BRATTLEBORO—The arts, affordability, and building a diverse and thriving community were among the topics taken up by the four candidates for the Selectboard in the March 6 town election at a televised forum on Feb. 22 co-sponsored by Brattleboro Community Television and The Commons.
Candidates took questions from panelists Olga Peters, host of WKVT’s Green Mountain Mornings, and local activist Anne Braden of the Windham County Community Action Network. This reporter served as the moderator.
Running unopposed for the three-year seat being vacated by retiring Board member John Allen is Brandie Starr, who is completing her first one-year term on the board and decided to go for the three-year seat.
Three candidates are running for two one-year seats. Incumbent Tim Wessel is completing his first one-year term on the board. The other two candidates, Shanta Lee Gander and William Forchion, are new to town politics.
Starr said she enjoyed the diversity of issues that she faced in her first year on the Selectboard, and wasn’t daunted by the immensity of the tasks the board is facing.
“We have a flat grand list, and that makes funding really challenging right now, but I think we did a good job during this year’s budget process to accomplish as much as we can,” she said.
Wessel described his first year on the Selectboard as being “very much of a learning process...learning about budgets and learning about our town departments and how they work together.”
He echoed Starr’s observation about the diversity of issues faced by the board. He offered a partial list of what the board has dealt with during the past year — panhandling, the skate park, a plastic bag ban, the budget, a new ladder truck, the Compassionate Community resolution, Putney Road safety concerns, a discussion about diversity and town staff, finishing the Police-Fire project, a new sidewalk plow, working with Groundworks Collaborative to find a new overflow shelter, the Hinsdale bridge, improvements to the Harmony Lot, and making town buildings more energy efficient.
“And that’s about a third of the issues we’ve been dealing with,” said Wessel, adding that he’d like to take the things he has learned in the first year on the board, and continue to serve the community.
Gander is a native of Hartford, Conn., and has lived in Brattleboro for nearly a decade. She was formerly the chair of the Arts Council of Windham County, and has worked in the area as a publicist, artist, and writer.
She said she sees her strength as coalition building, a skill she learned in Connecticut working with Planned Parenthood of Southern New England.
“How do we expand the table to get other people there?” she asked.
Forchion is a native of Hammonton, N.J., and is best known for his work with the New England Center for Circus Arts. He has had a diverse career as an actor and stunt man in TV and film, a film producer, and as a writer and poet. Locally, he has worked with Windham County Reads, the Restorative Justice Center, and the Boys & Girls Club.
He said he was moved to run for Selectboard, in part, from the conversations he’s had with people around town regarding various issues, particularly diversity.
“There’s never a good time to get involved in politics, because there is always something that is happening in our lives,” he said. “If there’s never going to be a right time, then this is the right time.”
With Brattleboro’s reputation as an “arts town” and the growing importance of arts to the town’s economy, the candidates were asked about the role the Selectboard plays in encouraging the arts economy.
Gander said the definition of artisan should be expanded to include the growing sector of speciality food and value-added agricultural products. She added that, in general, the arts economy should be looked at as a “holistic piece” of the larger economy.
Wessel said he believes the arts are “thriving” in Brattleboro, and “for a town our size, it’s quite remarkable what people have accomplished.” In his year on the Selectboard, he says that he has seen that their meetings are “where a lot of conversations get started,” and encouraged the arts community to continue to come and bring their ideas to board meetings.
Starr said her concerns about the arts in Brattleboro involved inclusiveness, particularly for the younger members of the community.
“Do we have art that people can afford to see?” she asked. “Are we being bold with our art? We have room to grow, and the best way we can do that is to be inclusive to all voices, especially young, enthusiastic voices.”
Forchion said the best way the town can support the arts community is to continue its current support and to integrate it into the larger economy. “If we take care of the community as a whole, than each of those sectors will thrive,” he said.
A class divide?
While the candidates spoke highly of the various events that have been held over the past year to build community, they addressed the perception that Brattleboro is stratifying into two communities — one that caters to the tourists, and one that struggles to get by.
“There’s a disconnect,” said Starr. “It’s expensive to eat in Brattleboro, it’s expensive to play in Brattleboro, and it’s expensive to live in Brattleboro.”
Affordable housing, affordable childcare, and economic policies that are inclusive while building up the grand list are all remedies that Starr said she supports.
