell NOW!

    • 5G

      Robyn, I appreciate you sharing my words from the candidate forum on 5G. While I don’t agree with your interpretation of the available research, I respect it, and I respect you for the time & energy you devote to your beliefs.

  • Selectboard responsibility

    WHY IS THIS SO EASILY FORGOTTEN? PUT ASIDE…by the candidates in the forum.
    In the Town Charter
    Article IV
    Section 6
    O. To conduct such inquiries and investigations as may be
    deemed necessary to promote the health, safety and
    welfare of the people.
    Y. To promote and safeguard the public health, safety,
    comfort, or general welfare by the adoption of ordinances
    and regulations relating to the following subjects:
    3. The installation, repair, alteration, use, and
    maintenance of electrical wiring, motors, devices,
    equipment and appliances, and appurtenances thereof;
    4. The handling, transportation, storage, and use or sale
    of explosives, radioactive materials or devices, and
    other hazardous chemicals, materials, substances or
    devices, and the use and occupancy of buildings,
    structures, land, and premises for such purposes;

  • Support Oscar Heller for Select Board

    Oscar Heller is running for a one year seat on the Brattleboro Select Board. He has shown be a steady advocate for climate and environmental issues for the Town. He strikes me as very aware of the larger picture on the issues that come before the Town Select Board. He is thoughtful, considerate, an attentive listen and articulate in his beliefs and thoughts. He has been active in the Town Finance Committee. He has a clear grasp of the budget and the ways it can be put together. He is aware of tax rate issues while advocating of more decisive action on climate ans sustainability issues.

    I think he would be a strong addition to the Select Board.

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