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Kevin O’Connor/Special to The Commons

Brattleboro Town Moderator Lawrin Crispe, right, and Assistant Town Manager Patrick Moreland run this year’s online version of the Representative Annual Town Meeting from the Municipal Center on March 20.

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Brattleboro raises stipends for members of Selectboard

Two-day, 15-hour Zoom marathon marks town’s second online Representative Annual Town Meeting

BRATTLEBORO—During a two-day Annual Representative Town Meeting this weekend, meeting members increased Selectboard compensation, continuing the trend from previous years of focusing on people over line items.

“My goal here is to try to open the potential field of Selectboard candidates, to include some folks who are often underrepresented,” Meeting Member George Carvill (District 1) said in proposing an amendment to boost the pay of the elected town officials.

“I’m not suggesting that money is the primary motivation for a candidate, but economic adversity can be the primary obstacle for a person with a real passion for serving the town,” he added.

Town Meeting members also organized committee nominations, approved upgrading the town website, and received patient explanations from Town Moderator Lawrin Crispe about why they couldn’t vote without a quorum — even on non-binding articles.

The body approved all 27 of the warned articles during an online meeting — the second of its kind — that lasted a total of more than 15 hours.

Many expressed surprise at the meeting’s length. Several members had made plans for Sunday presuming that Saturday’s meeting would end by 5 p.m. and that no votes on remaining items would continue the next day as warned.

Had no one attended, watched, or read about Annual Representative Town Meetings in recent years?

ARTM is known for lasting eight to 10 hours; in 2013, it took 13 hours. In 2011, a Special Representative Town Meeting stretched to 15 hours over two days to hash out proposed changes to the town charter.

Many meeting members are passionate about community issues, and many such issues are complicated. Also, in recent years, the ARTM has seen an influx of new members who are still learning the ropes when it comes to civics and parliamentary procedure.

Despite some of the foibles inherent in online meetings — like mics that took multiple attempts to unmute or videos freezing because of internet issues — meeting members engaged with issues beyond clicking “yea” or “nay.”

Members called for multiple points of order. They asked about how best to follow meeting procedures and make amendments. And a few repeat commentators pushed the limits of Robert’s Rules of Order.

Even Town Attorney Robert Fisher arbitrated a couple of parliamentary smackdowns between Meeting Member Paul Rounds (District 1) and Crispe.

This fresh engagement was also reflected in the long conversations, including one about the very same long conversations.

Under Other Business, meeting members approved a nonbinding article from Millicent Cooley (District 3) to form an ad hoc committee to review the meeting’s structure and procedure.

Crispe, who will convene the first meeting within one month of ARTM, said he would like to be involved, as he has ideas on how the meeting could run more efficiently.

Selectboard compensation and other expenses

Members passed a $19.7 million general budget, 111-7. With the amendment increasing Selectboard compensation, the approved budget raises the property tax rate by 3.82 cents per $100. Property owners will see property taxes increase by $38.20 for the year (or $9.55 per quarter) per $100,000 of assessed property value.

The body approved an amendment (79-49) from Carvill to increase Selectboard compensation and offer members the option to be reimbursed for child- or adult-care expenses necessary for them to conduct town business.

As proposed, the budget called for level funding for compensation for the five-member Selectboard.

Members instead voted to raise the Chair’s stipend from $5,000 to a maximum of $10,000 and the other four members’ from $3,000 to a maximum of $8,000. Carvill’s amendment included a provision that said board members could choose to take less than the maximum.

Town Manager Peter Elwell said the board and town staff will still have to develop a process for board members to access funds for reimbursement of caregiving costs.

Meeting Member HB Lozito (District 2) spoke in favor of the motion.

“I’d love to be a Selectboard member but the imbalance between the large time commitment and the low stipend is for me the number-one barrier,” they said.

Lozito added that to serve on the board, they would need to reduce their work hours and thus family income.

Meeting Member Rick Sullivan said he lives on a fixed income and that ARTM was showing very little “fiscal restraint.”

“I’m looking for some kind of evidence in RTM that there is fiscal restraint and some recognition that the money comes from somewhere other than some kind of pot of gold at the end of town,” he said.

Meeting Member Dick DeGray, a longtime Selectboard member who has served as chair, unsuccessfully proposed an amendment that would have increased the pay by smaller amounts ($6,000 for the chair, $5,000 for the vice-chair, and $4,000 for the other three members).

