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Donna Macomber: Looking for ways to ‘listen across people’s differences’

BRATTLEBORO—Donna Macomber believes in government, Brattleboro, and stepping in to work for her community.

She is excited and sees serving on the Selectboard as hard but important work.

Macomber, co-executive director of the Women’s Freedom Center, said that even before moving to town in 1990 she had spent “nearly every waking hour” here.

“I love this community,” she said.

Macomber said she was startled by people’s reaction to her decision to run for Selectboard.

Many had asked, “Are you out of your mind?” she recalls.

But, laughing, she says that, “I like to think I’m not out of my mind.”

The Selectboard has three vacant seats going into the March election. Initially, few people showed interest in running for either the one three-year term or the two one-year terms.

Macomber said this lack of interest concerned her. She decided to run for a one-year term.

“Why not at least show up and see what happens?” she remembers thinking.

Macomber is one of six candidates vying for two posts.

If elected, Macomber said she’ll bring to the Selectboard experience, relationships, and an ability to find solutions that satisfy opposing parties. That’s a strength she said she built over 20 years working in social change organizations with women on issues of domestic violence.

The work has given her a unique point of view of the community, she said.

In separate interviews, Macomber has spoken about the challenges of uprooting the deeply held cultural systems that lead to violence against women. She has also witnessed women surviving violence, and is moved by the “profoundly generous” Brattleboro community.

Macomber also said she would draw on relationships built across multiple state agencies, local organizations, and all levels of government in her professional life and an understanding of the community’s needs and resources.

Macomber describes herself as an efficient time manager, as someone who has studied issues facing the town, and as someone “who listens well through complex tangles of issues.”

She also feels confident taking a stand on issues and forming well-informed opinions.

According to Macomber, she not only has practice in but rather enjoys “listening across people’s differences” and finding workable solutions to seemingly unsolvable situations.

She anticipates that she’ll have to face a learning curve on the Selectboard, but looks forward to the challenge.

“I completely trust myself to know what skills I need to master,” she said.

Macomber’s extensive work with organizational budgets has her eyeing the town’s financial health. The potential stress caused by the tax rate, set to increase at least an estimated 10 percent, can feel overwhelming for people already doing with less, she said.

Keeping the tax rate down is on her to-do list.

Yet, Macomber said she realizes cutting the budget often means trimming or losing services. She said she would work to make sure struggling residents wouldn’t fall through the cracks.

Moving forward, Brattleboro must remain vibrant and attractive to business in order to grow its economy in a healthy way, she said.

Macomber sees an opportunity to raise new revenue through Brattleboro’s vibrant arts community. She would like the downtown Robert H. Gibson River Garden to remain open to the public and financially fit. Macomber thinks it’s possible to create a structure where “a few people of means” and committed to the arts might help fund the River Garden as a vibrant arts and community gathering place.

Macomber feels the River Garden’s ownership does not need to fall to either the town or private enterprise. Instead, she would aim somewhere in the middle.

The potential skatepark at the Crowell Lot also has Macomber’s support.

“I’m excited about this skatepark,” she said. “I think it’s a beautiful idea.”

Although she understands some community members’ concerns about the park, Macomber said she feels the project assures young people that they’re important to the community.

Macomber said that when she was a girl her parents declined party invitations in which children were not also invited. “We’re a package deal,” her parents would say. That made her feel respected and honored, she recalls. She said she feels the same way about building the skatepark and locating it in town.

As a Selectboard member, Macomber also hopes to put effort into the issue of sustainable energy that is less dependent on declining resources such as fossil fuels.

The town’s police and fire stations have needed upgrading since the 1980s, said Macomber, explaining why she supports the $14.1 million public safety renovation project.

She sees the upgrades to emergency services as part of a larger process of preparing the community to consider challenging times. In the case of the police and fire departments project, it means preparing for a world with more uncertain, and perhaps extreme, weather events such as Tropical Storm Irene in 2011.

People are, and will probably continue to be, stretched financially and some struggle to meet their basic needs, she said.

Yet, she said, Brattleboro has weathered such challenges as Irene. The community has an opportunity to model how to hang together in tough times.

One way to face challenges is organizing neighborhoods to share resources and initiatives to respond to “beyond capacity events.”

With the town’s aging population, the community must also find ways to retain its vibrancy and attract, or keep, young people.

Macomber believes Selectboard members must work to encourage wide discussion on all the issues. Hearing multiple voices, asking questions, and listening is how to arrive at a healthy forum of town government, she says.

Transparency is key to good government, she said. And although she believes in an open process, Macomber also says she would work to balance that against the Selectboard’s responsibility to move swiftly and make the correct — if sometimes challenging or unpopular — decisions.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #192 (Wednesday, February 27, 2013).

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