BRATTLEBORO—Hannah Tyler has just left her job as water and highway superintendent of the Department of Public Works in Brattleboro. She has traded that title in to become director of public works 67 miles north at the Windsor County town of Hartford, where she will manage the department and its 30 employees.
There, she will lead her department in providing services to the town and its five villages (Hartford, Quechee, West Hartford, White River Junction, and Wilder), including maintaining 140 miles of local roads.
It was such a big decision for Tyler, who has worked for the town for six years. According to her now-former boss, Director of Public Works Steve Barrett, “Hannah’s previous industry experience with Massachusetts Department of Transportation and Vermont Department of Transportation provided the necessary skill set for the Brattleboro Public Works Department needs.”
“I appreciated her commitment to enhance pedestrian, vehicular, and bicycle safety in our community,” Barrett continued as he wished his now-former employee the very best. “Her active participation with the Brattleboro Traffic Safety Committee resulted in safety improvement throughout town. Hannah was always thoroughly prepared to develop and implement safety improvement projects.”
I spoke with Tyler shortly after she publicly announced her departure.
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Olga Peters: How did you come across this new job posting?
Hannah Tyler: I wasn’t looking by any means and I loved my job with the town of Brattleboro. It’s a great service to our community. I’ve loved being here. The people I work with and the 12,000 people I work for — it’s truly a pleasure.
This is an opportunity that kind of just floated across my desk, and I took a shot in the dark and applied for it. I was pleasantly and gratefully surprised when everything worked out the way it did.
I’m so grateful to have met everybody here. It’s such a diverse community across the board, and everybody has always been so supportive. I’ve never had any moments of oh-my-gosh-what-am-I-doing-here. I’ve been so appreciative of the opportunity.
O.P.: Let’s talk a little bit about the difference between Brattleboro and Hartford. While Hartford has fewer people than Brattleboro, it has a crazy amount of roads.
H.T.: Hartford has the highest number of road miles of any town in the state. They have a population of about 10,000, but they have a little bit more infrastructure. And they have five villages.
They actually have two separate water treatment systems and two separate wastewater systems, and their public works department is in charge of their solid waste removal as well. So it’ll be a big change.
O.P.: Have you worked with solid waste removal yet?
H.T.: Not yet. Yeah — a new learning curve.
O.P.: So what are you looking forward to with this new position?
H.T.: One of the things that occurred to me this weekend when I was out shopping and I saw everybody. It’s going to be such a challenge to meet new people, to go somewhere where I don’t have any connections and I don’t know anybody. So I’m looking forward to immersing myself in the community and learning new names and getting to meet people. It’s pretty exciting to me.
O.P.: That is exciting. And with five villages....
H.T.: It’s a big area.
O.P.: I can imagine that even though they’re all under the umbrella of Hartford — similar to Rockingham, with Bellows Falls and Saxtons River — each village is going to have its own identity as well.
H.T.: They do. Quechee is a little bit more rural but also kind of touristy, in the sense they have the Gorge, some golf clubs, and a lot of condo associations. White River is kind of downtown. And then there’s the more residential areas. So it’s a pretty dynamic situation.
O.P.: And you were mentioning that Hartford has just gone through a number of changes. They also have a new town manager.
H.T.: Yep, and he’s very high energy. I’ve really enjoyed the few times I’ve met with him, and he really has a lot of vision for Hartford. And he’s excited to bring in some new energy. It’s such a booming area, with West Lebanon and Hanover, N.H., and the colleges and King Arthur Flour. I’m very excited about being nearby.
O.P.: When I first interviewed you, I remember you telling me about how you came to the job of public works, that you were actually in engineering and you worked for the Massachusetts Highway Department. So looking at your choice to become an engineer, did you ever think that you would then be a director of public works?
H.T.: No. I always envisioned myself, you know, playing in the mud and getting dirty. I certainly never saw this path coming, but it’s really such an exciting and challenging field. I think it’s probably really overlooked when people talk about career paths and it’s certainly something that we see in the public works field — that people don’t know that there are great jobs in public works for environmental engineers, mechanics.
Every town has a department of public works or a highway department or a utilities division, yet there’s such a lack of people who either know about it or want to come into it. And so that’s something the industry as a whole is struggling with.
O.P.: What have you found rewarding about working for a municipality?
H.T.: We always joke that in public works, things make sense. We keep the roads safe. We keep the drinking water safe. We keep the water we discharge safe and clean.
We like to come in, solve people’s problems, work with people, hear what they have to say. It’s very satisfying.
O.P.: What are you going to miss about working for Brattleboro or in Brattleboro?
H.T.: Again, it’s been such a supportive community, both the town staff and the community as a whole. I’ve had so many people email me and tell me how much they’re going to miss me.
I’ve worked so closely with these people. I’ve sat next to Steve Barrett eight hours a day. I spend more time with him than I spend with my family. Everybody’s so tight knit. We rely on each other, whether it’s talking through something at home or work stuff. We really are a family within the town and certainly within public works. And it’s just going to be very sad. It was a very difficult decision to make.
O.P.: What do you think you’ve learned working in Brattleboro or working with Steve Barrett?
H.T.: I think one of the biggest things that I’ve really learned from Steve is that sometimes you have to just take a deep breath and step back and really hear what people have to say. I find that public works can sometimes be a little thankless.
