Did Brattleboro Representative Town Meeting Make A Mistake Raising Selectboard Stipends?

For many years it was assumed that the pool of selectboard candidates could be increased by increasing the compensation for the position. The idea was that maybe people who are single parents or working multiple jobs would run if only there was enough compensation to make it worthwhile. A corollary was that perhaps the board has been dominated by only people well-off enough to have the free time to serve.

Representatives at Brattleboro’s Representative Town Meeting would have this discussion at each RTM when the compensation article would come up. Eventually the arguments prevailed and the stipends went up. A board member now gets $8000 plus money to pay for child or other care during meetings. The chair gets more.

It has only been one year so it is too early to see trends, but the first year’s numbers are not encouraging. There were NO new candidates this year.  Two-thirds of the incumbents  (Tim and Jessica) said that the stipends were part of the consideration to run again and stay on the board. 

Was it a mistake to increase the stipends? The goal of more (and more diverse) candidates didn’t materialize.

It could be that another year of pandemic wore people down. Or perhaps everyone felt that these board members are great and should continue to do the work for them. Maybe new candidates were waiting for current ones to retire.

The bigger stipends may have helped to entrench existing power structures, encouraging those on the board to try to continue to stay on the board lest they lose a hefty chunk of change from their annual incomes. $8k buys a lot of stuff, especially as prices are on the rise. There isn’t a great incentive to step aside and let others give the board a try.

Of course, in theory, the possibility adding $8k to one’s yearly take should balance that out. It should be an equal incentive to challenge a current board members for their seat and claim that cash.

But it didn’t happen.

Perhaps the answer is that no one new KNEW about the big stipends and child/home care options.

Imagine some sort of church that meets once a year.  The majority of people don’t go to that church, and most people ignore it. It might seem a bit mysterious to those who don’t attend, and although the notes of the annual meeting are published, it isn’t terribly interesting news to the majority of people.

That’s what RTM is to most people in town. It comes across as a semi-private affair. And despite the eloquence of our fine town meeting representatives during that meeting, very few people outside of the room hear their words.

So it is with an increase in stipends. It wasn’t enough to increase the benefits. The increase needed to be coupled with outreach to those outside the world of RTM, and some good publicity that a successful run for Selectboard would also mean $8k and home care assistance. The PR campaign was lacking.

I follow this stuff closer than most and I knew that stipends had increased, but even I had to look up what the new numbers were. And then I was again shocked at how much board members get paid to be board members.

There could be other reasons still. Maybe it is a coincidence – just a fluke. Maybe democracy is dying. Maybe the people RTM imagines joining the board are interested in something beyond money. Maybe everyone is tired, or busy with other things.

In any case, the “raise stipend= attract new candidates” attempt flopped this year, right out of the gate. 

I think it is worth a discussion.

Comments | 2

  • Thanks for this commentary, Chris. As the consistent

    Thanks for this commentary, Chris.
    As the consistent advocate of democratic reforms in Brattleboro, BCS has advocated for the increased stipend for many years. The idea of a $20,000 stipend was scorned several years ago. More than once it received a small increase, until last year, when there was great interest.
    Maybe selectboard trends follow RTM trends. Interest in stipends has grown like interest in BCS’ activation of RTM. Last year there were three other groups meeting about it. RTM now is properly represented on the town website. In the same way, the news about the stipend has to get out. BCS should have made sure that the newspeople included a note in their reports about the election and interviews with the candidates.
    The reasons you suggest are all credible, but I think the stipend will not be attractive when the incumbent has a great advantage. (I wonder how that advantage may differ from place to place .) With the incumbent advantage strong, people hesitate to bother, and there is little change in the board year to year. This, too may follow the trend at RTM . In 2015 BCS fronted term limits for RTM, and since then there are more new people every year. See brmse.org

  • Reasons people don't run

    I am wondering if anyone has undertaken to survey people who have considered running but not run to find out what held them back. This wouldn’t be a scientific survey, but it still could provide some useful information. I think it could be helpful to put out a call to anyone who has ever considered running to participate in a brief survey. Like two questions: Why were you considering running? Why did you decide not to run? I think a survey like that could provide information about what interested people in being on the SB and what considerations led them not to run in spite of their interest.

    It seems to me that without knowing what holds people back, it is hard to figure out what, if anything, can address those issues. We can put in the best intentioned solutions but if they aren’t addressing the actual problems, they won’t bring about the desired change.

    If a survey has already been conducted I’d be interested in what it turned up.

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