BRATTLEBORO—A nearly decade-long trend of dwindling community participation will leave voters with few choices at the polls.
Voters will decide only one contested race — two, one-year Selectboard seats — in the March 1 town election.
The rest of the more than 60 combined open municipal, Representative Town Meeting, and school district seats are uncontested.
Local business owner Avery Schwenk is running for one of the two Selectboard seats. His two opponents, incumbent David Gartenstein and former Selectboard Chair Dick DeGray, are no strangers to the board.
Incumbent board member Kate O’Connor is running unopposed for a three-year term.
Schwenk moved to Brattleboro approximately two years ago. He opened Hermit Thrush Brewery with business partner Christophe Gagné.
When asked why he is running, Schwenk answered that he wants to give back to the town that welcomed him with open arms.
As a relative newcomer, entrepreneur, and part of the under-50 club, Schwenk said he hopes to bring a new voice and perspective to the Selectboard.
Hermit Thrush’s vice president and brewer previously served as a paramedic in the metropolitan Philadelphia area.
For the past 12 years — 20, if he counts his years as a participant — Schwenk has flexed his leadership muscles and fed his passion for teaching by volunteering with Destination Imagination. This New Jersey-based organization hosts hands-on learning programs that “foster students’ creativity, courage and curiosity through open-ended academic challenges in the fields of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), fine arts and service learning.”
Schwenk said he hopes to bring his creative problem solving, consensus building, and leadership skills to the board and wants to make economic development an “ongoing presence” in the board’s collective efforts.
Brattleboro is experiencing an economic upswing, Schwenk said. Still, the reverberations of hard economic times echo through the community.
When asked why the five-year board veteran wants to run again, David Gartenstein laughed, “I just think it’s the best.”
Gartenstein said that Brattleboro’s vitality and its direct form of governance struck him when he moved to town in 1982.
He has since remained involved, trying, he said, “to make a difference in working to make sure our government is as transparent as possible and is always serving the public good.”
Gartenstein served nine years on the Development Review Board, two-and-a-half years on the Town School Board, and three years on the Brattleboro Union High School District Board.
As Selectboard chair, Gartenstein said he placed “significant focus” on ensuring all voices are heard at public meetings. Even when people disagree, he continued, the meetings are conducted so that everybody can express themselves fully and respectfully.
Gartenstein said he looks to continue working on the projects the current board has started.
“We are beginning to make some really substantial progress,” he said.
For example, he said, residents completed a smooth transition to the pay-as-you-throw trash disposal system this year and he looks to continue making progress in this area.
Likewise, the board worked with town staff on significant infrastructure projects, including the Police-Fire facilities project, repairs to a number of roads, and rebuilding crumbling retaining walls, he said.
Gartenstein said he wants to continue the municipality’s efforts to create better procedures and budget planning. For example, the town, with guidance from Town Manager Peter Elwell, is transitioning to purchasing capital equipment using cash rather than long-term debt.
The town will soon embark on union negotiations, which may affect staff relations and budgeting, he continued.
Brattleboro’s municipal government consists of a combination of public service and public trust, he said. Gartenstein expressed gratitude to all the people who have placed their trust and confidence in him.
Former Selectboard chair Dick DeGray hopes voters will help him return to the board after a three-year hiatus.
DeGray said he stepped down after a seven-year stint to “recharge my batteries.”
While away from the board, DeGray said he continued to show his love and commitment to Brattleboro through volunteering with organizations like the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance. DeGray spearheads the DBA’s flower and beautification program.
Selectboards respond to everything life throws at a town whether its logistical or emotional, he said. As an example, DeGray pointed to 2011. That year, the board responded to the Brooks House fire, two murders, and Tropical Storm Irene.
Now, as the town wrestles with infrastructure repairs such as the Police-Fire Project and a waning communal interest in volunteering at the municipal level, DeGray wants to return to the board.
DeGray said the town must discuss and confront what underlies the lack of volunteers.
A lack of Town Meeting Members is “becoming the norm,” he said.
Does the town need to reconstitute the Charter Committee to make changes to the way the town does business? DeGray asked. How does the municipality reinvigorate the community’s desire to serve?
DeGray said he has volunteered in Brattleboro since moving to town over 30 years ago. When he joined the board in 2006, the board helped shepherd the town through a deep financial deficit and other financial issues.
“For seven years, I felt like I was a tireless worker for the community,” he said. “I love Brattleboro and I want to serve.”
According to Town Clerk Annette Cappy, too few people petitioned to become Town Meeting Members.
“It’s a sad and dispiriting trend,” she said.
Members will need to caucus this spring to gather enough representatives for Representative Town Meeting. At the caucus meeting, community members can simply sign up to be a representative. They will bypass the election process.
In District 1, only five people are running for 16 open three-year seats. No one is running for the solo open two-year seat. Of the four open one-year seats, two people are running.
Twelve people are running for the 15 open three-year seats in District 2. One person is running unopposed for the single open two-year seat. The single one-year term is completely open as no one has decided to run for it.
In District 3, 14 candidates come close to filling the 15 open three-year terms. The one person running unopposed for the open two-year seat is a shoo-in.