In DeGray’s opinion, the vice-chair generally attends more meetings along with the chair and also deserved a higher level of compensation than the three rank-and-file board members.

At one point, the debate dissolved into the equivalent of class-based name calling.

“The complexity of the [board’s] work has already changed drastically since I’ve been on the board, and could very well increase if we’re successful at becoming more autonomous as a municipality,” outgoing board member Brandie Starr said, referring to municipal efforts to negotiate more authority with state government to have more authority to enact ordinances and the like.

“I also want to take a moment to name the harm that is caused when we tell people in poverty that the only way they participate in systems is if they get their stuff cleaned up so they can be responsible enough to do so,” she said.

The meeting members also approved $75,000 to upgrade the town website, brattleboro.org, with members voting to add language to ensure that the town will move forward with creating a request for proposals (RFP) only after gathering community input.

This RFP “shall require inclusive design” and meet the needs of as many people as possible — for example, folks living with disabilities or those who can access the site only via a cell phone.

Some members questioned if the town really needed to spend so much for a website.

District 1 Meeting Member Bethany Ranquist disagreed. She said that residents need easier ways to pay town bills, such as for Recreation & Parks offerings or taxes, online. She added that the site is hard for those who are visually impaired or blind, as is one of her family members who often asks her for help.

“So I think that we need to be thinking in terms of not just, ‘Is it OK?,’” she said, “but actually, ‘How can we overhaul it so that it’s more current and fits with the needs of the community?’”

Another round of funding was approved for the Community Marketing Initiative, a joint project of the Brattleboro Area Chamber of Commerce and Downtown Brattleboro Alliance. The project, which launched the “Love Brattleboro” advertising campaign last year, sought $37,551, or 10 percent of the meals and rooms tax revenue generated in the town during the previous year.

District 2 Meeting Member Alex Fischer said they “felt conflicted” about approving the funding for the campaign, designed to attract out-of-state visitors in general and LGBTQIA+ communities in particular to the Brattleboro area.

Fischer said that local Black/Indigenous/people of color (BIPOC) and LGBTQIA+ businesses owners in town have said that they need more BIPOC and LGBTQIA+ clientele if their businesses are to thrive.

Yet, asked Fischer, what are existing businesses doing to ensure a more inclusive and welcoming place for residents and visitors? For example, how are they addressing biased practices like following Black youth around stores or creating more trans-friendly bathrooms?

DBA Executive Director Stephanie Bonin said that “the conversation about change” is happening across the country. She added that the project includes the recent hire of a firm led by a first-generation Cuban-American woman who is launching the next phase, which includes engaging BIPOC communities, she said.

Meeting Member Peter Case (District 2) spoke in favor of the funding. “People go where people are invited, and one way to do this is through marketing,” he said.

In under 30 minutes, meeting members overwhelmingly approved $276,400 for 34 human services organizations that provide services to residents.

A conversation about funding guidelines for the Human Services Committee took a little longer.

Meeting members ultimately approved letting the committee to award an amount equivalent of up to 1.4 percent of the previous fiscal year’s budget.

Meeting members rejected an amendment by Robert Oeser (District 3) to increase the municipal operating budget by $13,000. His intention, he said, was to replace funding for training in the Brattleboro Police Department.

Oeser, who also served on the Community Safety Review Committee, told his fellow meeting members that the committee’s report had recommended cutting the BPD’s training funding. He said that this measure would limit the department’s ability to take advantage of training on diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Emily Megas-Russell, meeting member and co-facilitator of the CSRP, urged the body to vote the amendment down.

She said that the Selectboard, town staff, and Interim Police Chief Mark Carignan have already agreed on how to move forward with recommendations related to the department’s funding and training.

“So this feels like it’s really moving backwards and dismissive of a whole bunch of work that got done,” Megas-Russell said.

Later in the meeting, the remaining members still showed their support for the Community Safety Report by approving a non-binding article, presented by Fischer, that recommended that any increased spending the board approved during the fiscal year not conflict with recommendations in the Community Safety Review Report.

Other money items

Meeting members also approved a number of fund transfers and spending from accounts with sources of revenue other than the General Fund:

• A transfer of $530,000 from the Unassigned General Fund Balance to the Capital Fund for capital improvements to town infrastructure.

• $80,000 to fund the Downtown Brattleboro Alliance, the town’s designated downtown organization, which is raised through a special tax on properties within the Downtown Improvement District.