O.P.: “Why isn’t my route plowed?"
H.T.: Unfortunately, I think we hear more negative feedback than positive, and it’s not a reflection on what we’re doing — I think people tend to offer complaints more often than compliments.
Steve has really taught me that it’s not a reflection on you or on the department necessarily, but people are giving you feedback and you have to understand where they’re coming from. And so for lack of a better term, I feel like I’ve matured a lot in the last six years in learning to just really collect what everybody’s saying and use it constructively.
O.P.: That’s a huge skill. Congratulations.
H.T.: Thank you! It is one I wish I had mastered in my life a little bit better.
O.P.: I know you’ve worked on a number of projects and initiatives since you’ve been here. One of your jobs was building better communication between residents and the department. Are there any projects in particular that you are most proud of or kind of wish had gone differently, or?
H.T.: You know we’ve had a lot of projects that were challenging but in the end came out really well. The Union Hill retaining wall. Rebuilding was challenging for a number of reasons, but now we have a great road there that’s going to last a long time.
I would say, though, that one of my favorites is the Elliot Street Bridge. That was a great partnership with VTrans and the contractor. They were able to close the bridge. swoop in, and get it done.
O.P.: It’s a good bridge.
H.T.: It’s a beautiful bridge that’s going to last hopefully 100 years. We’ve had a lot of other great projects, like the Green Street retaining wall above the Harmony Lot. That was a really interesting project to work on.
O.P.: Yeah, I learned a lot about dry stone wall from talking to you and Steve about that project. And how much friction and basically sheer will is required to keep a wall standing until you can get to it. Oh, my gosh, that was a huge project.
For those who who don’t know the Green Street wall, it was one of those things you might say, “Oh, it’s just a parking lot. So if the wall came down, what’s the big deal?” But there was just all this infrastructure for the water system and the road above it that was really interconnected with this wall.
H.T.: Absolutely. If there was a water line up there and if the wall had any sort of catastrophic failure, then you know it would cause a huge break and wash down into the Harmony Lot. The Brooks House was newly rebuilt at the time, and we were losing sleep over it, truthfully.
O.P.: That’s one thing that always amazes me about public works: how everything is so interconnected, how your roads and your water lines are all just sort of meshed together and if one piece shifts, you have to consider everything else in the picture.
H.T.: Absolutely. We have to work so closely with other departments. We’re truly a very integral piece of the town.
O.P.: Which skills do you think you will be taking from Brattleboro and bringing to Hartford — like, at this point, what do you think you’ll use the most?
H.T.: Again, the people skills that I’ve garnered. Steve is certainly a political and social and professional force to be reckoned with. I admire him so much.
And I have tried to take as much as I can from working with him, learning how to just stay organized and how to keep all your balls in the air and how to keep everything moving forward. I’ve really learned to be adaptive and open to new ideas, to keep key projects just moving forward.
O.P.: Problem solving is such a huge part of your job. I know it will take time to learn the town and its intricacies, but as you’ve been starting to know the town, are there any projects that you’re hoping to launch as soon as you get there?
H.T.: Truthfully, I’m not aware of anything quite yet. I think the first few months, I’m just going to observe, listen, and get my feelers out there, especially as I know nothing really about the area. It’s certainly a daunting task to just walk in the door and hit the ground running.
O.P.: I always notice when I hear folks in public works talk that it seems like in every town you’ll have to learn a new language, too. Because even though the road is officially called “Main Street,” everyone calls it “So-and-so’s Hill.” Even though So-and-so has been dead for 50 years.
H.T.: We joke about that a lot. You have to go by Uncle Larry’s house even though Uncle Larry hasn’t lived there and it’s been sold three times. Even having been in Brattleboro six years, I still don’t know all these terms, so unless you’re born and raised in some places, I think it’s a real challenge.
O.P.: What were some of the biggest learning curves you went through when you stepped into your role in Brattleboro?
H.T.: In terms of skills I didn’t have, I had very little experience with utilities, with water and sewer. That is a world of its own, and I had a very, very, steep, steep learning curve. So I would say that’s kind of the biggest.
O.P.: How did you tackle that learning curve?
H.T.: I think by trying to ask questions, being willing to say “I don’t know, but I’ll find out” or “I’ll learn,” being a little bit humble about it, and doing everything you can to just immerse yourself into that world.
O.P.: And what advice do you have for the incoming assistant director for public works?
H.T.: You’d better have your running shoes on, ’cause Steve’s a challenge to keep up with.
O.P.: He never sits down unless it’s a Selectboard meeting.
H.T.: And you know that it’s a great crew. We really truly could not do without our crew. I’m so grateful for them. They will absolutely be missed. They work so well together, they work with us, they work with the public — I’m very, very proud to say I’ve worked with all of them.
O.P.: And you mentioned that you will be commuting to Hartford. You won’t be relocating, at least at this point. That’s a long drive.
H.T.: Yeah I’m going to get my Audible subscription going and catch up on my reading, if you will. I have a great support network in my family to help out with my son. Right now we’re just going to see how things go.
It’s just a shot up I-91. It’s pretty straight and easy, and sure, there’ll be some very long days when I won’t want to do it.
O.P.: You’ll have a chance to really think through all those infrastructure problems.