BRATTLEBORO—As he gave his town manager’s report at the April 6 Selectboard meeting, Peter Elwell made his customary spring announcement about the dates for curbside yard waste pickup.
Then, he said that — in the spirit of changes and new seasons — he would share his own change of season: After six years as town manager, he will retire, effective Dec. 31.
He views the rest of the year as a track athlete breaking the tape at the finish line. For Elwell, this image represents sustained momentum to accomplish a smooth transition to the next town manager.
“There’ll be a lot that is changing into whatever the new normal is going to be,” Elwell said. “I intend to run through the tape.”
Reading at the meeting from his resignation letter, Elwell said, “We in Brattleboro are fortunate to have more than our fair share of people who are committed to unselfish purposes of achieving positive change through collaboration.”
He added that he hoped the nearly nine months of notice will provide the board and community enough time to hire the next town manager and orchestrate a smooth transition.
Elwell thanked all the board members, town staff, and community members he has worked with since joining the municipal government in January 2015. He expressed “special appreciation” for Assistant Town Manager Patrick Moreland and recently retired Executive Secretary Jan Anderson.
Homecoming and collaboration
Taking the town manager position in Brattleboro represented more than a job. To Elwell, who grew up here as the son of longtime town manager, Corwin “Corky” Elwell, it represented a homecoming.
“Coming home is part of what’s made these past six years very special,” he said.
Unlike the well-resourced, urban communities he had worked in, the comparatively rural southern Vermont town operates with less of just about everything.
Everything, that is, except community.
Elwell is constantly amazed by the number of people in Brattleboro who step forward to make the community stronger.
In his view, the most passionate and complicated interactions he’s witnessed are not fueled by money or politics. Instead, they are fueled by people’s desires to do best by their community.
“It’s different, when the stakes are ‘I think something else is better for the community’ compared to ‘what you think is better for the community,’” he said, describing the work here as “both harder and much more rewarding.”
For the majority of his professional life, he has worked in municipal government in Florida, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania.
In those better-resourced municipalities, the work centered on making good choices and doing professional work, he said. Because Brattleboro has comparatively fewer resources, Elwell felt he needed to use those resources effectively.
“I felt this especially strongly here because of how important the community is to me,” he said. “It’s been especially keen for me to see the amazing work that is done by people who have had longer careers, either here in Brattleboro or in this environment where financial resources are more scarce.”
Selectboard Chair Elizabeth McLoughlin described Elwell’s positive contributions to the town as structural and cultural.
She thanked him for the civil tone he has fostered between the town government and community.
Throughout his time in Brattleboro, Elwell said, it felt important that everyone in the municipal government as well as the community be given room to speak, feel heard, and be respected.
Hearing from experts of all kinds, including professionals and people with a variety of experiences, was also important, he said.
He observed that he strived to ensure that even when people did not get everything they wanted from the town, they at least understood the final outcome.
“Hopefully, when things are going well, we’re holding ourselves to a standard that doesn’t create winners and losers, or tell some people that they aren’t welcome at the table,” he said.
Elwell will be 59 when he retires and said he has no intention of leaving Brattleboro. He decided to retire because it has become harder to maintain the level of energy that the job and community deserve, he said.
Going forward, he plans to contribute to the community in “less demanding ways.”
“So this is not goodbye; it’s not even ‘see you soon,’” he said. “It is, I hope just another transition for me and my family, our town government, and our community in the normal evolution of relationships that is both essential and inevitable.”
Entering the ring
Despite more than 35 years in municipal government, Elwell started out thinking he would cover politics rather than participate.
As an undergraduate at Middlebury College, he studied political science and intended to become a journalist.
Then, a professor asked what Elwell describes as “a loaded question”: Did Elwell really want to report on the actions of government, or did he really want to do the governing?
“After sitting with that for a bit, I realized, yeah, I actually did want to be involved in the doing of government, at the municipal level, at a human scale,” he said.
“I didn’t want to be involved in large government organization, where I wouldn’t be directly involved with the folks that were affected by the issues that I was dealing with,” he said. “I wanted to be engaged with the community I was serving.”
One reason Brattleboro has suited Elwell is because he believes it is municipal government on that human scale.
After a master’s degree in governmental administration from the University of Pennsylvania, Elwell’s first municipal job was with the city of Philadelphia in the mid-1980s. He stayed only 18 months — the city was too big for his tastes, he said.
He moved on to Palm Beach, Florida, where he stayed for 12 years as assistant town manager. Deciding he wanted town manager experience, Elwell took on that position in Roxbury Township, N.J.
Two years later, however, the town manager of Palm Beach retired, and Elwell returned to take that job.
Long-term financial planning
Looking back on the last six years, Elwell is proudest of the new best practices and collaborative relationships he has helped establish.
