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Brattleboro continues public safety discussion

After long meeting with an divided outcome, Selectboard to reconsider public safety RFP on Aug. 18

BRATTLEBORO—A request for proposals (RFP) seeking facilitators to examine public safety in town will return to the Selectboard next week.

In the meantime, the town manager and members of the group that collaborated on the document plan to meet to adjust the RFP’s language to reconcile municipal governance practicalities and legal constraints with social justice.

The path forward followed many hours of discussion at special meeting of the Selectboard on Aug. 6, where members appeared divided on whether to approve the document.

While the members seemed to agree on the spirit and goals outlined in the RFP, Chair Tim Wessel, Vice Chair Elizabeth McLoughlin, and Clerk Ian Goodnow questioned whether a few aspects of the RFP would require the board to abnegate some of its authority.

Goodnow said, “I think I’m out of my comfort zone a little, too, but I just really hope that we don’t get something that we can’t do anything about because we don’t have the power.”

“That’s one of my big fears,” he said. “But you know, I don’t want fear to drive this, I want collaboration and, you know, power from the community.”

Board member Daniel Quipp also expressed concern about excluding members from the Citizen Police Communications Committee from the process, as proposed in the RFP under consideration.

Member Brandie Starr said she was ready to support the community process because it included people with firsthand experience that she and fellow board members didn’t have.

A group-led process created the RFP, which is designed to create an assessment of safety and well-being in Brattleboro. The review will examine how the municipality’s resources fund public safety and discern whether the town can provide overall community wellness and safety more equitably.

The assessment would begin with looking at the Police Department and at municipal support for nonprofit organizations and social service agencies. It would also identify any unmet needs.

Specifically, the review process would center the voices and experiences of marginalized people often harmed by the system, said community members speaking in support of the RFP.

“This open process will invite in the wealth of knowledge and life experiences that our community holds about police, social services, racism, oppression, and alternatives to punishment and violence,” the proposed RFP reads. “We are working toward a community that is free of white supremacy in all of its manifestations.”

As the meeting stretched toward 11 p.m., multiple members of the public urged the board to approve the RFP as presented. Several were frustrated that the board did not do so.

Steffen Gillom, president and co-founder of the Windham County branch of the NAACP, reminded the board that many people — for example, those who identify as BIPOC — want to create a process outside of municipal and state structures.

Navigating systems that discriminate is hard, he said. He said the all-white board has not needed to confront discrimination in policies or structures as people of color or allies have needed to do.

“I would hope that [you would], and I would challenge you all to, do more work between here and the 18th towards your own competency and growth in those areas,” Gillom said.

“You do know a lot about the structures and the town government and that’s wonderful,” he continued, but urged the board to explore the intersection of “true diversity and inclusion issues that add to an equitable society.”

“How we interpret law and policy around a town can be damaging to a community if it’s interpreted incorrectly,” Gillom added.

Town manager to review

Near the end of the board meeting, Town Manager Peter Elwell suggested that he review the document to identify areas where the RFP might contradict either state statute or the Town Charter and make necessary edits.

These edits, however, would be very limited, he said.

Elwell said he would focus mostly on ensuring an inclusive and transparent process. He also wanted to adjust some of the timelines outlined in the document so that they would harmonize with the municipal budget-building process and Annual Representative Town Meeting.

Elwell suggested the facilitators report back to the board by Dec. 31. This way, the board and Town Meeting members would have time to review the recommendations and incorporate them in to the budget-building process, he said.

The Dec. 31 deadline would be made with the understanding that it would be only the start of a longer process, Elwell said.

He warned the board and community members that the final document might not make either group 100 percent happy.

“Here is the place where I think I’m hearing that addressing these three or four things in a way that looks like a more typical piece of staff work that you know, Bob Fisher and I would do today to bring back to you — who won’t like all of it — and to bring back to the community — who won’t like all of it — but where the end product is, you know, 95 percent or more of what the community has brought into this process,” Elwell said. “I think we can do that. I think we can do it quickly.”

Elwell continued, saying that several times during the meeting he had heard concerns raised about excluding members of the CPCC.

“We need to look through the document to see other places where people are excluded,” he said.

“I’ve heard some discussion about transparency and some discussion about exclusion,” Elwell continued. “I think that the distinction between them is hugely important.”

“Requiring transparency for anybody who might have a conflict [of interest] in the process is essential to a fair and full piece of public business being done,” he said. “To explicitly exclude on the front end some people from participating in it, I think is counter to the underlying essential principles of trying to build a stronger, safer community.”

Elwell said he believed that the RFP could “focus on transparency and eliminate exclusion, while still leaving intact the important parts of this that speak eloquently to centering the voices that are often unheard.”

He suggested to the board that its members accept a little uncertainty, for now.

The RFP might launch a process that focuses on the police department, which is squarely under the board’s control, Elwell said. Or the process might recommend a deeper, community-wide process that will require collaboration with other organizations, he added.

If the board was okay with this uncertainty, Elwell said, he believed he could have a document ready for them to vote on by Aug. 18.

Board Chair Wessel said, “I’m in with the full acknowledgment that a lot of people talked about trust, and we’re still going to have to trust each other moving forward.”

“And I’m going to have to trust that it’s okay to be talking about some stuff that we might not be able to have control over in the end, and it’ll be a little bit outside my comfort zone and I’m okay with that,” Wessel continued. “But I hope people can trust us as well.”

What the board and community RFP are reconciling is the town’s democratic process with a new process designed to include people historically left out — or harmed — by “business as usual.”

Elwell reminded the board and community that the RFP is worth engaging in, regardless of whether they believe the municipality should stick to its responsibilities or believe the town should undergo a deep review.

“Not everybody agrees about where we even want to get to, but everybody agrees we want to start,” Elwell said, which speaks to the importance of keeping the RFP’s proposed scope broad.

Elwell and members of the group that developed the RFP plan to meet before Aug. 18 to collaborate on editing the RFP.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #574 (Wednesday, August 12, 2020). This story appeared on page A1.

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