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Coming home

Brattleboro hires Peter Elwell to take helm as town manager

BRATTLEBORO—The announcement on Oct. 23 came with a sigh of relief. After more than a year of searching and three chosen candidates turning the position down, the Selectboard announced it has hired Peter Elwell as the municipality’s next town manager.

An undercurrent of relief and jubilation accompanied the board’s formal announcement and ratification of Elwell’s four-year contract during a special board meeting.

“We’re looking forward to working with Peter,” board chair David Gartenstein said in a phone interview.

Elwell’s first day on the job is Jan. 20, 2015.

The town offered a starting salary of $95,000 and a $5,000 transportation stipend. The town will also pay Elwell’s moving expenses.

In a phone interview on Tuesday, a modest Elwell said that since taking the position as Brattleboro’s town manager he has talked “more about myself in the last week” than in the past 10 years.

Elwell will bring to his new role a combination of a ground-level view of Brattleboro — from growing up here — and bird’s eye view — gaining experience from working in other municipalities.

‘Home with a capital H’

Personal and professional reasons pulled Elwell to take the town manager job in Brattleboro.

He has long wanted to return to and contribute to the community: the place, he said, “that has always been home with a capital H.”

Elwell will leave a post as town manager in Palm Beach, Fla., where he led 340 employees and managed a general fund budget of $65 million.

“I stayed a long time for lots of good reasons,” Elwell said.

According to the website for the Town of Palm Beach, Elwell served more than 25 of his 28 years in local government there.

He has also worked as township manager for the Township of Roxbury, N.J. While in Philadelphia, he served as an aide in the mayor’s Office of Community Services.

Steering the Town of Palm Beach through the aftermath of the 2007-08 economic crunch stands out for Elwell as an example of finding answers to a seemingly impossible problem.

According to Elwell, Palm Beach property values pre-2008 ballooned bigger than in comparable areas. When the bubble burst, values plummeted harder than in other areas.

He said Palm Beach spent four to five years rebalancing its expenses and services.

Through taking a lot of deep breaths, not rushing, and avoiding unnecessary painful outcomes whenever possible, Palm Beach lowered its real-time and projected costs.

Elwell said Palm Beach reduced staffing costs, the greatest part of its budget, by 15 percent — and without layoffs. Instead, it turned to attrition and small decreases in service levels.

Brattleboro faces its own economic issues and probably some challenging years ahead, Elwell said.

He pointed to aging infrastructure, deferred capital expenses, the challenges of enticing commercial development that builds up the Grand List without sacrificing what makes the town special, and residential tax payers being maxed out.

But he is unfazed.

“I just believe Brattleboro has so much going for it,” he said.

Brattleboro has potential, Elwell said, describing the town as beautiful, vibrant, and unique.

With hard work, in five or 10 years people will look at where the town is and be amazed, Elwell added.

When asked why he’d swap the sun of Florida for the snows of Vermont, Elwell said he has missed a four-season climate.

Though he said he’s never loved winter, he explained it’s worth enduring “for the three other beautiful seasons.”

Elwell described his leadership style as “participatory and collaborative.”

“Always an important approach to the work I do is bringing into the decision-making process — not just department heads, staff, or elected officials — but also community members directly affected by the decision,” he said.

Ideally, town government’s processes will be open and the community will provide ample input, Elwell said.

This does not mean all outcomes come through special referenda or defer to a group process, he added. Those tasked with making decisions will have the fullest input and best information from which to work.

Contributing to community

“I’ve been told thousands of times they’d never want to do my job,” Elwell said of people’s reaction to his work.

He said he grasps this reaction intellectually, describing town government “at best constructive disagreement.”

People possess a complex mix of needs, agendas, ideas, beliefs, and goals, Elwell continued.

Sitting at the center of that mix and facilitating a good outcome from the conflict, “I actually love it,” he said.

Elwell didn’t start out seeking a career in town government. Throughout high school and most of his undergraduate years in college, he focused on journalism.

As an undergraduate at Middlebury College, Elwell honed his skills at the college radio station and newspaper, eventually rising to managing editor. He also worked part-time in high school and college for local radio station WKVT.

“I always knew if I followed that path I wanted to cover government,” he said of journalism.

“It wasn’t a moment,” he said of his decision to switch careers.

A political-science major, Elwell enjoyed digging into government. As the son of a former Brattleboro town manager, he said, he understood the ups, downs, and meaningful efforts required to work in local government.

Slowly, Elwell reached the conclusion that he wanted to become a part of government.

Elwell described the Brattleboro town staff and department heads he’s met as “very impressive.” He said he looks forward to working with them in the New Year.

After the third round

Elwell submitted his résumé to the town only recently. While he’s watched the town manager search from afar, other obligations kept him from applying. After the third candidate declined the position, Elwell asked Brattleboro leaders if it was too late to apply.