When Elwell arrived in Brattleboro, one issue he tackled was the town’s long-term financial planning. This included the development of a 25-year capital improvement plan with a schedule of how much the town would invest in the plan each year.
Over several meetings, Elwell explained how the town would need to invest heavily for the first few years to catch up on years of underinvestment. While there was some sticker shock in the beginning, the budgeting process has become less surprising, with fewer spikes in property taxes.
These “clinical” best practices — for example, keeping ahead of capital projects and understanding when and how much money will need to be invested — provide systems that allow a community to keep progressing, he said.
“How we collaborate is much more in the realm of the messiness and challenges of humans trying to be effective together,” he said.
These collaborative relationships create shared commitment to the town’s long-term direction and plans, he said.
“We should have a high level of confidence that we can sustain that going into the future, based on the processes that we have built and agreed are important,” he said.
Elwell said a lot must happen before he turns off the lights and closes the door to his office in the Municipal Center for the final time.
Topping his to-do list is hiring a new director of finance and new police chief. Next is assisting the Selectboard’s search for his replacement.
Implementing recommendations in the recent Community Safety Report also remains important to him.
“We all recognize that there isn’t much of it that is low-hanging fruit,” he said. “In most cases, what we’re going to do is start on paths that will lead us hopefully to implementing and making changes in systems and programs in the community that will take years to fully develop.”
He also wants to follow through on a few capital projects.
On March 20, Representative Town Meeting members authorized up to $12.5 million to upgrade the Department of Public Work’s water treatment facility. The town is ready to put the project out to bid, Elwell said, with construction slated for this summer.
For several years, the town and the Windham & Windsor Housing Trust have sought to rehabilitate the Municipal Center, built in 1884, into a mixed-use building, with housing on the upper floors and municipal offices on the first floor.
Determining the project’s feasibility inches forward, he said, but initial stages look promising.
Elwell is also proud of his part in creating the human resources director position. Now held by HR Director Sally Nix, Elwell said early on, he realized the municipality needed a professional overseeing town practices and its employees.
“This position is really important and has become more so over time,” he said.
With more than 140 employees, the town is big enough and complex enough to warrant the new position, he said. Additionally, the HR director position has become an important component in the town’s equity and inclusion efforts.
Nix has drastically improved how the town meets employee needs and provides HR-related services, he said. She has also refined recruitment practices.
Elwell continued saying that Nix has taken the lead on the town’s equity and inclusion efforts. She is working with employees so that, over time, they will be more effective at internalizing and practicing the town’s equity and inclusion values.
Nix is actively building relationships between the town and community partners, he said. Overall, her accomplishments are good for staff and provide better protections for the town and public, he said.
An unbeatable quality of life
Elwell said he knows Brattleboro will find another great town manager — there are a lot of good prospective candidates out there, he said.
Still, the town searched long and hard to find Elwell.
When Elwell’s predecessor, Barbara Sondag, resigned in 2013, the position stood vacant for approximately two years.
Assistant Town Manager Patrick Moreland held the fort as interim manager while the Selectboard held multiple candidate searches. The town offered the job to several candidates who turned it down.
Elwell acknowledged that Vermont’s public-sector wages lag behind most of the country’s — a disparity that could pose a recruitment challenge.
Despite this, he said Brattleboro’s quality of life and quality of community outshines the paycheck.
This community and its government are engaged, he said. If someone got into town management because they enjoy working with people who want to make their town better, Brattleboro is where they will want to be.
What kind of municipal leader would be a good fit for the job and the unique qualities of Brattleboro?
The town manager job could appeal to someone who “wants to work with a talented group of people who are unselfish and completely committed to the community from within town government,” he said.
Alternatively, someone “who wants to work with a complicated, increasingly diverse, very active community around issues great and small, should want to do it here,” he said.
Gratitude from town officials
At the April 6 meeting, the board thanked Elwell for his service.
“The town of Brattleboro has been so honored and so fortunate that Peter chose to spend these years with us, and we will continue to rely on him up to the last minute that we all can,” McLoughlin said.
The board’s newest member, Jessica Gelter, wiped away tears during Elwell’s announcement.
Gelter, who has also served on the town’s Planning Commission, thanked Elwell for always responding to ideas and suggestions with thoughtfulness, a sense of collaboration, and “the energy to move forward, no matter what the wild idea was.”
Elwell has no regrets. Disappointments? Sure. Times where he wishes he had done better? Certainly. But regrets? No.
“If we’re honestly in the work, trying to find ways to work with other people, to make the community better and we just fall short sometimes, I think what mostly happens is we dust off and move forward,” he said.
“I think the things that cause greater regret in career, or in family relationships, or other relationships, are the times when we didn’t bring our best intentions,” Elwell said, “and I don’t have any such regrets from this experience.”