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Brattleboro Selectboard member Brandie Starr speaks at the 2018 Annual Representative Town Meeting. Starr has decided not to seek re-election.

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Breaking and bandaging

After four years of serving on the Brattleboro Selectboard, Brandie Starr reflects on leadership, service, and encouraging a community to engage and to change

BRATTLEBORO—Like many people who ran for election in Vermont after Donald J. Trump became president, Brandie Starr ran for Selectboard because, she said, remaining a bystander was no longer tenable.

Starr, who has decided to step down from the Selectboard when her term ends after Annual Representative Town Meeting, has served as chair and vice-chair of the board during her four years on the board.

The experience has refined her view of authority, as well as her own approach.

“I’m 40 — I’m not good at the avoidance thing anymore. I wonder what’s gonna happen when I’m 45?” Starr said with a laugh during a videoconference.

Yet, serving on the board also brought Starr heartache.

“It has gotten to be that I felt like I was fighting too hard for what I consider to be a normal moral code,” Starr said of the past year. “What I wanted to keep doing is serving my community, but I need to find a different way to do it now.”

“That’s not to say we never had good times where we would laugh, because we are a family,” Starr said of the five-member board. “So there’s good times, there’s laughter, there’s times where we agree and we celebrate, and there’s all of the lovely gray and muddy areas that come with those kinds of relationships.”

Those good relationships extend beyond the board, Starr said, describing Town Manger Peter Elwell as “incredible” and town staff as “amazing.”

Yet for Starr, the past year has also proved difficult because in her view, the board has not always shown the community as much respect as it could have shown.

“The tone this year from the board to the community was not a tone that always inspired me to find the beauty of that moment,” Starr said. “I spent so much time feeling on the defensive, whether that was for myself or for the folks coming to the room.”

For Starr, board meetings became a tough way to spend an evening, and getting to sleep after meetings became almost impossible. She started to dread Tuesdays.

“Which anybody who knew me in the before-times knows, I very much liked serving on the board and I often felt that while there might be tweaks here and there, everybody was pretty close to being on the same page,” she said.

Unfortunately, over the past year, “I found myself in that position several times where sometimes I felt embarrassed to be on a board that I thought was really dragging community members — and specifically community members with considerably less privilege — over the coals more than I felt comfortable with,” she said.

For example, during the conversations that eventually led to the formation of the Community Safety Review Process, Starr felt that the board took too long to hear and trust the members of the community when they said they felt unsafe.

These stretched-out conversations meant the Community Safety Review facilitators and committee had ended up compressing a very deep process to meet an end-of-the-year deadline.

The community came to the board in May after George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis. Yet, the board didn’t hire the Community Safety Review facilitators and form a working committee until the autumn.

“And so here’s this massive, massive project that has huge opportunity to bring good change to a system with a police chief who is leaving, but also a captain — now acting chief — who has been fairly open to the process, and I felt like we were kind of hamstringing this process,” Starr said.

The board and Community Review team have said that the process didn’t have enough time, and in Starr’s opinion, the Selectboard did the community a disservice, as “our inability to agree and our infighting on the board ate up so much of that time.”

“We took away time, and then picked apart the product, which [represented] these immense hours of labor — data labor, conversation, emotional labor, all of the labor — that goes into a huge project.”

Changing views on Brattleboro, and on authority

Starr said her experience serving first as vice chair (in 2017, immediately after her election, and 2018) and then as board chair (in 2019) has refined her definition of what it means to hold a position of authority.

“Maybe 20-year-old Brandie would have seen [somebody in a position of authority] as somebody who’s in charge, who calls the shots, and [who] makes pretty good money,” she said. “Which is definitely what I thought I wanted to be, because I was embracing that privilege.”

“Now, when I think of somebody in a position of power, I think it’s an exciting time to find out who in your community needs a lift up and has been fighting for themselves to the point where they’re just about done,” Starr added. “They would love to have a shortened distance between rungs on the ladder, and you can be that person [who can make that happen]. That’s exhilarating.”

She arrived for her first term on the board with experience working “the logical side of the brain” from years employed in the banking industry.

“But [the board] definitely gave me more of that,” she said. “It increased my confidence with things like budgets and policies and understanding — you know, the different laws that we fall under.”

She has been able to build on understanding municipal budgets, the flow of government processes, and state statutes, skills that have served Starr well.

A key skill she developed: taking all that wonky municipal information and sharing it with the public in a way that could bring others on board.

As she described her journey as a board member, Starr became contemplative and candid.

“My weakness for sure is I get mad,” she said. “I get indignant when I feel like I’ve been disrespected, or patronized, or when somebody else in the room is being disrespected or patronized.”

“And when I get mad, I tend to say things in a very pointed and direct way without giving a lot of thought to softening the edge,” Starr added. “That’s something I’d like to work on.”

Starr listed people in the community she admires who, during difficult interactions, deftly say, “Tell me more.”

