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Brattleboro keeps discussing complexion of town workforce

Selectboard hears from townspeople, social justice groups on boosting diversity in municipal ranks

BRATTLEBORO—The “diversity in municipal staffing” item at the June 6 Selectboard meeting was long on conversation and short on action.

But, as many town officials and some attendees agreed, the process will take some time.

The only motion from the Board was to accept the recommendations listed in Town Manager Peter B. Elwell’s June 1 memorandum, which made few substantial changes to the hiring process, but invited more community input and mandated implicit bias training for management.

Over the span of two hours, Board members heard comments from a number of attendees, including Brattleboro Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald, members of local racial justice groups, and a panel discussion with members of the Community Equity Collaborative.

The CEC began in 2008 as the Racial Issues Steering Committee, formed in response to a series of public displays of racial hatred by high school students.

Curtiss Reed Jr., executive director of the Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity, and other members of the CEC spoke of the economic benefits of increasing racial diversity in municipal staffing and in the community as a whole.

Participants spoke of their experiences — positive and negative — of living in a town where the overwhelming majority of residents are white.

Nearly all the speakers encouraged town officials to increase the ranks of people of color in municipal government, and some attendees criticized municipal staff for not doing enough to get there.

Elwell’s memorandum compared the town’s historical hiring practices and its current hiring practices, which incorporate web-based resources and community resources.

At the meeting, Elwell mentioned a recent initiative to increase youth employment at the town’s Recreation and Parks Department: The town sent a notice to every Brattleboro Union High School student with job listings.

Since then, that department has hired people of color, he said.

The memo also provided a far-reaching description of diversity, including “legally-protected populations,” and others, such as those with “a variety of educational backgrounds” and “people of all shapes and sizes physically.”

Town Attorney Bob Fisher’s legal opinion on employment discrimination and policy was also included in Elwell’s memo. It said that while the town could implement an official affirmative action policy, “[such] a policy would have to be drawn carefully” with an outside legal expert.

“The Town can take a variety of actions to visibly and substantively demonstrate our commitment to increasing the diversity [of municipal staff] without adopting an official affirmative action policy,” the memo noted.

“I’d like something that’s not the safe statement. I’d like something [drafted] from our community,” said Selectboard member Tim Wessel.

Elwell encouraged “collaborative work” on this process, and focused on the process itself.

“A word of caution: We need to talk about where we need to go before we talk about getting there,” Elwell said.

Reed noted it took Burlington city officials nine months to work on diversifying their recruitment for hiring a new police chief.

“You don’t need to change your policy,” Reed said. “You need to change your strategy” in the short-, medium-, and long-term. He encouraged town officials to “reach out to historically black colleges for recruitment.”

The Selectboard will discuss this topic at their next meeting, on June 20. Interested parties can read Elwell’s memo and other relevant documents by visiting www.brattleboro.org.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #412 (Wednesday, June 14, 2017).

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