Wessel said the town should do a better job “reeling in all socio-economic classes.” For example, he said it was “mind-boggling” that there was not a laundromat in downtown Brattleboro. He called it “a bellwether that not all economic classes are being served in town.”
Gander said affordability is key to maintaining a vibrant Brattleboro, particularly for the people who work downtown but can’t afford to live, eat, or shop there. “We need to ask ourselves who and what is Brattleboro for,” she said.
Forchion said he didn’t feel that Brattleboro is stratifying. “I showed up here as one of ‘them,’ a tourist,” he said. “I want to share this with as many people as possible. Do I want them all to stay? No, I don’t. Do I want to them to buy products downtown. Yes, I do, because it helps our economy.”
The appearance of panhandlers in downtown Brattleboro was unsettling to many members of the community, and the Selectboard struggled to achieve the right balance in its response to the problem. When asked whether that response was humane, the candidates offered their thoughts.
“We’re unique in that we’re addressing this, and many other problems we’re facing, through a lens of compassion,” Gander said.
“Has the town been fair? It depends on who you ask,” said Starr.
She said she has been going to “The Wall,” a popular gathering place for the town’s street people on Flat Street near the Co-op and Whetstone Brook.
“I grew up around poverty, drugs, and dysfunction,” she said. “It doesn’t scare me to see people who are different from me.”
Every time she meets with the folks hanging out there, Starr said she “can feel a little better and speak a little stronger on their behalf, because their [concerns] are not always being brought to the table. We have a lot of work to do in this community mending fences and teaching people how to talk to [one another].”
Wessel said he was the first to bring up the issue of panhandling, after an informal canvass of downtown merchants.
“There are times, I admit, I regret bringing it up,” he said, but on the whole, he is glad that the Selectboard took up the issue, because it brought up the larger issues that the town, and the nation as a whole, is struggling with — poverty, substance abuse, homelessness, economic inequality.
“It’s not going to be solved by the Selectboard, or town money,” he said. “It’s going to take a lot of pieces of the puzzle being brought together.”
Forchion said the issue is the overall health of the community — seeing panhandlers on Main Street is just a symptom of deeper problems. “We have a town full of resources, and resourceful people,” he said, and listening to those people give their ideas and offer solutions can offer a way forward.
The bigger picture
In the past few years, the Brattleboro Selectboard has been asked to address social justice concerns that seem beyond the standard purview of a town board. A question sent via Facebook from Ezlerh Oreste asked the candidates what social justice initiatives they might take up in the coming year.
While Gander said that “diversity, inclusion, and equity” are subjects that appear more often in the Board’s discussions, she add that people have to be realistic about what powers the Selectboard have.
Wessel thought the discussions of the previous year were “excellent” and that “as a board, we did a good job being responsive to people’s needs.” While the Selectboard has limited powers, “it can chip away at the edges.”
At the same time, Wessel said he “doesn’t want to be an activist on the board,” but he wants to be someone “willing to listen to activists” and anyone else that has something to contribute to a productive discussion.
Starr agreed with Wessel that a Selectboard member is “obligated to represent everybody,” but that her nature has her leaning toward “helping people who need our help.”
Forchion said he believes that listening to one another will yield solutions to many of the issues facing the town.
Besides the two one-year seats on the Selectboard, the only other contested race on the Brattleboro ballot is for BUHS District #6. Three candidates are running for two three-year seats, as incumbents Richard “Ricky” Davidson and Katey Everest are being challenged by newcomer Christopher Lievense.
Voting in Brattleboro once again will take place at the Municipal Center in the Selectboard Meeting Room (Room 212) on the second floor. The room is handicapped-accessible, and free parking for voters is available at the rear of the Municipal Center.
Polling hours are 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., on Tuesday, March 6. Early/Absentee ballots may be cast in the Town Clerk’s office until 5 p.m. on Monday, March 5.
Several Town Meeting members are still needed in each district. Anyone interested in running for a position as a write-in candidate must file a Declaration of Candidacy with the town clerk by the close of the polls on election day in order for their votes to be counted.
Declarations of Candidacy will be posted on a bulletin board at the polls so voters will be aware of those interested in vacant positions. A minimum of 10 votes are required to be elected.
For more information, contact Town Clerk Hilary Francis at 802-251-8129 or firstname.lastname@example.org.