Happy ripple effects and ugly moments

In Starr’s opinion, the COVID-19 pandemic has had the positive effect of helping more people access government process.

“We’ve had to move to Zoom, and all of a sudden, boom — the doors just blew open,” she said.

“[Meetings were] no longer just people who were physically available to leave their households Tuesday nights at 6:15 for some number of hours,” Starr continued.

“It was moms, and folks downtown, and folks who would never feel comfortable stepping [into the Municipal Center], and some of the people who had always been there,” she observed, noting this influx of constituents have brought “just this huge swath of different ages, and viewpoints, and income levels — and, yes, life experiences.”

She wishes that meetings happened on Zoom during her years as board chair.

She imagines the conversations would have been incredible, based on this past year’s interactions.

Such discussions have included the Tenants Union of Brattleboro (TUB) presenting a proposal to reduce the upfront costs for rentals, an ordinance that the board later approved, and the community-led effort that resulted in the Community Safety Review Process, which yielded an in-depth report and recommendations.

“And the beauty of that moment was so many more voices that we’ve never heard articulating these massive things,” Starr said. “And, for some of these folks, it was their first time talking about politics, state statutes, ordinances, whatever.”

‘A bucket of ice water’

The 2016 presidential election cracked the veneer of Starr’s happy, safe, and peaceful Brattleboro.

“I learned things about our community that maybe I didn’t want to know,” she said.

At the time, Starr worked as an executive assistant to the CEO of Brattleboro Savings and Loan, where she handled the bank’s marketing and thrived in a role where she was part of the institution’s central nervous system.

“I was a banker, and I was married [and living] in a white farmhouse, and my kids were in Waldorf preschool, and to me, Brattleboro was basically just 8,000 more people at the farmers’ market — everybody’s excited, they’re happy, they’re buying the carrots, they’re smiling, somebody is wearing a scarf — and what I realized was, actually Brattleboro has a crack down the middle,” she said.

Starr, as a cisgender white female, recognized that the Trump administration’s polices had little impact on her life. But the election also punctured her understanding of privilege.

“What it did was throw a bucket of ice water on me, and make me see what privilege is,” she said. “I’ve actually spent the majority of these last four years understanding that and seeing when it comes up in myself.”

“I think the funny thing for me is because of the way I grew up — really poor, and in a really bad family situation, and group homes, and foster care — I was proud that I had gotten myself to a place of privilege,” Starr continued.

Employed in a bank, sending her children to preschool, living in a big house were all things Starr had worked to achieve, “like Diane Keaton in Baby Boom, or something.”

In the intervening months, her marriage would dissolve and she would find a new career as a staff member at Groundworks Collaborative, a nonprofit that serves the most vulnerable among us with food and shelter.

While working there as an outreach case manager and landlord liaison, she said, she saw firsthand how government policies hurt so many members of the community.

Starr said she has learned “the true meaning of privilege” and how it is a problem when it is weaponized to marginalize people.

“And I think that probably did lead to tensions serving in town government, because there you are steeped in institutional privilege,” she said. “It is the epitome of it.”

‘Run the room with kindness’

Starr said that after humor, skills that she has found central to effective leadership are strength, listening, and kindness.

“When people are speaking at a meeting, it’s probably because they’re passionate,” Starr said.

Part of what she needed to balance as board chair was providing community members enough space to speak while recognizing when to gently move the conversation along.

“The ability to run the room with kindness, and warmth, and still watch the clock,” she added. “The ability to apologize for mistakes that you make, and the ability to make tough choices, because you know that they are morally correct, and that you’re in the position to make them.”

She still wishes more people would reach out to the board for advice prior to formally presenting proposals, “and I want to preface that by saying that [advice] does not mean I don’t have twice as much advice for the town.”

Community members should look at Vermont state law — particularly new Vermonters who have moved to the Green Mountains from a “home rule state,” Starr added.

As a Dillon’s Rule state, Vermont’s local governments can do only what the state Legislature specifically permits, unlike home-rule states, which allow cities and towns to enact ordinances and policies that aren’t forbidden by statute.

Because Vermont operates using Dillon’s Rule, the board may not have the legal authority to carry out a community proposal, Starr added.

Townspeople wanting to effect change might take the fight to the Brattleboro Selectboard, not knowing that it really should be taking place in Montpelier.

People “see these things happening in these other states, and [are] like, ‘Vermont’s the best, Brattleboro is even better — why haven’t we done it first?’” Starr said. “Make sure that we actually can.”

Starr also recommends, when possible, that people seeking action from the board outline their proposal and their desired outcomes. At the top of the letter, express what you want the board to do, she suggests — and keep the letter as short as possible.

Meetings have lasted many hours lately, and the board is concerned about balancing public participation with what the town staff need to do their jobs, she added.

“If you really want the board’s action, you’ve got to not just show up at the meeting,” Starr said. “Your goal is to get at least one board member on board with you, so that they can help push your item to the agenda. They can advocate for you. It’s nothing weird. It’s not against the law. It’s not creepy. It’s advocating.”