Gartenstein said what stood out for the board during interviews with Elwell was his “solid, long-term experience as a town manager.”

“He’s got a good perspective and vision,” Gartenstein continued. “He has a temperament that will fit in very well with this town and its government.”

Gatenstein has expressed his opinion, shared by many, that Brattleboro must reconcile its’ operating budget with taxpayers ability to fund town programs and infrastructure.

Elwell, he said, has the skills to help the town grapple with this imbalanced equation.

The new town manager struck Gartenstein as having the ability to build a collaborative and respectful approach to issues that also relies on careful analysis of information.

Gartenstein also noted that he saw in Elwell a deep-seated commitment to the Brattleboro community.

Part of the family tree

Elwell has public service in his veins, according to his father, former Brattleboro Town Manager Corwin “Corky” Elwell.

When asked what people should understand about the position of town manager, the elder Elwell said, “Oh gosh.”

He paused for a long time before saying, tongue-in-cheek, “the town manager has 12,000 advisors who think they know better than you what you’re doing.”

Respect and communication are important aspects of the job, he added.

“Peter is a good communicator,” his father added. “He has experience coming out the kazoo.”

Corky Elwell was Brattleboro’s town manager from Nov. 1, 1960 to June 1989.

“A long stretch and a lot of fun,” he said.

Prior to Brattleboro, Corky Elwell worked in the municipalities of Concord, N.H, Bethel, and Essex Junction.

When asked what made the town manager such an important position, he answered, “The town manager is really the leader of the team, and it’s a team effort.”

A good town manager can also weave together programs that in the long run benefit the community.

“Peter is very good at that,” said Corky Elwell.

That said, he added, he couldn’t make any predictions on his son’s actions as Brattleboro’s new town manager.

“What he does is up to him,” said Corky Elwell.

He said his son never consulted him about his career, yet the two have taken very similar paths, including undergraduate degrees from Middlebury College and graduate degrees from the University of Pennsylvania.

Public service has “always been a part of the culture in the family,” since it arrived in the United States in 1798, said the elder Elwell.

Peter Elwell, in his father’s view, probably will spend more time working directly with people. He added that with Florida’s reputation for being such a political state, he guessed his son will enjoy working in a town with fewer political animals.

Yet he worked for a town that differed greatly from the one that his son will lead.

Corky Elwell characterizes the 1960s and 1970s as a time of expanding and upgrading Brattleboro’s infrastructure.

Two weeks after he started as town manager, construction extended Interstate 91 from Exit 1 to Exit 3.

This new piece of roadway opened Putney Road to new pressures, he said. Until I-91’s expansion, most of Putney Road traveled past working farms and the occasional development. After Exit 3 opened, developers bought up the land, and the road became the commercial strip that people recognize today.

More businesses meant more need for water and sewer services, he said. The town had installed a water line in the 1940s as far as what was then American Optical, now Fulflex Elastomerics.

“You can’t have an intense development without utilities,” he said.

Municipal sewer, however, did not exist, he said. The buildings along Putney Road had individual septic tanks.

Around 1963, he said, the town voted to extend the sewer line and there was “an explosion on Putney Road of development.”

Under Corky Elwell, the town undertook projects to improve the town’s drinking water and construct sewage treatment plants starting in 1967 and into the 1970s.

According to Elwell, the municipality financed this boom of infrastructure in part through a revenue sharing program with the federal government.

He chuckled, and added that the department heads made sure they had plans for new projects waiting on the shelf so when the federal government announced financial earmarks, Brattleboro would be first in line.

This work amounted to $10 million to $12 million in new infrastructure in the early 1970s, he said.

A municipality might not take a direct role in economic development, but it does have a role in creating an atmosphere that’s conducive to businesses and provides infrastructure that companies need, the elder Elwell said.

Companies look for communities offering quality-of-life things, such as utilities the company can access, good schools, recreational opportunities, and strong fire and police departments, he said.

Without those aspects in a community, a potential company won’t look too hard, he said.

Peter Elwell said the hardest part of leaving Palm Beach will be leaving its people.

He graduated from Brattleboro Union High School. He met and married Wendy Harrison while in graduate school. Harrison is a town council member for the Town of Jupiter, Fla. She has also served as an assistant village manager and county solid waste director. The couple have a daughter in college and a son in high school.

Elwell holds a master’s degree in governmental administration from the University of Pennsylvania and a bachelor’s degree in political science from Middlebury College. He received the Harry S. Truman Scholarship, which provides funding toward graduate education and professional development for people pursuing careers in government.

“It’s time to come home to Brattleboro,” he said.

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Photo 2

Courtesy photo

Peter Elwell

Originally published in The Commons issue #278 (Wednesday, October 29, 2014). This story appeared on page A1.

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