• $36,147 to Southeastern Vermont Economic Development Strategies (SeVEDS), which is equivalent to $3 per resident. This funding comes through the town’s Program Income fund, a revolving loan fund, rather than through property taxes.

The body also approved an amendment by Ranquist to require that the economic development nonprofit provide a report on how the organization used the money to support Brattleboro residents and businesses.

A synopsis of the organization’s activities appears in the current Annual Town Report.

The meeting members also approved:

• Five requests to exempt the municipal tax portion of property taxes of nonprofits for five years: Brattleboro Post 5 American Legion’s Little League Field, Camp Waubanong, Garden Path Elder Living’s Holton Home and Bradley House, and The Family Garden.

• The Selectboard’s decisions to make a few emergency purchases during the current fiscal year. These included $28,000 to replace the animal control officer’s vehicle, and up to $80,750 to replace the salt shed at the Department of Public Works.

Ballots for Water Treatment Plant bond due March 26

Members briefly discussed the town’s proposed Water Treatment Plant Reconstruction Project, intended to bring the municipality’s water treatment system up to state regulations and improve the working environment and safety of town staff.

The project includes constructing a new building, adding a fourth water filter, and upgrading the plant’s electric and HVAC systems.

The town seeks to fund the improvements with a $12.5 million bond, which requires that members vote by Australian ballot. Members have until 5 p.m. on Friday, March 26, to drop their ballots at the Municipal Center.

According to information shared with meeting members at a March 17 informational meeting, the current treatment system is safe but does not meet state regulations.

But even if meeting members reject the bond, the state still might order the town to make the upgrades.

According to Project Manager Christina Haskins, an engineer and vice president of the Springfield, Vermont–based Dufresne Group, if this project should stall, the state — which has seen the planning work for the upgrades as forward momentum — could still issue an order to bring the plant up to code.

Other business

The warned portion of the meeting ended at approximately 11 a.m. on Sunday. Meeting members quickly started to dissipate, despite debate that continued on several articles presented by fellow members.

These symbolic, non-binding articles are advisory in nature and carry no legal weight — just the imprimatur of a town vote.

Just after 1 p.m., the meeting lost its quorum, leaving some members frustrated that their articles could not legally be considered.

The non-binding articles that did make it through the afternoon and were passed included the following:

• Carvill and Ranquist urged the hiring of local workers and the purchasing of supplies from local vendors on the Water Treatment Plant Reconstruction Project to the greatest extent possible.

• The Selectboard recognized and thanked outgoing board member Starr and three retiring town staff members: Executive Secretary Jan Anderson, Fire Chief Michael Bucossi, and Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald.

• Oeser’s non-binding article to send a copy of the Community Safety Report to state departments and elected officials also passed.

The intent is to make agencies and lawmakers involved with the Department of Children and Families aware of the negative experiences of residents who have interacted with DCF and to promote a change in state policies.

• District 3 Meeting Member Art “Fhar” Miess presented a resolution to respond to the white nationalist rally that took place downtown on Saturday in Pliny Park.

The resolution reiterated ARTM’s acknowledgment of the longstanding harm from systemic racism and oppression and that the body seeks to address these harms.

It also resolved that members “condemn the white supremacist and fascist views expressed by those neo-Nazis and express solidarity and support for all threatened and marginalized and oppressed communities in Brattleboro who stand opposed to those views,” said Miess.

• District 2 Meeting Member Kurt Daims proposed that the Finance Committee create an educational pamphlet on how to understand municipal budgets.

• District 1 Meeting Member Lissa Weinmann’s proposal to include Brattleboro as a host community, along with Vernon, in potential federal legislation that would compensate communities impacted by the storage of spend nuclear fuel, failed despite a 59-4 vote in favor, due to a lack of quorum. At least 75 members needed to be present.

Crispe informed the remaining few that they could not vote without a quorum, even on non-binding articles. The only vote they could take would be to recess or adjourn.

There was some discussion about recessing until the next day but in the end, the members adjourned at about 2 p.m.

However, technically, the meeting recessed until Friday, March 26, at 4:30 p.m.

According to Attorney Fisher, because the polls for the $12.5 million bond approval are open until Friday, the meeting technically remains open, too, although it is open only to be adjourned on Friday.

District 3 Member Andy Davis, said, “In my years of being on Representative Town meeting, I’d never recalled an expectation that all non-binding resolutions and businesses be completed.”

“We’ve accomplished a great deal, and I think that the glass is well over half full,” Davis said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #605 (Wednesday, March 24, 2021). This story appeared on page A1.

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