‘Our staff are incredible’

Starr expressed distress at what she perceives as the board’s recent collective tone, which she described as “patronizing” and, at times, “micromanagement.”

Brattleboro constituents “are trying to be involved in the process, and we should give them our respect,” she said.

Starr continued, “Our staff are incredible. You don’t need to micromanage [Town Manager] Peter [Elwell]; if anything, we didn’t utilize Peter enough this year.”

In Starr’s opinion, the board could have halved its time devoted to deliberating in public meetings if members had consulted town staff first.

For example, regarding budget conversations, Starr thinks the board should save its comments and questions for big changes. Mostly, staff present their department budgets early in the budget cycle and follow up with justifications for their respective requests.

“I’ve been sitting there reading those budgets for four years, and outside of acting [Police] Chief Carignan’s desire for the big hike in the training budget, or some capital expense items that were no surprise to anybody, the budget is pretty normal from year to year to year,” Starr said.

Starr felt that the board took the road of “well, that’s not how it’s done” too often.

“I think the thing to do would be to talk to the town attorney,” Starr said. “And I think it’s really important that we never just take ‘that’s not how it works’ at face value.”

As an example, Starr pointed to Selectboard meetings happening virtually.

Only a year ago, the board never considered such a format. Now, despite the global pandemic that prompted the use of the videoconference software, that technological change has provided more people access to their government and ensures that town business gets done.

In her opinion, the board could seek advice from Town Attorney Robert Fisher more often to help members find better ways to serve the public within legal boundaries.

“I think we should always be looking at what the better way is, what’s the better fit, and how far we can push something where it gives people a bit more breathing room and gives us a bit more balancing room,” she said.

How can new board members thrive?

And what advice would Starr give to the candidates seeking seats in the March 2 election?

In previous years, Starr said her advice would have followed the line of “be yourself” and “answer people’s questions.”

But the pandemic means that most of the campaign will happen online. Connecting with the community will be harder, she added, but given the deep work of reforms like the Community Safety Review Process, community engagement will be even more important.

“When I ran, I thought that town meetings were adorable, and you showed up with your Crock-Pot, and we were all very attractive townspeople standing around making decisions,” Starr said.

“The truth of the matter is, it’s long meetings, and it’s hard-fought stuff that you are fighting for. Stuff that the system, Dillon’s rule, Robert’s Rules of Order, and just the institution of governance is not set up to deal with yet.”

“We’re breaking and bandaging at the same time,” she said.

Potential board members must know where they stand on issues while also remaining flexible, Starr said. The community’s needs are too big and the governance process too slow.

“If you walk to the table these days, and you’re like, ‘I’m just a blank slate,’ I think it’s really easy to get run over and to get bogged down,” she said. “So you can’t make your fight as long as your process, or you’ll end up exactly like we did with the Community Safety report.”

What comes next?

Starr said that while she is leaving the board on a sadder note than she expected, she is not leaving angry.

“I have full respect for my fellow board members,” she said. “I hope that they are able to move forward with these new seats, and really be brave, and show grace and humility during these next few topics that are going to come our way — like what else to do with the Community Safety report.”

Starr thanked Elwell and town staff for all their work.

“This is a great team of folks, and they do a lot with little,” Starr said. “This is an old town physically. This town has a lot of heartache. This town has a lot of things it needs to invest into it to keep it running, and our staff do a great job.”

Starr continued with a message, directly addressing the Brattleboro Police Department.

“It may have seemed over these last few months since May that I was on an opposing side from you,” she said. “And while I will say I am on a somewhat opposing side with the police state in general, I very much enjoy the time that I have spent when I was doing outreach or otherwise with our officers.”

Starr added that she regarded recently retired Chief Michael Fitzgerald as compassionate. She said her political views of how police departments should operate — such as whether they should carry guns — do not reflect how she views Brattleboro officers as human beings.

“I’ve seen you care about folks that other people in this town don’t even know. You know most of their life story, and I’ve had the privilege to see that firsthand,” she said.

Starr plans to participate in the youth diversion board, a voluntary alternative to the courtroom that is operated through Youth Services. She expects that she will engage in other forms of community service after March — but don’t expect to see her in Montpelier anytime soon. Her young children divide their time between her home in Brattleboro and their father’s home in Connecticut. Adding Montpelier to that travel routine is too much — at least for now.

Starr is also curious about exploring the political platform of the Progressive Party and its local efforts. If it aligns with her values, she may “head in that direction.”

“And just really chillin’ with my kids, and enjoying time with my partner,” she said. She will also enjoy “giving lots of good attention to [her] new job” at the United Way of Windham County, where she will be an outreach and marketing associate.

As for the community she has represented for four years, Starr has some advice.

Whenever possible, “Throw your weight around for somebody who can’t,” she urged.

“Right now, with the way our society is structured, it has to come from people in power,” she said. “If more people did that, I think we would be solving issues faster.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #598 (Wednesday, February 3, 2021). This story appeared on page A1.

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