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What is working now?

Town Manager Peter Elwell discusses Brattleboro’s governance system

The ballot question’s co-sponsors have provided few details about their vision for how a mayoral system would work. As a result, most of the discussion has been filled by questions and opinion.

Many people have written letters to local news outlets raising concerns about what a mayoral government would mean. Would Brattleboro relinquish the town manager position? Would Representative Town Meeting go away? Would the new system concentrate too much power in one position? How much would a mayoral system cost?

Town Manager Peter Elwell said because of the lack of details, he couldn’t comment on shifting to a mayoral system. He did, however, weigh in on where he feels the town’s current form of government is working.

Overall, Elwell said that the town’s current system — Selectboard/Town Manager/Representative Town Meeting — provides the community with a stable mix of big-picture vision, policymaking, and service delivery.

“I don’t think that a change in the form of government is needed to ensure that the government is responsive to the people,” Elwell said.

“If the people aren’t happy in the direction that the government is taking, electing different people onto the Selectboard will provide that change in direction, and staff will work just as hard to achieve the new goals as we did the current goals,” he said.

In Elwell’s opinion, the current system contains a division of labor while still working within the democratic process.

For example, he said, Representative Town Meeting has the final say on big decisions, such as approving the municipal budget or bonding for infrastructure projects.

The Selectboard makes policy: yearly goals, for example, or making decisions on issues that arise in between budget cycles.

Meanwhile, the professional staff carries out the policy and delivers services to the community.

“The important benefit of the division of responsibilities that we have in the current form of government is that those larger decisions — the policy direction of town government — are provided through the democratic process,” he said.

“And then the implementation of that policy direction — the day-to-day operations of town government — is carried out by people trained in that work and are experienced in doing that work.”

Elwell said if the town switched to the mayoral form of government, parts of the Town Manager’s job and the Selectboard’s job would consolidate into one “elected executive” — a.k.a., the mayor.

“We’re fortunate in [Brattleboro] that we’ve got a good stable system and a group of people working together who are each traveling in our lanes and delivering good work to the community,” he said.

“The risk in going to a mayoral form is that you explicitly remove that stabilizing layer and explicitly invite political perspective and political motivation into the day-to-day operation of government,” Elwell added.

When town priorities shift

Elwell has found in working for multiple municipalities such as Philadelphia and Palm Beach that the Town Manager/Selectboard form of town governance can be responsive to change and community needs.

During his 14 years as town manager for Palm Beach, he witnessed the community change the government’s priorities and direction.

For his first seven years, Elwell said, the municipality experienced good financial times: the economy and the city’s property-tax base were both strong. As a result, a group in the town council decided to increase municipal services.

From 2001 to 2008, the government grew quickly.

After the 2008 recession, the entire town council changed. This new council did a 180-degree turn on spending and growth.

This council directed Elwell to find cost savings, he said, recalling that the staff returned with recommended cost savings that limited impacts on services and staff reductions that could happen through attrition rather than layoffs.

Over three years, the staff reduced the budget by $10 million while maintaining services and reduced staffing by 50 employees.

“That is how it works when a system is working well,” he said. “When folks who aren’t happy with the direction of the community get elected to the governing body and then change the direction that the governing body is going,” Elwell added.

“A good professional staff will work just at hard to move the government in the new direction,” he said.

Philadelphia: government in proportion

In 1986 and 1987, Elwell worked for the city of Philadelphia, which had a strong mayoral form of governance.

He wouldn’t compare the apple that is Brattleboro to the orange that is Philadelphia, but he does have one general takeaway: It’s important to match the size and scale of the community to the size and scale of the government.

At the time he worked there, approximately 1.5 million people lived in the city, which employed 30,000.

The strong-mayor structure made sense, he said. The size of the city and the scale of work that needed attention meant that the mayor could focus on political work and hire managers to interface with staff.

But for a smaller town like Brattleboro, Elwell feels that a switch to a mayoral government will “sacrifice” the combination of elected Selectboard and trained staff.

“An elected governing body and a professional staff serves most communities the best,” Elwell said. “That’s a preferred system of governance for maximizing democracy and a municipal staff’s ability to implement the community’s goals.”

In considering the town’s governance structure, Elwell reminded the community that regardless of size or challenges, government is about responding to residents’ needs and delivering services.

“Folks should ask themselves whether they see effective work being done to address the challenges they see in our community,” he said.

Several potential routes to the same outcome

If the non-binding ballot measure passes March 3, Elwell said the Selectboard will then take up the question.

In early April, a newly seated Selectboard will follow up on items that come out of Annual Town Meeting (the Australian ballot questions for electing officials and referendum questions, on which all registered voters can weigh in) and Representative Town Meeting.

Last year, Town Meeting members allocated $100,000 for sustainability efforts, approving the money and providing non-binding guidance. The Selectboard, however, made the final decision to use the money to hire a sustainability coordinator.

If this advisory ballot question passes, then it will be on the board’s follow-up list in April.

To the assertion by Dick DeGray, one of the question’s proponents, that a Charter Review Committee must be launched, Elwell said, “that’s a possible outcome, but it’s not required.”

The board could shift to a mayoral government by directly suggesting specific charter changes instead of delegating such changes to a committee. These suggested changes would ultimately require approval by Representative Town Meeting or through a town-wide vote. They would then need to be approved by the Legislature.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #548 (Wednesday, February 12, 2020). This story appeared on page A2.

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