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Brattleboro hires town manager from N.J.

Called an ‘enthusiastic and positive student of our town,’ Octavian ‘Yoshi’ Manale, a former deputy mayor and chief of staff in Trenton, N.J., will take over from Peter Elwell

BRATTLEBORO—Octavian “Yoshi” Manale has been named the new town manager. He will succeed Peter Elwell, who is retiring after six years in the post.

Selectboard Chair Elizabeth “Liz” McLoughlin said at the Oct. 12 special meeting when the board unanimously approved Manale’s contract that Elwell will leave big shoes to fill.

“We really approached this selection process with trepidation because of the existing town manager,” she said. “What we found when we tried to list all the qualities we were looking for in a town manager [was] that many of us were dreading the change, but I think that we found in Yoshi someone that we can all be happy with and comfortable with in making that change.”

Elwell, who will retire at the end of 2021, “is leaving us a sound town government,” she said.

“I just want to thank the board [...] I’m grateful to have been appreciated,” Elwell said, noting he had asked all of them when starting to interview to realize there are “a lot of different ways to do this work well” and to perhaps look for someone who would bring “new strengths” to the post.

He will work with Manale to make the transition later this fall as the new manager comes to speed with the $19.6 million general fund budget he will oversee.

Manale will also be responsible for water and sewer enterprise funds and downtown parking in the town of 12,000 residents where 140 are full-time town employees. He’ll also work with the 140-member Representative Town Meeting regarding final approval of the budget, borrowing for large-scale capital projects, and other major policy decisions.

Off to an optimistic start

Manale, who is in Europe but said at the meeting that he’s already looking for housing in Vermont and hopes to make the move by Thanksgiving, was among 94 applicants for the job, advertised nationwide through Mercer Group Associates of Raleigh, N.C., a consulting firm that helped the town cast a net nationwide for Elwell’s successor.

Eleven applicants were interviewed via Zoom. Of those, two visited the town and were interviewed by Selectboard members, department heads, and a community review panel.

“I only feel optimism and excitement for getting to work with him in the future,” said Vice Chair Ian Goodnow, thanking his colleagues for their “grace and humility” through the long interviewing process.

The Silver Spring, Md., native served as deputy mayor and chief of staff for the city of Trenton, N.J., from 2018 until earlier this year. He was also chief executive officer, appointed by and reporting to Mayor Reed Gusciora.

As the board awaited resolution of a technical glitch to bring Manale to the Zoom meeting screen to be introduced, McLoughlin said she is “pleased and confident with our selection.”

“I think it’s going to be great for the future of Brattleboro,” she said, noting Manale’s “enthusiasm for government and governance and for getting into the nitty-gritty of policy while, at the same time, he really has an affection already for Brattleboro.”

“I mean, he’s a frequent visitor to Vermont, but he’s also an enthusiastic and positive student of our town, and I think that’s a dynamite combination,” McLouglin said.

After about 15 minutes, Manale came on screen and accepted the post, saying while he would save his comments until he is on-site in December, that he is “excited.”

“I was super-impressed with not only your energy, enthusiasm, and experience [...] but also how your energy in short meetings with many of our staff really rubbed off on them,” said board member Tim Wessels.

“When the town starts to get to know you, they’ll see you are a person of great vision, and leadership, and experience, and I think that we’re lucky to have you, and you’re lucky to have us,” said board member Daniel Quipp with a broad smile.

“Congratulations,” said Goodnow, also smiling. “We’ve got a lot of work, so let’s get to it.”

Time for a change

Asked via email why he is choosing to move to Vermont, Manale said he has encountered many who have done the same and that he feels it’s “time” for him to make a change.

“First, I am drawn to the challenges facing Brattleboro and the great opportunity to be a part of its future,” he wrote.

“Second, I have always wanted to work in Vermont. I have been coming to the Green Mountain area for many years for skiing, hiking, and enjoying the serenity of southern Vermont. Finally, I recently learned that my grandmother’s family immigrated to Norwich, Vermont, in 1765,” he continued. “So in some small way, I am coming back to my roots!”

Prior to his work in Trenton City Hall, Manale worked for the city of New York in the Mayor’s Office of Contract Services, from 2016 to 2018.

From 2013 to 2016, he served as director of operations and budget for Kean University, in Union, N.J. He served as township administrator in Bloomfield Township, N.J., from 2010 to 2012. He was part of the public policy staff with the New Jersey Legislature from 2003 to 2010.

For much of this time, he concurrently had a hand in OptiGov, a web venture designed to let citizens and municipalities “monitor local government spending and find governments to access the best vendors and consultants at the most reasonable cost,” according to one description of the site.

The new town manager earned his bachelor’s degree in political science and religious studies from Seton Hall University in South Orange, N.J. and a master’s of public administration degree from New York University. He participated as a fellow in the prestigious Bloomberg Harvard City Leadership Initiative in 2019.

Asked what issues he believes will need his attention when he starts, Manale said Elwell “has left Brattleboro on sound financial footing” — a base that could be even stronger with incoming federal coronavirus stimulus funds and potential municipal support from President Joe Biden’s “Build Back Better” bill, currently in the legislative process.

“I look forward to working with the select board and town committee to develop the best use for those funds,” he wrote.

“In addition, having read the downtown plan, I know that there is a real need for more public space for the residents to enjoy,” wrote Manale. “Not only that, but making sure the downtown is safe and enjoyable for everyone who wants to eat, drink, and enjoy the number of shops and galleries.”

Asked which of his skills/expertise he believes made him the standout candidate, Manale noted his varied municipal experience.

“Many of the issues I’ve dealt with in other cities, such as climate resiliency, the need to increase sustainable development, equitable hiring practices, public safety reform, new public spaces, and affordable housing, are also issues in Brattleboro,” he wrote.

“I’ve always felt that it doesn’t matter the size of budgets and number of residents — all municipalities face similar challenges, just on different scales,” Manale said. “It’s my job to determine what lessons I’ve learned apply to Brattleboro and when I might need to look to similar municipalities for examples of what our Selectboard and residents are hoping to accomplish.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #635 (Wednesday, October 20, 2021). This story appeared on page A1.

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